In pursuing her lifelong passion for food, chef and restaurateur Hrefna Sætran has transformed the culinary landscape of Iceland. Her dedication to providing quality ingredients straight from Icelandic farms is behind the success of several Reykjavík eateries, with another set to open in August. I spoke to Hrefna about Icelandic culinary culture and doing business from the heart.
Table for two
Hrefna is an only child raised in Reykjavík by her parents and grandparents. None of her caretakers cared much for cooking so they often took her out to eat. “At that time you could count on your fingers the dishes that were available in Reykjavík. My mother and I used to play a game, we’d go downtown and go between restaurants trying to find the best deep-fried shrimp or the best lobster soup.”
Today Hrefna splits her time between a variety of projects, including running two of the most successful restaurants in Reykjavík: The Fish Market and The Grill Market. She and her team are now preparing to open another restaurant in the city centre in August.
The restaurant’s menu will feature a special ingredient which Hrefna and her team have been developing for years. The locale’s name, The Shellfish Market, gives a hint as to what the ingredient is, though the details remain shrouded in secrecy. “Often when a new ingredient or product becomes available in Iceland, within a couple of weeks it’s in every restaurant. We wanted to be distinct, so we decided to develop our own—in secret.”
Only the best
Though her projects may differ, Hrefna says they have at least one element in common. “We look for the best ingredients. We would never try to scrimp on that, and that’s apparent in the food. Our trademark is quality.”
The lamb served at The Grill Market is one example. “It’s raised on a farm as far as you can get out in the countryside. The farmer takes the lambs and puts them on an island that only grows angelica [a type of wild celery common in subarctic regions]. So they only eat angelica for two months. This makes them develop a very special flavour. It’s the best lamb in the world. Of course it’s much more expensive than other lamb but we want to buy it rather than buy something else.”
“At The Grill Market we serve a lot of Icelandic meat and that’s very difficult to do because each producer is so small. We have to build a lot of relationships. It’s much easier to just pick up the phone and order something from abroad. But that’s not the concept of the restaurant.”
Read the full interview with Hrefna in the latest issue of Iceland Review. Click here to subscribe.