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Ones to watch: Alex Nietosvuori

Ones to watch: Alex Nietosvuori

by Pete Dreyer 01 July 2019

Alex Nietosvuori is causing a stir with his new restaurant Hjem – a gorgeous space that blends the best of Northumbrian produce with his own Scandinavian culinary sensibilities. Pete Dreyer finds out more about this up and coming chef. Photography by James Byrne.


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Fine dining in the North East was a bit of a pipe dream not so long ago. The area has a long-standing industrial heritage and a working class image that goes with that, and why would coal miners, factory workers and shipbuilders want to eat fancy food? It’s an outdated stereotype, of course – one that has been and gone in other parts of the country with similar industrial backgrounds, but for some reason still lingers in this beautiful part of England.

The smog is lifting, though, and a new generation of chefs are rooting down in the North East and thrusting it into the culinary limelight. James Close – of the two-Michelin-starred Raby Hunt near Darlington – and Kenny Atkinson at House of Tides in Newcastle are probably the names that come to mind first, but there are plenty of others flying the flag – John Williams, Gareth Ward, Tom Anglesea, Nick Grieves, Shaun Hurrell and Anna Hedworth are all born and bred Northumbrians doing their bit to push the culinary envelope around the country.

As you might gather from the name, Alex Nietosvuori wasn’t born in these parts; the Swedish chef hails from Landskrona, just north of Malmö, but despite the 600-odd miles between his old home and his new one, the two aren’t so different. The name of his restaurant – ‘Hjem’ – references a word that means ‘home' in both Swedish and Northumbrian dialect, and he skilfully blends Scandinavian culinary techniques with the best of Northumberland produce at the restaurant, which is turning more than a few heads.

Alex travelled the world working as a chef before moving to Wall with his partner Ally Thompson (herself a Northumberland native), but as a youngster there was no sign that food would be his future. He wanted to be a huntsman initially – hunting is very popular in Sweden, but doing it professionally requires a significant amount of study for a license. That dream didn’t materialise, so he started cooking in Landskrona instead. ‘I had nothing else to do, to be honest’ he says. ‘I worked in a café on my days off from school, making pies.’ It was just a job, but it was enough to give Alex the impetus to make a ninety minute journey over to Skåne-Tranås – a picturesque village further to the east. On the surface, this tiny 300-strong village doesn’t seem like the place to advance your culinary career (although it's near Ystad – the coastal town where detective Kurt Wallander famously gazed out across the Baltic Sea). However, Skåne-Tranås is also home to Daniel Berlin Krog – a two-Michelin-starred restaurant that is widely recognised as one of the best in the world. And it was, relatively speaking, right in Alex’s back yard.

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Alex and Ally met in London, but both made the decision to move up to Northumberland – a part of the country they both love
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Hjem is based in The Hadrian at Wall pub near Hexham
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Alex and sous chef Marek Diezdiec are the only two members of kitchen staff – everything cooked and plated in the restaurant is done by them
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Hjem's gorgeous dining room looks out onto the majestic Northumbrian countryside

‘I did a stage there for two weeks, and after that Daniel said I should go and work for him, so I did,’ he shrugs. ‘He’s by far the most influential chef I’ve ever worked with – most of what I’ve learned has been in his restaurant. I still have ideas that come from my time with Daniel!’ It was the start of Alex’s career, by all accounts – he spent the next three-and-a-half years under Daniel’s tutelage and the restaurant served as a launchpad for Alex to work in some of the best restaurants in the world. From Daniel Berlin Krog he went to Bror in Copenhagen, where he rose from chef de partie to head chef in under four years. He flew halfway across the world to work alongside Rodolfo Guzmán at the highly acclaimed Boragó in Chile, then returned five months later to work at Maaemo in Oslo with Esben Holmboe Bang, after staging at esteemed restaurants Frantzén and Fäviken. When a friend at Maaemo later recommended The Laughing Heart in East London, Alex packed his bags again and headed over to join chef Tom Anglesea at the inventive, much-loved Hoxton restaurant.

‘I just wanted to see new things,’ he says of his travels. ‘Chile was so different, not just style but also produce, working hours. Even the weather, it was so warm! And The Laughing Heart was great – again, a bit different to what I do, but a really nice place.’

However, like many chefs, there’s only so long you work in other people’s kitchens before you start wanting your own. When Alex left The Laughing Heart he did so with the determination to own his own place, and he and his partner Ally set about planning for the next stage of the journey. ‘Ally and I knew we wanted to move up to Northumberland – her family is here and there’s no one doing what I want to do around here,’ Alex explains. ‘We met this couple that had this pub – The Hadrian at Wall – and they needed someone to take over the kitchen. That’s where it all started.’ Suddenly, the idea fell into focus – Alex and Ally agreed to take over the restaurant in the pub, and Alex transported himself once again, this time to Hexham on the fringes of Northumberland National Park. Four months later, Hjem was open – and not just open, but thriving, with a stellar review from Marina O’Loughlin who declared it ‘the sort of restaurant that makes me remember why I love this job, that makes me believe – against all evidence to the contrary – that everything is right with the world.’

‘People fight their whole lives to get their own restaurant,’ says Alex. ‘Which I did, and everyone does. At one point you're thinking, ‘I'm never going to get it done. How am I going to be able to afford it, how am I going to do this and that?’ Before you know it you're sitting there and you have a restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Northumberland. It is pretty impressive I think.’

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Jeff Hogg lives at the bottom of the garden and looks after Hjem's chickens, which roam the fields next door
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Rosie Mclachlan creates all of Hjem's tableware from her studio in nearby Alston
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Retired policeman Kerr Henry keeps chickens, ducks, guinea fowl and turkeys in nearby Acomb, and supplies the restaurant year-round with poultry
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Ken Holland grows specialist vegetables for many of the UK's best restaurants, including Hjem – which is just down the road

There are plenty of good reasons to make the journey to Hjem – not just for the exquisite food, but also for Alex and Ally, who both have infectious enthusiasm in spades. The menu is definitively Scandinavian, but the produce is Northumbrian through and through – Alex takes pride in working with small, local suppliers and supporting the network around him. ‘I spend a lot of time getting around the area and meeting people,’ he says. ‘I work with lots of smaller guys – they’re just farmers that no one really knows about. No one uses them except me. My quail eggs for example, come from a lady’s back garden – she just sells them to us from her house.

‘It’s an awesome way to run a business,’ he adds. ‘I have worked with good produce everywhere I have been – but now I get to have a personal relationship with all these people and we can help to support them.’

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Lamb with seaweed, leeks and foraged ground elder
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Scallop served with a smoked blackcurrant broth and freshly picked blackcurrant leaves
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Creel caught langoustine with pickled bacon and preserved mushroom crisp
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Lamb liver with sheep's milk skin, foraged herbs and pine cones

Dinner at Hjem is certainly one for the more adventurous and Alex lets his considerable imagination run wild with the dishes, which come as a six- or twelve-course tasting menu. The aforementioned quail’s eggs come with pickled pork, for example, but there’s plenty more to make you smile: chicken liver with pine and preserved pine cones; pink fur apple potato and blackcurrant; and a mind-bending dessert of horseradish ice cream, apple caramel and crispy horseradish. ‘I love that dish,’ he grins. ‘You have horseradish ice cream, a crumble made with wheat grains and then this amazing apple caramel, but it all comes inside a wooden apple that’s made by Ally’s dad.’ Alex’s philosophy of supporting local suppliers doesn’t just stretch to food – Ally’s father makes all the woodwork for the restaurant,

Alex and Ally are forging a new path for fine dining in this part of the country, joining forces with the likes of James Close and Kenny Atkinson to break the old stereotypes. ‘I have spoken a lot with James,’ says Alex. ‘He’s been really helpful. I think we’re all quite different though – we only have myself and one other person in the kitchen so we’re very much doing our own thing.’ Hjem certainly seems the sort of restaurant that would have Michelin inspectors falling over themselves to visit, but Alex doesn’t seem too worried. ‘I don’t really care about rewards or anything like that,’ he says. ‘I do this because it’s fun. I want happy guests, and I want to be able to cook my food, and I don’t want to change that for anything else.’

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