Community For the launch of our new seasonal menu, ARKET’s Martin Berg invited his chef friend Sofia B Olsson to lunch at our café in Gothenburg, Sweden, to talk about their shared passion for modern food culture and the need for a more holistic approach to sustainability in the food industry.
Martin Berg and Sofia B Olsson first met over a decade ago in the kitchens of Michelin-star restaurants Matsalen and Matbaren in Stockholm, where, at the time, Martin was the head chef and Sofia came to work as an apprentice. Sofia B Olsson now runs restaurant VRÅ in Gothenburg, where she and her team combines ingredients from the Swedish west coast with Japanese-inspired flavours and techniques.
I have often felt lonely and vulnerable in the kitchens where I’ve worked. I have felt something is missing, and after a while I realised it was, simply, good leadership. For a very long time, this world has been ruled by moody and unpredictable alfa males who behave like pigs – but because they are also undoubtedly very skilled, they’re someone you look up to and need to impress.
I have always had to deal with sexism and master suppression techniques in parallel to learning the craft and becoming a great chef. But then, as I came here to help start up VRÅ, and it was just me and my friend in the kitchen, it became obvious that the rough language that I too had thought was kind of funny actually wasn’t my style at all. We didn’t talk like that, and we didn’t joke like that. I think you, Martin, were such a pioneer in actively including female chefs in your team.
Yeah, we worked pretty hard to create a gender-equal environment. We realised there were no women applying for jobs with us and had to ask ourselves, ‘where are everyone?’ The first step was introducing zero tolerance for inappropriate language, and we made sure to try to cultivate an atmosphere where everyone felt included and valued. It was simple things, like greeting everyone personally in the morning. In the end it was, of course, possible to turn it around.
So what’s your strategy, today, for creating a safe and inclusive culture?
Personally, I need a clear framework to perform at my highest level. I mean, just imagine all the potential that is wasted because people don’t know what’s expected of them; what type of behaviour is accepted or not, or what you’re supposed to achieve as a team.
Everyone who works here needs to feel that we’re doing this together. I want everyone to feel they can pitch in, have their voice heard, and contribute with their personal skills. There’s a sense of motivation, of being valued, being listened to, being able to grow, that spreads so quickly as soon as you make room for it. And because everyone has been part in making the decisions, they’re also going to be loyal to the idea and to the group.
'If you're not actively cultivating a positive environment, you can be sure as hell something else is going to grow instead.'
I’m also making it super-clear, in all our job ad and interviews, that we don’t accept any form of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, none of that. It shouldn’t ever be an issue you have to relate to. Rather, our zero-tolerance policy should be one of the main motivations for you to come work here. You need to feel it resonates with you personally, too, because it’s one thing for me to say it, but if you don’t feel it really matters to you, then maybe you should look for something else.
We’re a very mixed group of people today, even if we’ve previously been a female-dominated workplace. Chefs from different parts of the world, youths straight of school, LGBTQ and non-binary persons, and we now have a male head chef who is very quiet and calm, far from the stereotype. It’s an open environment where people who perhaps felt they didn’t belong anywhere else can find a place to flourish and grow as persons, as well as professionals.
For someone who’s curious and interested, it’s incredibly exciting to come work in a place like that. It’s very easy to meet and connect and exchange culture when you’re working with food. But we know from experience that these environments don’t always grow naturally. They require an inclusive leadership.
I really believe in the importance of leading by example. Actively taking a stance, actively proving that everyone is welcome, actively making them feel included, and actively ridding the workplace from toxic behaviour. It’s common to assume that your personal values will automatically become the company values. But what are you – actually – doing to create and maintain a good culture? Because if you’re not actively cultivating a positive environment, you can be sure as hell something else is going to grow instead. I think you set such a good example there, with your restaurants.
You’re connecting these issues to a wider idea of sustainability, as well, right? It’s not possible to be sustainable if you’re not also equal and inclusive?
To me, it all comes down to being able to stand for what I do. I would feel so hypocritical talking about organic and local ingredients, on the one hand, and then treat my staff as rubbish. It must be holistic; you need to have a sustainable approach to everything you do. There really is no alternative.
I would never claim that what I do is 100 percent sustainable. I don’t think that’s even possible. Sustainability is more of an ambition to do good and a willingness to always keep improving. It’s more honest to say, ‘this is what we’re trying to do’.
The circumstances always keep changing. What was good yesterday is perhaps not as good today or tomorrow. I’m personally very motivated by problem-solving. How do we create a sustainable product that is also attractive enough for people to choose it over a conventional alternative? I think that’s so exciting. Working on new ideas, new flavours, new ways of presenting food. Sustainability, for me, is a holistic mindset that forever needs to keep changing.
It has a lot to do with creativity. I’m always looking for the things that are exclusively positive, and to me, our story with local Pacific oysters is one of those cases where everyone wins.
Previously, they were only perceived as a problem, but just by re-branding them and putting them into a new context, we contributed to creating a sustainable local industry. It benefits the climate and our marine ecosystems, it provides new business for family-owned artisanal fisheries around here, and our guests love them.
I think what you’re going at ARKET is something similar. Working with Swedish heritage legumes and grains, offering a plant-based menu, letting people enjoy a nice meal with a good conscience. There really is no downside; it’s all good.