"The vegetables are weather-bound," says Leif-Arne Plahte, the chef at Restaurant Nansen, while looking over at Sous Chef Patrick Sandqvist.
The Scandinavian Airlines flight that was supposed to land Thursday morning never got further than Tromsø because of poor landing conditions in Longyearbyen. The clock declares it is two o'clock Friday afternoon and the Christmas season is going full speed, but in the world's northernmost hotel kitchen there is no panic even with the hinderance of the weather. The same thing happened last weekend.
"We try to push ourselves and we have reserves in stock at Sjøområdet," Plahte says. "It is not unusual that no plane comes, so you just have to adapt. At a quarter 'til six the food is standing out in the restaurant, with or without vegetables."
Nonetheless, the reserves are insufficient and Plahte has to send someone to the store to buy vegetables for the pub. The hotel's kitchen is responsible for two eateries: Barentz Pub & Spiseri and Restaurant Nansen. The vegetables must be available for hamburgers if they are in high demand at the pub.
"It is not very popular when we need to go up the store to shop," Plahte says. "If I must have a little milk, then we are talking about a hundred liters. Not all of the families with children in the city appreciate it when I empty the store of milk."
Running the kitchen is largely about planning, according to Plahte, especially when one needs to take into account ingredients that are still on the mainland as they are today. As head chef, Plath is responsible for ensuring that everything is set for the cooks. It is therefore important all stages of the process are well planned.
"The Christmas menu was ready six months ago and we make all the food from scratch, so it takes time," he says.
They cure all of the fish themselves, which must be done six weeks in advance. The entire week leading up to the weekend's Christmas buffet includes working to make the dishes ready so they can easily be set out Friday afternoon. When work on the buffet starts Monday, they make hotchpotch, slice smoked meats, steam salted lamb ribs known as pinnekjøtt, and both marinate and roast traditional holiday pork ribs. On Friday, all the food is placed on serving boards before being laid out in the restaurant.
The ingredients for the lunch and dinner being served today come from all over.
"There's a little less to do when it's the Christmas buffet," says Josefin Romild, who supervises the wait staff. "We take drink orders, clear tables and see to it that the buffet looks good."
In addition to the guests picking out for themselves what they want to eat, drink orders during the Christmas season are often less diverse than the rest of the year.
"There's a lot of beer and aquavit," Romild says.
Having to adapt
"We need 15 baguettes!"
The message comes from the reception desk. A traveling group needs food to take with them. Sandqvist has to set aside what he has in his hands to heat and put spread on baguettes. It is not uncommon that unforeseen things happen in the kitchen and, according to Sandqvist, there is nothing to do but to adapt.
"The vegetables have come," Plahte shouts.
The kitchen can breathe a sigh of relief – and perhaps all of the customers at Svalbardbutikken are doing the same. Last week, the vegetables didn't come until all the guests had departed. There is thankfully no such problem today.
As the clock reaches 4:45 p.m., there is a marked change of odor in the kitchen. Instead of the anonymous smell of fried fish, the kitchen fills up with the smell of Christmas foods, beets and sauerkraut. With flurries outside the window, the Christmas mood comes creeping in. About one hour later, the sideboard needs to stand ready for the guests that start coming in from six o'clock onwards. Four chefs are working in the kitchen from four o'clock until the food is ready. They ensure there is always enough food for the buffet and begin to make preparations for the next day. One chef is working constantly with pub fare while the other three focus on the Christmas buffet. Efforts to put the food out in the restaurant start around four o'clock. Both waiters and chefs contribute.
The food on the table
Although they sometimes have guests arriving at six o'clock, most come from seven onwards. It is not always so easy for the kitchen to know exactly when guests are coming and therefore they must always keep a watch on the food located on the sideboard. Plahte says food cannot be out for more than three-and-a-half to four hours, and to check the temperature of cold food he uses a laser pen.
When the restaurant begins filling up starting at six o'clock, it changes the distribution of work somewhat. Chefs who have to a large extent made most of the food before the guests arrive go a little slower. The wait staff, for their part, move a little faster.
The chef is never part of the shift work in the kitchen, but pops up when needed. He is entering its seventh year as head chef and has no plans to give up.
"Here I'm allowed to work with new culinary concepts and niche things I've found that are intriguing," Plahte says. "As long as I deliver within the limits that are set, I have great freedom."
As guests finish eating, the staff begins to clean and where it goes faster now is where the dishwasher is.
Christmas food in Norway is highly traditional and might not be construed as an exciting food concept for a chef, but according to Plahte it is very important to be familiar with Christmas food.
"If you cannot make traditional home dishes, you cannot create gourmet cuisine," he says.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini