"I didn't want to deny myself a normal life": Magnus Nilsson on tackling long hours culture

By Sophie Witts

- Last updated on GMT

Magnus Nilsson Faviken Sweden working hours

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While many top end restaurants are tackling long working hours by reducing opening times, chef Magnus Nilsson has taken an altogether more bold approach.

At Fäviken, his remote two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Sweden, he has tripled the size of his team over the past two years - cutting staff hours from an average of 80 to 40-45 a week in the process - and expanded the dining room, while almost doubling prices from €175 to €300. Speaking at Food On The Edge in Galway earlier this month he discussed the reasons behind this radical approach

Changing the Fäviken culture

A few years ago I watched a film called Jiro Dreams of Sushi about a Japanese chef and his restaurant in Tokyo. He dedicated himself to one particular task, perfecting the art of sushi. The sad thing was that my lasting impression was that I did not want to become Jiro. I felt I was going down that route; I could see his obsession in myself. It was a real wake-up call for me: I didn’t want to deny myself what most people would refer to as a ‘normal life’ and have the ability to spend time with family.

At the same time at Fäviken we started to see problems with the way we ran our restaurant. We sat down and tried to visualise where we would be in five years’ time, and it turned out that none of us could see ourselves still working there if things carried on the same.

Dealing with the guilt at not being in the kitchen

We realised no one at Fäviken should be indispensable, including myself. I used to feel guilty for not being in the restaurant and the rest of the team often felt guilty if they were sick or took a day off as someone else had to work twice as hard to make up for their absence. This is not very healthy but it is the way most restaurants work. Chefs in general tend to overestimate their importance. Does the world really stop if you miss a service in your restaurant? No.

Tripling the team

If one team worked four days it would take care of the excess hours, but not the guilt. The restaurant would make less money, meaning the system would become more fragile. It also exaggerates the problem of very long work days. People feel that if they work a three or four day week they might as well work an 18 hour shift, but there are very few people who can work on the same level after 18 hours as they can after eight. I quickly realised I wanted a larger restaurant and a bigger team to reduce staff hours to a sensible level - to go from 12 employees to 37, so two people could do any part of the restaurant operation.


Raising prices

We had to increase the number of seats from 16 to 24 to give us a 50% increase of our revenue to pay for [the extra staff]. We used to close for vacation and creative work but we quickly saw this was inefficient from a financial standpoint, so that added another 30% increase in our revenue. But that was not enough, we had to increase our pricing from €175 to €300, which was huge. We needed to go from €1.2m turnover every year to €2.8m to make these changes and retain a 10% net profit. We took the decision three years ago and started implementing the changes two years ago and we’re now at a point where we’re reasonably satisfied with where we are. We still take five weeks’ vacation each year, three of which are consecutive throughout the summer.


Public reaction

I started preparing all these elaborate answers for the press and customers to justify what we were doing. We wanted to make the restaurant a better place to work…but still, I was very worried that no one was going to come as it was so expensive. We felt that if we didn’t at least try we would have to close the restaurant anyway a couple of years down the line, because the team simply wouldn’t last. But not a single journalist called asking what the hell we were doing with our prices. [There was] not a single tweet or Instagram post. We went from €175 to €300 overnight, I don’t think anyone even noticed.


Work/life balance

I work three nights a week, two days a week, and do other things like speaking at conferences. I spend much more time with my family, which makes me happier, and in turn makes me a lot better at my job. At 33 years old I now have a hobby - I garden a lot. When I wake up in the morning I think about tomato seeds, manure, and my family, instead of problems at work. I don’t come in to the restaurant feeling like I have to be there anymore, I really want to be there.

Magnus Nilsson was speaking at Food On The Edge, a two-day chef symposium held in Galway earlier this month.

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