Episode #43: Gísli Matthías Auðunsson
The chef of the restaurant Slippurinn in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, aka Gísli Matt, is the chef of the restaurant Slippurinn in Vestmannaeyjar, also called the Westman Islands. This is a small archipelago off the south coast of Iceland with just one inhabited island that was nearly completely buried in lava and volcanic ash on January 23, 1973. While many houses were destroyed and most of the others needed to be dug out of 30 feet of ash, the island survived. People stuck around and rebuilt their lives. Today Heimaey, that’s the one island where people live, is home to one of the most important fishing communities in Iceland if not the entire Nordic region.
It's a special place for me as I spent an entire summer there a few years ago while working on the book Slippurinn: Recipes and Stories from Iceland, with Gísli and his family. The book was published by Phaidon late last year. Slippurinn is a restaurant unlike any other I have been to. You will hear in the interview about how important the surrounding community is to the restaurant and how they support it. I realize that a large, seasonal restaurant on a tiny island off the South Coast of Iceland may seem esoteric, but what this one family has done, I think, might be the future of restaurants everywhere. It’s a model for the entire world. Being a restaurant that represents the people and nature that are around it seems so obvious to me after having spent so much time at Slippurinn, but in practice it is much harder than it seems. The world is enormously complicated, and it takes a lot of work for a restaurant to reach this level of collaboration with a community. To me, it’s something that is on a much higher plane than Michelin stars or 50 Best rankings.
The season there runs from May to September, so if you happen to be going to Iceland or just want to go have an incredible experience some great food in one of the most stunningly beautiful places on earth, make a reservation there. Also check out Skál, a fine restaurant in Reykjavík that Gisli runs with the guys from Saltverk. And also Gunnar Karl Gíslason’s restaurant Dill because that’s great too (and listen to the episode with Gunnar here). Okay, just go to Iceland already. It’s an unreal place and the food, if you know where to go, can be incredible.
– Nicholas Gill
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Partial Episode Transcript
On being unable to get fresh fish for Slippurinn when they opened:
Nick: “I remember from the book we talked about when you first opened the restaurant… you live in one of the most important fishing communities in Iceland, if not the world, and you couldn't get fresh fish. So, what did you have to do? Why couldn't you get fresh fish? I think that's important to explain.”
Gísli: “Yeah, it was crazy. It was like the week before we opened and we were just like, Okay, we're opening this restaurant on an island, which is known for fishing, it's been the biggest industry of the island, a lifeline of the island since I don't know when. But when we were trying to buy fresh fish, they just basically laughed at us because all the fish was exported, either sent to like the butchery and frozen and exported or, or went straight in like huge containers fresh and sent to markets elsewhere in the world. And they basically laughed at us. Why couldn't we get fresh fish was there was just nobody selling fresh fish in the scale that we needed. Because we couldn't be buying 500 kilos of fish, which was basically the minimum that you could buy. Basically, for locals, everyone knows a fisherman, right?
They just provide them with fish. Like even now there's no place that you can buy fresh fish on the island, which is quite mental. I'm not talking about in a restaurant setting, but if you want to cook yes at home.”
Nick: “So everyone just knows a fisherman, because pretty much everyone on the island is a fisherman. So, is that the only way then? Like, you can't even go into any of the grocery stores and get fresh fish?”
Gísli: “I mean, you can get it from a grocery store. But then you're getting maybe a fish from other parts of Iceland.”
Nick: “So not really fresh. It's been frozen.”
Gísli: “Yes, something like that, or it's like few days old. I mean, it's just not the same. But at the fish market which is not like fish market, you would imagine.”
Nick: “It's like a warehouse. For fish coming through a warehouse.”
Gísli: “And all the auction is done online. And you buy a minimum 500 kilos of fish. But we basically went there, and we had to convince them, that they were doing something for the community. That they were not only helping us, but that we wanted to build the restaurant that hopefully we all would be proud of and we had to sell them the idea. Sell them the idea of providing us with fresh fish so we could have a decent restaurant on the islands. Not to talk shit about the other restaurants at that time, but they were focusing on pizzas and burgers, you know. And in the end, we managed to talk to them into it. We convinced them to sell us some fish and now actually, the relationship with them is great, because they always call us when they have quantities that they cannot sell, because it's such small quantities. Like, I have 30 kilos of this, 10 kilos of this, you know. And we just basically take it all and, we love taking the strange fish. Almost nobody else wants to buy it.”
Nick: “Things that are just otherwise tossed out, wasted. Because, there's just a few. Like an opah or something like that. Right?”
Gísli: “So basically now, it's actually much better for them to have us than not. Like last year, we were taking around 80 to 100 kilos of fish per day during the summer, so it's a lot that we are using.”
On building a relationship with the community:
Nick: “I noticed the other day that the ferry was canceled, so tables opened up. You posted it on Instagram. Is this ferry still getting canceled a lot? I thought like they improved it?”
Gísli: “This winter was quite harsh, but that is sometimes expected. Just the weather in Iceland. This winter was quite rough. But the ferry has been quite good. Compared to how it was few years back, so we've been lucky. But it was great, we just posted on Instagram that we’re just going to make an offer of our three course menu. And it was amazing because the place filled up with locals. There’s a lot of support from locals.
Nick: “That's what I wanted to talk about. So, the ferry was canceled. You know the people that were coming to eat there that night couldn't come. They called to let you know, so a bunch of tables suddenly opened up, which is a pain in the ass for a restaurant usually. But you posted it on Instagram and then people from the island, locals, came in fill the seats.”
Gísli: “Which was amazing. I mean, it was just like, “Well, we saw it. We relate to it.” So they decided not to cook that night at home. Just the whole family for three simple courses. So I mean, it's amazing.”
Nick: “It's really something special to have that relationship with the community that you're in. And I can't think of any other restaurant that has this kind of special relationship with the community. I mean the restaurant is as much for the community as a business.”
Gísli: “Definitely, definitely. We feel like the locals, they cheer for us. They really want us to do well. And, I mean, all of them also want us to be open, you know, year round. But then at the same time, they understand that we can't just like, financially if May is on the wrong side of zero, then the rest of the month will be as well. But this is also a part of why we opened the casual place was to both keep the core team to work there during the winter, and then the team gets bigger over the summer, but also to serve the locals that we have such a good relationship with.”
Nick: “It's a very active relationship. I mean, from what I've seen, it's like you take rhubarb from their gardens, with permission, and you give them cocktail tickets. Sometimes fishermen…I remember going to some fishermen with you once and he just gave you a bunch of cod heads because he was like, “What am I going to do with these?” And you got a cooler full of cod heads, you know, your signature dish, the main product was just given to you. And the one farmer on the island, there's just one and she just like, randomly, drops things off for you.”
Gísli: “I mean, we feel spoiled to be in a community like this where everyone really wants you to do well. And, you know, when they have visitors, they always bring them to the restaurant, almost showing them something that they are proud of, you know? And, I mean, we're just really lucky to have that. But, then, it's also, it's important that we acknowledge that and when I see tables of locals with us every night, we may be send them a little bit extra. A little snack in the beginning or like a small dessert in the end, you know, without saying, and just we want them to know that we appreciate them coming.”
Nick: “I don't think it's that they're…forgive me for saying this…I don't think that it’s because they're especially nice people on the island. I mean, they are, they're wonderful, wonderful people, but I think as nice as they are, they're not just going to support some restaurant without…I think you had to build that trust, as you were saying, like sending them things. I think you had to get them invested in the restaurant, not financially, but just in terms of the community, and that they were as much a part of it as you were.”
Gísli: “Yeah, definitely. And you know, people come all the time to the restaurant with like a bag of sorrel they picked up. Or rhubarb, some berries and stuff like that. I mean, it's just quite homey, you know. And many, many times, people might bringing a whole fish and just ask me, “Can you butcher it for me?” And I take two minutes to butcher their fish and give it to them. So, it's just like a beautiful relationship. And I mean I live on the island here around with my wife and my kids. And it's not like many people live here.”
Nick: “I mean, you know, everyone at this point?”
Gísli: “Yeah, basically, basically. Yeah.”
Nick: “What would you tell another restaurant in how to build that relationship with your community? Like, how do you do it?”
Gísli: “I mean, I guess there are many ways to do it. I mean, in our case, for example, the story that you told earlier that we use a lot of rhubarb, and everyone has rhubarb in their garden. So, if you bring a rhubarb, then we'll give you a cocktail, or we can take your rhubarb and things like this. Like we say in the end of May, when we're not fully booked, if you want to come in and try out the six or eight course meal, then we'll give you a 30% discount and then we are filling seats at the restaurant. And, if we treat them well and give them good food, like we almost always do, then they are going to be our advertisement for the summer. So, it's almost like we're working together on this. And we always get fresh fish three times a week in whole. So, like, on Wednesday, when the first order comes in, there is an offer for the locals that they can get a fish dish for a very little amount of money. And then, we serve a lot of really simple meals, when the restaurants is not that full. And because we only have this offer on Wednesdays, we know how much space we should have for Thursday or the Friday. So, we do all these tricks to keep them a positive about us. Because there are restaurants in smaller communities, I'm not gonna name them, but that might not have a good relationship, but a bad relationship, and I just, I can't imagine running a place like that, because I think it would just make things so much harder.”
Nick: “It's like you already have enough to deal with running a restaurant. It's already a disaster, no matter how good you are at it. That that having everyone hate you can't be great.”
Gísli: “If it would be like that, then Slippurinn would not exist. It would have gone away long before.”
Nick: “The very first season...I think we talked about this in the book…it was kind of a disaster, right? You had no idea what you were doing. You guys were just winging it basically. But you survived because locals just supported you regardless.”
Gísli: “Opening this restaurant, with the little experience we had, like, if I would have taken this concept at 23 years old and opened it in London or in New York or in some metropolitan city, we wouldn't have survived two months, you know? But we did, because, on the island everyone wanted us to do well, and they were supporting us. And even I know the meals, I know it from the bottom of my heart, that all the meals that we sent out this first summer weren't great. You know, I mean, some were quite good. But some were not great at all. But I mean, people just found that we were trying our best, like, our absolute best. And even more than that, they just really helped us in so many ways.”
Nick: “They wanted you to be there. You know? Yeah. Right. There are so many destination restaurants in charming settings like your island. But they don't get that. Especially fine dining restaurants. Is Slippurinn fine dining? Do you consider fine dining?”
Gísli: “I mean, I have this debate with many people. I mean, what is fine dining? I don't know. The food that we're doing is up to a certain point quite unique. And we're using parts that many other discard. And we're trying to be clever throughout the season in using very local. There’s a lot of focus and effort that goes into making the food. But also, if we would compare it to some two Michelin star restaurant in New York, where everything is cut crazy precisely… if that is fine dining, then we are not a fine dining restaurant. But we definitely have the fine dining elements. And in a way, we're, we're, we're maybe more interesting than many other fine dining, right?”
Nick: “I mean, you're not a place that's trying to check off a bunch of boxes.”
Gísli: “You know, if we would get it [a Michelin star] fine, you know, great.”
Nick: “You should. I'm sure if Michelin would come to the island.”
Gísli: “But serving 200 people a night. We try our best that everyone gets the service and the attention. But I think in the peak when we're at 200 people, we're not a fine dining restaurant. And that's me being brutally honest. But, I mean I’ve also been to many amazing Michelin star restaurants, like two three stars, one star, but I've also been to many crap Michelin star restaurants, where it's boring to be there. And I think the atmosphere that we've created throughout the years, it's more fun than many others. So what I'm trying to say is, getting a star is not what drives us into doing the things we're doing.”
Nick: “I don't think the community is going to give a shit if you have a Michelin star.”
Gísli: “But maybe, you know, they don't care about it at all. And maybe some even think that we have a Michelin star. Like, they have no idea, you know?”
Nick: “It's a very unique situation, you're in, but I think it works, because you haven't played by any other rulebook. You've done what continually just makes sense.”
Gísli: “As I said earlier, we don't have any investors. It's just like my sister is not in the business anymore. She just wanted to focus on her own things. And she created the concept with me, and we worked really well together. But now I’m running it with my mother and my father. And, you know, it's such a strange thing to run a restaurant for only three or four months. If we had a huge investor behind us. And we're aiming for a Michelin star, we wouldn’t serve 180 people a night. If that was our focus, then the end of the day, it's also a business, and if we're in the wrong side of zero for three months, then we're out, then we just need to close basically. So it needs to work financially to be able to sustain what we're doing.
I mean, we've never paid ourselves any profit after any summer, because all the income that comes in, is to make the restaurant a little bit better, to make the staff apartment nicer, to make the kitchen better. So, we're just building and building, but I think we're never going to be rich running this restaurant. It's a passion project that has been going for 10 years, and we don't want to stop it. So I guess we're may be doing something, right.”
Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.
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