The Björn supremacy: the six-star chef that’s now cooking on the rooftops of Knightsbridge

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Michelin starred Swedish chef Björn Frantzén on his restaurant debut atop London's Harrods

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Swedish chef Björn Frantzén has made his restaurant debut in London, transforming a site at one of the city’s most famous landmarks.

There’s 20 minutes until Björn Frantzén opens the doors to paying customers for the first time at Studio Frantzén atop Harrods and the Swedish chef is casually stirring a double espresso while chatting. Dressed in smart black suit trousers, shiny black shoes and a crisp and expensive looking white shirt, over which is an equally spotless white apron, the 45 year-old chef looks like he could be going to a wedding rather than about to hit the kitchens and oversee the first service at what is one of the most mouth-watering new restaurants of the year. So calm is he with his new project as the clock ticks towards opening time it’s almost unnerving: I’ve seen chefs get more stressed opening a jar of pickles.

But then Frantzén has been here before, both psychologically in the opening of large restaurants and physically, having spent his formative years as a chef in London in high-end kitchens including Pied a Terre as well as in Oxfordshire at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir. Studio Frantzén moves the number of restaurants he has opened into double figures, he says and, at the request of Harrods, he has done nine dummy runs, rather than the usual two, to ensure things go as smoothly as possible.

“It’s not been smooth. We take one step forward, and then a few steps back, but it’s normal,” he says in the calm, phlegmatic manner that remains throughout our interview. “We have tried to put ourselves in as many difficult positions as possible. It’s the 10th or 11th restaurant opening in my career, there is nothing new in the problems we face.”

In some ways it is understandable. With a three-Michelin starred restaurant called Frantzén in Stockholm and another in Singapore called Zén that has also been given the top rating by Michelin, Frantzén is no stranger to running hugely successful restaurants. While both of these high-reaching places are small, with fewer than 50 covers between them, he also opened Brasserie Astoria in Stockholm, a restaurant that he says does 500 to 600 covers on a slow day, rising to between 1,000 and 1,300 when things really get going, among others (see The Bjorn legacy) meaning that this new 150-cover restaurant is well within his capability. But on the flip side there is a weight of expectation on his shoulders that comes with the accolades. Not that you’d know it.

“My ego is done, I’m not here to prove myself,” he continues in an offhand manner. “There is no point in getting stressed, it only stresses everyone else. At the end of the day that is worse for the guest.”

 

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Image: jwhoward photography

The Knightsbridge tale

We’ve established (not that we really needed to) that Frantzén is up for the challenge of running a restaurant at London’s most famous department store and one of the city’s key landmarks. What is less obvious is why he chose Knightsbridge, an area not known for sophisticated fine dining save a few places, and a department store over a standalone site in Mayfair, Soho or even Shoreditch to make his mark in the capital.

“Harrods called me and said that they have great guests, but they are all leaving at 7pm to go for dinner somewhere else and that they wanted them to stay,” he says of the play. “They have the only rooftop terrace in Knightsbridge and asked whether I would consider doing a restaurant there. I said, ‘yes Harrods I would’. Three years later and here we are.”

While he acknowledges that the location might not instantly spring to mind when you think of a multi-starred chef coming to London, in many ways it’s business as usual. “I was around here with the family on Saturday and wanted to go for lunch. There were limited options considering how many people are moving around in the area. But if you look at all my restaurants, they are a bit strange, or not obvious. Frantzén is on three different floors; Zén is in an old butcher’s house; Astoria is housed in an old cinema. In Bangkok we turned an old private villa with a barn and one hectare of land into a restaurant [Villa Frantzén]. Here it’s the top floor of Harrods. I kind of like that unexpected thing.”

"One thing Swedish entrepreneurs need to be
good at is organisation because staff costs,
taxes, everything is so fucking
expensive in Sweden"

The logic is sounder when you see the space that Harrods has given him. Located on the fifth floor of the department store in what was its hair and beauty salon, the two-storey restaurant has a sleek bar area that leads into the main dining room that features booth seating as well as a counter facing the open kitchen. From there the room dog legs into a second room at the end of which is an impressive wall of wine in a space that can be turned into a private area by moving wooden screens. The restaurant’s crowning glory, however, is one floor up which leads to a beautifully appointed rooftop terrace with white tablecloths and views over the Shard and the London Eye. In winter the terrace is covered, but a fully retractable roof means that come summer customers can dine en plein air.

No expense has been spared, befitting of a chef of Frantzén’s pedigree. As he says: “I don’t live in London, so it had to be a great collaboration. I like Ashley (Saxton) who is in charge of food and beverage at Harrods. Harrods is not messing about with the food and beverage direction it is taking. It felt the right thing.”

One question remains, and that’s why his London project is on such a large scale. Was there ever a part of him that wanted to open something more akin to Frantzén in Stockholm or Zén in Singapore? “For me, you’ve got to be very careful with how many fine dining restaurants you do,” is his response. “In Sweden we say we are watering out the brand, and I don’t want to do that.”

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Image: jwhoward photography

A menu that shops around

Studio Frantzén might not have the multi-starred ambition of some of the chef’s previous projects, but nor is it your typical brasserie. As a restaurant it stands apart from the other dining spots in the department store which, while under the guidance of top chefs that include Jason Atherton, Tom Kerridge, Em Sherif and Vineet Bhatia, seem to be pitched predominantly at catering for shoppers. Studio Frantzén also caters to this market but is also a destination restaurant in its own right.

It's not the first time that the department store has attracted a chef with six Michelin stars to its ranks. In 2011 Thomas Keller, holder of seven Michelin stars, did a 10-day pop-up​ on the store's fourth floor, but the permanent nature of Studio Frantzén marks a landmark move for Harrods as it continues to bolster its restaurant credentials.

The menu is surprisingly large, with six snacks in the form of caviar and oysters, eight starters, 13 mains - eight of which are cooked on an open fire - and eight sides, as well as seven desserts. Pricing is in keeping with the store’s other restaurant options, with numerous starters at £18 and mains between £30 and £40.

What makes the Nordic Asian restaurant really stand out though are the dishes themselves, which have the intricacy of a smaller restaurant and use flavour combinations seldom seen in even such a cosmopolitan city such as London. Here grilled salsify is served with Roscoff onions, pistachio, lemongrass beurre blanc, young coconut and coffee oil; quail with dried spruce and bee pollen with a vanilla and black pepper sauce; and shio-koji marinated whole chicken with Kyoto miso beurre blanc and burnt hay oil.

“These are combinations that we don’t have in the city at the moment, that’s what’s nice about coming here. There are not that many Nordic chefs who have opened overseas; there have been a lot of Americans and French chefs who have come to London and I’m hopefully coming with something new that will be a good addition to the dining scene here.”

Such a menu takes meticulous planning, with the test kitchen at Frantzén in Stockholm, one floor below the restaurant, the epicentre of this creativity. Here Frantzén and three other chefs create all the dishes; everything is photographed and filmed and along with recipes are sent to the various restaurants via Dropbox. Every chef is trained to know things such as the right acidity and salt levels of dishes, to ensure they are cooked exactly as they should be.

For Studio Frantzén, dish development took four to five months of ‘computering’, as Frantzén puts it, with every dish cooked and tested between January and May. With so many restaurants of different styles, including having to uphold six Michelin stars, it sounds very challenging, but that’s not how he sees it. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” he shrugs. “Hopefully you get better at it as time goes on.”

Heading up the kitchen is executive chef and fellow Swede Marcus Rohlen. Rohlen has worked in London for over a decade and initially joined Frantzén’s group to work at Zén in Singapore before Covid-19 put paid to his plans. Overall, the restaurant employs a team of 110, including 39 chefs, a brigade size the chef is unfazed by.

“It’s all about organisation and structure. One thing Swedish companies and entrepreneurs need to be good at is organisation because staff costs, taxes, everything is so fucking expensive in Sweden. If we are going to compete at an international level that’s what we have to do. When we come overseas we see a lot of managers, we are not used to having so many staff. There’s a lot of staff here for a restaurant half the size of Astoria (which employs 140 people).”

There will be little handholding with Ruhler, with Frantzén due to return to Stockholm only five days after the launch. When he does return, it will be timed with an Arsenal home game, he promises.

"Being back in a city where 90%
of my training was done,
it’s a really cool journey"

As well as having an executive chef conversant in the London dining scene, Frantzén is no stranger to London’s restaurants. Does having cooked here before, albeit back in the 1990s, give him that extra bit of confidence? “I worked in London for seven years, it’s a second home, I have a lot of friends here. Being back in a city where 90% of my training was done, it’s a really cool journey,” he says, adding that he has been welcomed by chef friends and restaurateurs including Tom Kerridge, Tom Aikens, Claude Bosi, and Jason Atherton. “Coming into a city and being welcome is helpful.”

Has he sought their advice, particularly as two of these chefs already run restaurants in Harrods? “Not really. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but we want to come here and do our thing. Marcus knew a lot about where to source ingredients from, without him I’d have needed a lot more advice.”

There’s one more reason why Frantzén seems so cool about his new project, and that’s his past career as a professional footballer. Frantzén played for AIK, Stockholm’s biggest club, between 1992-96 before a health issue forced him to hang up his boots, and the avid Arsenal fan says his experience with football mirrors that of cooking.

“If we’re going to be Arsenal you’ve got to eat right, sleep right, train correctly and this is very similar to how we work in kitchens. It’s all about teamwork. The feeling of 10 minutes before kick off in a dressing room with a group of people who have to perform together with high pressure and expectations is the same as opening a restaurant.”

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Image: jwhoward photography

The beautiful game

The football comparison is apposite. In chef terms Frantzén is in the Champions League and, like the top football teams vying for victory, he feels the need to keep investing and pushing on. In the chef’s case this means his business opening more venues across the world in the coming year. First up will be a Brasserie Astoria in Singapore early next year, followed by an a la carte fine dining restaurant in Shanghai that has so far been delayed by over two years because of Covid. Then, in the final quarter of 2023, the group will open two restaurants in Dubai at Atlantis, the Palm - another Studio Frantzén and a fine dining restaurant.

Beyond 2023, the Frantzén Group will continue to explore new destinations. “There are plenty of interesting places, if we go anywhere where the climate is better than Stockholm, I’m happy. But we don’t have a game plan for number of restaurants we want to open. If something interesting comes around, we take a look at it from three angles: Can we find the right ingredients? Is it a place we like to travel to? Can we get head chefs to move there?”

With a multi-starred restaurant empire that spans continents, Frantzén is aware that he is following in the footsteps of the great chefs that came before him, such as Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, in their desire for global recognition. “People like me, Mauro [Colagreco],​ Dani Garcia, we are part of a new generation of 40 year-old plus chefs that are following in their footsteps. Many of these guys were born in the 1970s and now have structures, CEOs, corporate chefs, and are ready to bring something new.”

Like a footballer in the dressing room ahead of a crucial game, pumped on adrenaline, Frantzén insists he still gets the same buzz with every new restaurant that he and his team open. “I love it. Sometimes when you’re having a tough service you wonder ‘why the fuck am I doing this again?’ but it’s so fun to see it all come together.

“How many people in this industry get the opportunity to do the kind of things we are doing? Very, very few. You’ve got to enjoy the ride.”

The Bjorn legacy – the Frantzén Group’s worldwide venues 

Frantzén
The Swedish chef’s flagship restaurant started life as Frantzén/Lindeberg in 2008 and was awarded two Michelin stars two years later. In 2013 Daniel Lindeberg left the restaurant and Frantzén took sole responsibility, renaming it. In February 2018 the restaurant, which serves modern Nordic cuisine with influences from Japan, won its third Michelin star. The restaurant also appears in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list at number 25.

Bobergs Matsal
The impressive Stockholm restaurant was taken on by Frantzén in 2015. Located in the NK department store it serves classic French food with a Nordic touch in a dining room that was completed in 1915

Brasserie Astoria
The hotspot for urban Stockholmers back in in the 20s and 30s, the former cinema reopened as a French/Nordic restaurant in March 2021.

Villa Frantzén
Located in a former villa in Bangkok, Villa Frantzén serves a set menu of Nordic food with Asian influences. The 60-cover venue has three private dining areas, as well as an outdoor patio and a separate Nordic bar.

Zén
The sister restaurant to Frantzén in Stockholm (the name is a nod to his name as well as the school of Buddhism that celebrates meditation), Zén was launched in Singapore in late 2019. It was given two Michelin stars after less than a year in service, with a third star added in 2021. The restaurant also appears in the extended World’s 50 Best Restaurants list at number 70.

Other projects
Frantzén’s previous restaurant projects include Gaston, a Stockholm wine bar that was acquired in summer 2019, as well as Frantzèn’s Kitchen in Hong Kong, which opened in 2016 and closed in January 2022, and The Flying Elk, also in Hong Kong, which opened in summer 2018 and closed in late 2019.

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