Have you ever wanted to open a restaurant?

On Restaurant Day, anyone who’s ever dreamed of running their own cafe, bakery or bar can set up shop for the day. The event started in Helsinki and has spread throughout Europe, Canada and Russia.

Finnish food journalist Timo Santala is one of the founding members of the annual celebration. He also leads Helsinki’s food culture outreach strategy. We caught up with Timo to learn more about Restaurant Day and Finland’s food scene.

Read on to find out why Finland’s potatoes and mushrooms are some of the best in the world.

Tell us a little about Restaurant Day. How did it get started?

Restaurant Day is a food carnival where anyone can set up a popup cafe or restaurant. It’s celebrated in 71 countries and cities around the world. It’s all about giving people an opportunity to realize their dreams of running a restaurant. It was born out of frustration with all the red tape and bureaucracy involved in opening a restaurant. It started in Helsinki in May 2011, and is held four times per year in May, August, November and February.

Helsinki Restaurant Day 2011

People enjoying homemade drinks in front of the Diamond Stash speakeasy during Helsinki’s first Restaurant Day in May 2011. Photo by Tuomas Sarparanta, care of Restauarant Day.

Helsinki’s food scene struck me as one of the most unique in Europe. Tell us a little about the influences that shaped the country’s dishes.

All of the European countries have their own specialties, but Finnish culture is pretty unique. Because we’re in the corner of the world, we had to develop our own ways of eating and cooking.

There isn’t really a national dish. It’s more like each region of Finland has its own traditional specialty. In Lapland it’s reindeer meat. In Karelia it’s stew or pie.

Finnish food derives a lot from nature. We use a lot of berries, mushrooms and wild herbs, and there’s a strong tradition of foraging and collecting. We’ve got thousands of lakes in Finland; fish is very important.

We believe in natural food and natural ingredients. Around the world, you hear a lot of buzzwords like “head to tail”, “farm to table” and “conscious eating.” But when it comes to food, Finnish people have always been connected to nature.

Here, it’s not a trend.

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Petra Jyrkäs hanging out at a popup bar in an old train depot in Helsinki on the second Restaurant Day in August 2011. Photo by Timo Santala, care of Restaurant Day.

Have other countries or cultures made an impact on Finland’s food scene?

If you look at it from an American point of view, Finland has always been a meeting place of east and west. We’re very influenced by Russia and Slavic cultures. From the east you get a lot of pies, stews and slow-braised oven foods.

From the west, you get dishes like Swedish meatballs. There is a huge tradition of having crayfish parties in Finland; that comes from Sweden.

Pelmenit stand at Helsinki Restaurant Day

Men sell home made Russian food during Restaurant Day in February 2014. Photo by Marinella Ruusunen, care of Restaurant Day.

Thirty to 40 years ago, Finland wasn’t a place where you could taste cuisines from around the world. We’ve never been a New York or a London. But when foreign restaurants started arriving in the 1990s, they had a very powerful influence on us. Now Finnish people, especially in Helsinki, are more adventurous and excited about new cuisines. We’re well traveled and eager to discover new food and new cuisines.

Foreign restaurants were well received when they arrived in Helsinki in the 1990s. Mexican street kitchen El Puesto was a popular stop during a recent Restaurant Day. Photo by Tuomas Sarparanta, care of Restaurant Day.

Nearly half of Finland is in the Arctic Circle. How does that affect your crops and growing season?

Because we are so far north our growing season is much shorter than most other countries’. It’s only a couple of months. But then again, the further north you go the more light you have in the summertime. Above the Arctic Circle it’s 24 hours of daylight in the summer.

The growing season is short but intense. The flavors are strong even if the crops are small. A Finnish potato from Lapland is small and full of flavor, much more so than a southern European potato.

Our porcini mushrooms are among the best in the world. I know of Italian companies that buy all their mushrooms from Finland. We also have cloudberries, they exist all over the Arctic. They’re yellow and have a sweet and intense flavor.

Finland’s Lapland is one of the last real wilderness areas in Europe. It’s a common tradition to go to the forest and pick your own food. I’ve been picking mushrooms since I was five years old with my grandparents. We also picked cloudberries, blueberries, lingonberries: you name it.

Helsinki restaurant day winter 2011

Neighbors enjoy a meal during a winter Helsinki Restaurant Day. Photo by Heidi Uutela, care of Restaurant Day.

I read there’s been a reawakening in Finland’s food scene as chefs are looking to reinterpret traditional dishes. Can you tell me about this? What exactly are chefs doing to make the dishes more “modern”?

I think that’s happening all over the world. You take influences from your roots and you adapt them to make something new. But in a lot of Michelin-rated restaurants around the world, the adaptations are based on transformations or gimmicks and tricks.

In Finland, most chefs subscribe to the Nordic tradition of sourcing unique ingredients and maintaining their flavor and appeal. We respect the ingredients. Instead of turning the ingredient into a foam or something new, we try to bring out the best of its flavors using modern techniques.

In Finland, it’s all about making an ingredient taste more intensely like what it is. Let’s have the rutabaga taste like rutabaga. Let’s have the fish taste like fish. But let’s combine them and make each ingredient a harmonious part of a bigger dish. That’s modern Finnish cuisine.

Header image of Timo by demoshelsinki

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