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Iceland Mag

Food & Drink

Guðlaugur Frímannsson, chef and owner of Grillmarkaðurinn, nearly became a pilot

By Sara McMahon

  • Guðlaugur Frímannsson. Guðlaugur is a chef and one of the owners of one of Iceland's most popular restaurants, Grillmarkaðurinn. He moved from Thailand to Iceland when he was four years old. Photo/Björn Árnason

Guðlaugur P. Frímannsson is the head-chef and one of three owners of Grillmarkaðurinn, one of Iceland‘s most popular restaurants. He was born in the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand but moved to Iceland when he was four years old in 1985. Guðlaugur’s mother had met and married an Icelander and had already been living in the country for a year when he joined her. The four-year-old boy had a difficult time adjusting to his new life in Iceland but eventually settled in. He now runs a successful business and dreams of opening another restaurant in his native Thailand.

Guðlaugur moved to Iceland in 1990, then four years old. His mother had met and married an Icelander and moved to the country up north a year earlier. Guðlaugur joined her when she had settled into her new life and admits he found the move challenging at first.

“I had just learned my mother-tongue, the Thai language, when I had to start all over again. I also found it difficult to adjust to the climate and culture. I arrived in April and it was still very cold and I experienced snow for the first time in my life.
“I spent the first couple of years trying to learn the language. I was lucky enough to make friends fairly quickly – we’re a group of eighteen guys who have known each other since kindergarten – and they helped me a lot. I guess I was around nine years old by the time I had finally mastered Icelandic. But the language has always been a bit of a challenge, especially at school,” Guðlaugur recalls.

Dreamt about becoming a pilot

One could say it was a stroke of fate that led Guðlaugur into the culinary business. His dream was to become a pilot, but after a short stint in the catering business, he changed his mind. Guðlaugur isn’t the only one in the family with a passion for cooking. His younger sister is studying to become a chef and interns at Grillmarkaðurinn. His mother, who now resides in Canada, runs a number of fast food restaurants. Guðlaugur explains that food has always played a large role in his upbringing, and that the family would often cook together.

"My mother was a manager at a catering company called Sómi and I had begun to work there part time. After a while I was cooking meals for large parties on a regular basis and found that I enjoyed it quite a lot,” he adds: “I decided to do an introduction year at the Hotel and Culinary School in Kópavogur and after that there was no turning back.”

"One of the down-sides to being a chef is that you hardly ever get invited to dinner because people fear you’ll criticize their cooking."

Guðlaugur interned at Sjávarkjallarinn restaurant where he met and struck up a close friendship with chef Hrefna Rósa Jóhanssdóttir Sætran and the restaurant’s owner Ágúst Reynisson. The trio have been thick as thieves ever since. In addition to working together for years, Hrefna and Guðlaugur are also long-time members of the Icelandic Culinary Team. What’s more, when Hrefna and Ágúst opened Fiskmarkaðurinn restaurant in 2007 they hired him as one of their head-chefs.

“The three of us have always had a tightknit relationship and we work very well together. The idea of us opening a restaurant together arose in 2007. I sat down and prepared a file containing all my ideas regarding the restaurant: Its interior, the concept behind it and the menu. I then presented it to Hrefna and Ágúst. They added to my ideas and the result is Grillmarkaðurinn,” he explains proudly.

The restaurant’s interior reflects Iceland’s magnificent landscape. Col umnar basalt, moss, and fish skin decorate the walls. And the ingredients—meat and produce—are predominantly Icelandic, much of it bought straight from local farmers.

Doesn’t get invited to dinner

I’ve heard you are rather generous when it comes to sharing your recipes, is that true?
“I don’t mind sharing recipes. Sharing is caring,” he says and laughs. “One of the sauces served in Fiskmarkaðurinn is an old family recipe from Thailand. It’s a spicy chili sauce that goes well with all kinds of seafood and barbequed meat. I guess it would be the equivalent of a European family’s secret gravy recipe.”

Grillmarkaðurinn was an overnight sensation and is still one of the most popular restaurants in Iceland. Did you expect it to go so well when you first opened in 2012?
“Of course we hoped it would do well, but to be honest, I don’t think any of us expected it to do as well as it did. On our second night we served two hundred guests—we haven’t gone below that number since. I guess it’s similar to being awarded a Michelin star; it’s extremely hard to get, but even harder to keep. People come to Grillmarkaðurinn expecting to get top-notch food and we have to deliver every single time. We want our customers to leave the restaurant satisfied, not only with the food, but also the service.”

What do you love most about your job?
“How diverse it is … and I like the idea of cooking for all sorts of people. What I dislike about my job? Food being brought back to the kitchen, I can’t stand when that happens.”

Lastly, I have to ask, do you ever get sick of food?
“Yes,” he says laughing. “I don’t cook a lot at home—my girlfriend and I prefer to eat out. One of the down-sides to being a chef is that you hardly ever get invited to dinner because people fear you’ll criticize their cooking. The truth is: I love a good home-cooked meal and I never, ever criticize other people’s cooking,” he concludes. 

Guðlaugur’s (not so) secret chili sauce:
1 red chili. Remove the seeds.
2 lime leafs
4 tbs fish-sauce
5 tbs lime juice
3 tbs palm sugar
5 tbs water
3 garlic cloves
Put all the ingredients into a mixer and blend well. Enjoy.

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