Sonny Gustafson is not one of those people who wasted entire decades, several degrees at universities, or endless internships in order to figure out what to do with his life. He is one of those lucky bastards who knew from a young age exactly where to go – pleasing the crowd, which consists nonetheless of the people eating at the multiple restaurants, located in Åre, that the Swedish entrepreneur has succeeded in opening. While we sat down in Sonny’s homey, ‘cabin-like’ house and drank exquisite champagne, we understood why the line between social and private becomes blurry in his world.
The Swede, who believes that a restaurant mainly defines itself through its guests, prefers to socialize during work rather than to sit down in the office. Gustafson is definitely one of those rare specimens who is dedicated with entirety to his work and who will make look everybody else in the restaurant business seem like a monetary glutton. But for a man who believes that any restaurant is only as good as the people that choose to eat and spend time at it the proof of his own success might just be the fact that he prefers to spend time socializing in his restaurants rather then his home. We sat down with Sonny to find out how he manages to find inspiration, living 8 hours driving distance from the closest major city and what we can expect to see when, if ever, he decides to open up his “last” restaurant.
Where did you grow up? My father is from Gotland and my mom is from the South of Sweden. I grew up in Södertälje, right outside Stockholm. I had a pretty protected and safe childhood. But I started working at a hotel in the city when I was 14. All throughout High School, I only stayed in class until 2 pm because I had to go to work. I worked 5 nights a week. I have worked as pretty much everything you can in a restaurant. At my first job there was this older man who taught me how to wait tables.
How long did you live there?
Until I was 18 and then I packed my things and left, never to come back. I moved to Stockholm and set a goal to work at the top five restaurants in the city. And then I set up my next goal. To own my own restaurant. I had the first one when I was 25 years old. And that was that. Today I own four.
How did you end up in Åre?
Because of the skiing. I like Åre and everything it had to offer. The skiing, partying and everything else. I was just going up here to work during New Year’s Eve weekend. We were supposed to be up here for four days and work for room and ski passes. I stayed the entire season…..it’s been 20 seasons since then.
Is it a natural development to own a hotel after having owned a restaurant?
What attracts me about it this is the possibility to give people the service we give them in our restaurants, but to be able to do it 24/7.
Have you ever pursued any other profession?
I have always worked in restaurants. I do what I’m supposed to do and I have never done anything else. My grandfather owned a restaurant and my father was a pastry chef. Ever since I was a child, I knew what I wanted to do. And the interest in food has always been big.
What is your dream with Åre?
Right now, I would like to see an improvement in the infrastructure of the village. Better streets, squares and promenades. But it’s not easy to influence the local government. But a friend and me are creating our own park benches that we intend to put out in places where we think they are missing. But overall, I think that Åre is a good place to live in all year round.
And how important is travelling to you?
Super important. Both privately and in my job. I always find something when I travel that gives me new ideas that I can take home with me. It’s about finding a feeling. It’s in the details. You can’t just take something you like and copy it straight off. You see a lamp there, a curtain there, a dish of food, or something else that you can be inspired by and take with you. Åre is my home but I don’t live here all year round. I have 5 months vacation each year and I think there are other, more fun places, to be in when not working. That’s when I travel.
So it’s through travelling that you get your inspiration?
Absolutely! But I’m pretty boring when I travel. I always come back to the same places. Europe and USA, with a few exceptions. But I always find myself returning to France and New York. They are food Meccas. France is the origin where it all started and USA is the future.
But can you relax when visiting these food metropolises?
Absolutely. I’m at my best when I’m on vacation. That’s when you stumble upon the fun things. For me travelling starts when something goes wrong and you get side tracked. That’s when the fun begins. It’s dirty and marvellous.
What is the first thing you look at when walking into a restaurant?
I try to capture the feeling of the place. Get a sense of the whole concept. Then I look at the details.
How important is design when you create something new?
Incredibly important! Today everything is design, even the bread and the butter is part of the overall design. But it can never be allowed to become more important than the human being that is going to spend time, have fun and socialize in your restaurant.
Do you have any role models when it comes to design?
No, not really. I like when things have a history. We can never buy time and there is something beautiful with old things, old spaces. Things that carry a history are beautiful.
How would you define your personal design style?
I like to have things neat and in order, but not to the point that it feels stiff. Structured chaos. I like structured chaos.
When you plan to open a new restaurant, do you have a clear idea of what it will be or do you have a specific process to work by?
For me it’s the feeling in the space that has to determine what type of restaurant we should do. Some spaces are just better suited for a certain type of restaurant. Of course there are other things to consider such as trends, location, etc.
And how sensitive to trends do you have to be?
You need to build it on a good idea. There must be something authentic and true in that idea. You can’t be too trendy. It is too short sighted. You want to create something classical that lasts. A restaurant needs to mature and develop. It can never be “done” on day one.
Because it’s a living place! You need to feel your way and make adjustments as you go. There must be energy and life in a restaurant. You need to feel that it lives. Just like a home. A home only feels nice if you live in it. A home can be beautiful but stiff if you feel that no one lives there. There must be room for defects and flaws.
What do you like the most? Open a new place or manage an old?
Opening up a new restaurant is, of course, a lot of fun. To get a space, create the concept, build and put it all together and then move on. But it’s so important not to forget to manage what you have created.
How important is music?
It’s incredibly important at work. But when I’m home, I don’t put on music but I panic if a restaurant is silent. And the importance of right music at the right time is tremendous. You can make or break a mood of a restaurant with your choice of music. And to find someone who understands what you are looking for is hard and when you do, you need to show him or her that you want to build a long-term relationship with them. But when we opened our first restaurant we didn’t have the money to have a DJ and my two partners and I didn’t know anything about music. However, we knew that music was important for our success. This was long before playlists, CD-burners, Spotify and Ipods. But we solved it. I asked a friend to buy a small collection of CD’s. The problem was that we had no idea which songs where good and what to play when. We ended up colour coding each song from green, which was soft, and slow, to red which was party and dance. And then we selected the songs by the colour. It worked surprisingly well.
Do you find yourself spending more time in the office as you add restaurants to your rooster?
I hate spending time in the office. I have my own policy to never spend time there. Every minute spent in the office means lost time taking care of our guests. I usually go to the office on Monday’s. I sit down in the chair and see how many laps I can spin without putting my feet down. That’s about how much office time I like to spend.
What’s your record?
43 laps (laughs).
Describe your home?
It’s perfect for my life. On the upper floor I can be social, receive guests and friends. Downstairs is more private and that’s where I spend time when I’m by myself. The owner before me had his bedroom on the upper floor. That would never work for me. I need the space to be social and to be private.
You have an interesting mix of art. Where do you find it?
I blew my art budget in one week. I tried to buy that painting over there for five years and right after I bought it, the painter of this painting called and told me he wanted to sell it to me. It had been hanging at a Norwegian restaurant and the first time I saw it and told the owner of the restaurant, who is a close friend, that I needed to have it. So when the painter called, I had no choice but to buy it. I’m going to put it in the last restaurant I will own. So when you see it, you’ll know it’s over (laugh). Until then, I’ll have it at home and right there is the only place where it fits.
The restaurant of your dreams. Where would you open it and what would it be?
A wine bar in New York. Or a combination of a beer and wine bar. In a corner space, somewhere in Manhattan.
Are there any restaurateurs that you admire?
Well, Keith McNally in New York is someone that I have always admired.
Do you have one food experience that stands out among them all?
For me it’s often the simplest things that I remember the most. One of my strongest memories is a hot dog I ate outside a small primitive airport on the rural countryside in the Dominican Republic. Those are the moments that stick and are more memorable then eating at a Michelin star restaurant.
What food trend do you think is next?
Food trends are really hard to foresee but the thing that I would like to change in Sweden is our pizza culture. We have a terrible pizza culture and we should change it into something better, more authentic. In Sweden, we put anything and everything on our pizzas. At the same time! What’s wrong with a simple pepperoni pizza? How hard can it be?
What happens next?
This summer, I’m opening up a new restaurant on Gotland – in the northern part of the island. And this fall, we open up our first place in Stockholm.
Sounds like a busy year…
It is, but it’s busy in the right way. We are going in the right direction. Thank you so much Sonny for introducing us into the Swedish restaurant world and inviting us into your cozy cabin. If you should ever come to Åre, you can drop by Sonnys “Broken” restaurant.
Interview: Alex Gjers
Photography: Jens Kristensson