Gísli Matthías Auðunsson
Volcanoes in the backyard
Chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson comes from the Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland and lives with his wife Hafdís Ástþórsdóttir and four children in Helgafellsbraut on the main island. The family has two volcanoes in their backyard: Helgafell and Eldfell. Gísli’s family founded and runs the restaurant Slippurinn (The Boatyard) in the Westman Islands.
The volcanic eruption
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the volcanic eruption in the Westman Islands. The eruption started on the 23rd of January 1973 and lasted until the 3rd of July that same year. A 1600-meter-long crack formed the volcano that we now call Eldfell. The main island changed completely and a great number of houses were ravaged by lava and ash.
"Like the house, we live in today. You could just about see the top of the roof peeping out of the ash. There was this indescribable drive in the islanders who salvaged the whole island from underneath the ash. These were people who had a strong desire to live here. It was an amazing achievement to be able to do it in such a short period of time - the sheer fact that people were able to move back to the island so quickly. But I also understand those who couldn't move back, people who perhaps lost everything. People from the Westman Islands are known for being hard workers, which is hardly surprising as it's one of the largest fishing villages in the country. I think events like this reinforce people’s sense of solidarity."
Despite the fierce nature, volcanoes, lava, and cliffs, Gísli believes that the Westman Islands are a great place to live and raise children.
“There’s a short distance to everything, and there's an incredible amount of safety here, as well as nature everywhere. We have nature literally in our backyard; we have a volcano at the back of our house and a view of the sea. This offers such a great quality of life. I remember from when I was young, I'd spend days and days outside exploring and playing by the shore, in the lava fields, or on the surrounding farms, just watching the animals.”
While there are many advantages to living in a small community, there are also challenges to living in a place like this. It can be hard to get to the island or back to the mainland.
"Transportation can be difficult when you live in Iceland and on an island. The winters are a bit more challenging than the summers; there are fewer cultural events and less buzz in the town. Many young people leave for the capital or for college overseas, but many of them also come back for the summer. There's a certain energy to this place during the summer - lots of things happening, the weather's great and there’s beautiful nature all around to explore.”
We want to serve people ingredients found in the immediate environment, and we want people to have an experience of a particular time and place when they eat with us.
Slippurinn opened in 2012 and the goal was to create a restaurant that people from the Westman Islands could be proud of. The aim was to use ingredients from the island as much as possible.
“Today, 11 years later, the goal is exactly the same, except bigger. At first, we were using two or three different types of herbs, but we've now reached almost thirty varieties. We want to serve people ingredients found in the immediate environment, and we want people to have an experience of a particular time and place when they eat with us. Through food and drink, we want them to be able to really feel that they’re in the Westman Islands during the summer in Iceland. But it is also our primary goal to respect the nature. We only pick quantities that we feel the nature can handle and we only use wild plants. Here in the Westman Islands, there's an endless supply of ingredients that can be used for cooking, much like in the rest of Iceland. All you need is knowledge. I'm not saying we're a bunch of geniuses. All I'm saying is that we learn something new every summer.”
The Westman Islands are one of the largest fishing villages in Iceland and everything has revolved around fishing in the last few centuries. As a result, the majority of the dishes served at Slippurinn contain fish.
"The only meat dish we offer is Icelandic lamb, as it's sustainable. But we haven't always done it this way; it was a bit different at the beginning in that we offered a larger variety of meat. But with time we've aimed for a higher level of sustainability. We want to do better. We stopped serving chicken and beef, and we've never served puffin as it's not sustainable. These are tough decisions to make, as it's just me and my family running the restaurant. But we want to follow our instincts, and I feel that over the last few years, people have started to believe in our mission and so they choose to come and eat here because they’ve taken on board what our ideology is. That's extremely precious.”
Slippurinn aims to serve food and drink that is unique, without placing itself on a pedestal; this is a place for everyone.
"To us, luxury is getting crispy fish skin of cod or capelin roe, simply because you can only get it here. You can get things like white truffles anywhere in the world, but real luxury is being able to taste something you cannot taste anywhere else. It’s all about time and place; if you use these to your advantage you can create a magical experience. That’s how I want people to feel about our food: I want them to feel that in this moment, right now, this is the best food they've ever had. I'm hoping I can set an example for other restaurants in Iceland. A lot of people come to me and ask for advice; people feel it's important to be sustainable. It's not enough just to serve good food."
The restaurant is located in an old building referred to as Magni. A machine factory named Magni was located in the building previously and it served a great purpose. The boatyard was behind the building and there were usually about 6 to 8 boats in the yard. The machine factory was there to build spare parts for the fleet, to keep it going. In those days, over 100 boats were docked in the harbor and the building was therefore extremely important for a fishing village like the Westman Islands. When the family took over the building, it hadn’t been in use for over 50 years. There was such a strong connection between the building and the boatyard that Katrín, Gísli's mother, suggested that this would be the perfect name for the restaurant.
"My mom and dad met on a boat. At 15, my mother was a cook on my grandfather's boat, and that’s where they met. My dad has been a fisherman since he was 14, and he's nearly 67 now. He owns his own little boat; he wants to be his own boss. He needs to get out there; it's important to him to be able to connect to the sea. We benefit from this as he gives us what he catches. It's great to be able to have that connection all the way to the plate. It's fun to tell guests the story behind the dish – they’re able to relate to it and that makes them appreciate the food even more. It’s an amazing gift and this is in fact what real luxury is."
Gísli's life has changed considerably since he and his family opened Slippurinn. He had never worked in a restaurant like this before, nor had his family. Gísli enjoys finding ways of balancing his family life with running the business.
"It can of course be complicated, but the best moments are often work-related. We might for example need crowberries for the restaurant in August. Then we'll simply all go out together and pick crowberries. While most of it will be used in the restaurant, we'll still take a few handfuls with us home. Also, sometimes when it’s crazy busy my daughter will come in and give me a hug in the kitchen, and that's perfectly fine. I think it's healthy for children to see their parents' passions; it's important that they’re allowed into the environment that we inhabit and are able to observe our passions. This is just life, really - my wife is also self-employed, she runs a hair salon. It's a lot of work, but I believe it's very healthy for children to see their parents' side and have experiences through them. We shouldn't disconnect our children from the real world. We've created our world and our life; we've designed everything based on the things we're doing here. But no one designs your life for you - you have to do it yourself. As a family, we're just so grateful for where we are today."