The Smiling Television Chef
Text GUÐBJÖRG GISSURARDÓTTIR Photos BAS BOGAERTS
She’s sometimes called the Icelandic elf by her Belgian fans, who have been charmed not only by her cooking but also by her broad smile, funny accent, not to mention her willingness to make fun of herself replete with big laughs. Dagný Rós Ásmundsdóttir is not well known in Iceland but has managed to shake things up in straight-laced Belgium with her playful demeanor and charming candor. She went from being unemployed in Iceland to opening an upscale fish market in Belgium, becoming a popular TV chef, publishing cookbooks, traveling the world for work and gracing the covers of Belgian magazines.
Dagný Rós doesn’t bristle when stopped by a polite Belgian who wants a picture with the famous Icelandic TV chef. Recently she has been spending plenty of time in Iceland while finishing up her third cookbook. “It’s always a little funny when I come to Iceland and I meet Belgians, who often want a picture with me. And I see how Icelanders look at me, and judging by their expressions, they’re thinking, ‘Who is this woman exactly?’” Dagný Rós says bursting into her infectious laughter.
A CULINARY ROAD TRIP AROUND ICELAND
There’s never a dull moment for Dagný Rós these days. She just released her newest cookbook entitled “Roots – A Culinary Road Trip Around Iceland”, and now she’s opening a pop-up restaurant in Belgium under the name Roots by Dagný Rós. “The pop-up is meant to dovetail with the book launch, so it’s an example of one of those fabulous ideas I have and before I know it, everything has taken off full steam. But I have to admit that I’m a little stressed as it’s a big production. I won’t be alone in the kitchen, as was the plan originally. While working on the book this summer I met some fantastic Icelandic chefs so I decided to ask one, Gísli Matthías Auðunsson who owns Slippurinn in Iceland’s Westman Islands, to cook with me,” explains Dagný Rós, who was clearly quite taken with Gísli’s cooking. The pop-up will be open for only a little over two weeks in December, but when asked, Dagný is clear that she has no designs on opening her own restaurant since it demands so much energy and requires a big investment, not to mention that she has little spare time with her cookbooks, work on television and other activities.
ONE BIG DINNER PARTY
Dagný Rós has no formal culinary training, but she comes from a family of foodlovers. “Mom was fond of parties, and she loved to cook. My childhood memories of food come from mom’s parties, or her ladies’ nights as she called them. Dad was a sailor on a freighter and wasn’t home much, but whenever he came home he brought all kinds of food that we couldn’t get in Iceland at that time, and plenty of alcohol. For her parties mom always put out a buffet with all kinds of dishes, and I remember being nine or ten sitting under the buffet table laden with dishes and tugging at the ladies’ skirts for fun. These get-togethers would start right after noon and go until midnight. And they were always different. Sometimes she would have happy hour in the sunroom with cocktails and toothpick appetizers. Mom would always let my sisters and I help by setting the table, getting the house ready and cooking with her. At the time we didn’t think it was much fun, but looking back on it those are some of my fondest memories. And we siblings found it sometimes embarrassing when she would invite someone that she didn’t really know well, that she’d only just met at the store. But today I love that quality in her.”
Mom would always let my sisters and I help by setting the table, getting the house ready and cooking with her. At the time we didn’t think it was much fun, but looking back on it those are some of my fondest memories. And we siblings found it sometimes embarrassing when she would invite someone that she didn’t really know well, that she’d only just met at the store.
Dagný Rós has three sisters and a brother. “We all love food and when we get together we mainly talk about cooking and what we’re going to eat. We often make meals together, preferably with a glass of champagne in one hand, and we have a good time. Then we all sit down at the table and swap recipes.”
A CAREER IN FOOD BEGINS
Dagný Rós started out as an economics student in Belgium with no culinary career on the radar. “It was never my plan. I had just broken up with my Belgian boyfriend and was back in Iceland with two kids and working at a media company. Over Christmas 2007, right before the economy collapsed, I took the kids to Belgium where I got a phone call letting me know that I’d lost my job along with 60 other employees. It was an awful shock. I was a single mother with two kids, and I felt immense responsibility. When I got home I was offered an office job at a bank, but my heart was telling me to leave Iceland. I just wanted to do something that I liked and that I was good at. And with that in mind, I moved back to Belgium and set up Delicatessen fish market, which was similar to a fish market in Iceland called Fylgifiskar where you could also sit down for a meal. A year later the economy fell apart in Iceland, and I was profoundly grateful not to have poured my money into a shop in Iceland only to see everything fall to pieces. Instead I was building a new life in Belgium with my current husband. When I saw my old boss from the media company in Iceland the next summer I thanked him for firing me, because I probably never would have taken the leap if I hadn’t been sacked,” she says laughing.
Dagný chose to work with Icelandic fish because it’s one of her favorite ingredients and Iceland has a unique appeal. Plus there was nothing like it in Belgium. “Running a fish market was a lot of work and often quite challenging. The business plodded along, but I barely took home any pay every month. Maybe selling only fish was a mistake since Belgians don’t eat as much fish as Icelanders. But I see mistakes as learning opportunities, and I’m grateful for what they teach me. Because the business ended up being a springboard for everything I do today.”
After running the business for some time, Dagný became pregnant. Her doctor put her on bed rest for the final months of her pregnancy as her first two sons had been born prematurely, and there was a real risk it would happen again. “I told my current husband that I’d have to sell the fish market since I couldn’t afford to pay someone to keep it up the way I wanted it. At times I think I must have a fairy godmother watching over me. That same week someone came in to ask if the space was for sale, and then the biggest producers of cooking shows in Belgium came in to ask if I’d like to work in television. It was as if someone had solved all my problems. So I sold the shop and broke even. I walked away with all the money I’d put in. Then I taped a few shows for television and was off my feet for the rest of the pregnancy. After my daughter was born I took on various projects for television, then my first cookbook came out and since then things have really taken off.”
BELGIUM VS. ICELAND ON THE PLATE
When the topic of traditional Belgian cuisine comes up, you probably think of Belgian waffles, chocolate and beer. But what does Dagný Rós have to say about the differences between Belgian and Icelandic cooking? “Belgians are a gourmet nation like we are. They’ve got amazing restaurants everywhere and a lot of Michelin stars. But French-fried potatoes are still their pride and glory, while fish is what I take most pride in from Iceland. Belgians don’t invite people over for dinner as often as we do. They are more accustomed to dining out, but that may well be changing. Unlike Icelanders, Belgians are extremely polite, always ready with a handkerchief or an apology if they run into someone. This is where we Icelanders could learn a thing or two from them,” Dagný Rós says with a grin. Her personal preferences are to took cook with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. “I encourage people to cut back on meat, focus more on vegetables and buy high-quality meat and less of it. At my home we always have a hot meal for dinner, fish once or twice a week, vegetarian once and homemade “junk food” once. I make it a point that the family cooks and eats together. Everyone is so busy that dinner is often the only time we have to be together. We’ve got to take advantage of the precious time we have. We also always have a weekend brunch together, because during the week it’s hard to get everyone at the table with all those extracurriculars and other activities.”
A COOKBOOK IS BORN
Roots is the third cookbook Dagný Rós has put out. Her first book was Easy Iceland followed by Easy Nordic. “My first books were shot in a studio, but the dream has always been to come to Iceland on a culinary road trip. Now that I’m a more recognized and popular television chef in Belgium it has opened doors and I can do more. I decided to start in Hornafjörður in the Southeast, where I can trace my own roots back, and made my way through South Iceland to Reykjavík. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll do the rest of the country in another book,” says Dagný Rós, who met fishermen, farmers, producers and chefs on her journey. “The best part of creating the book was getting to know all these fabulous people. I was pleasantly surprised by how all these young Icelandic chefs are making it happen for themselves. It was great to see the chef in Höfn í Hornafirði call the fisherman, who takes his boat out daily, and ask him what would be on the menu that day. And to watch Gísli Matthías in the Westman Islands harvest dulse and other ingredients from the wilderness right around his restaurant and use it in the kitchen. I was also struck by my visit to the greenhouse at Sólheimar, where people with intellectual disabilities lead productive lives and have the opportunity to engage in meaningful work. Reynir Pétur, now in his seventies and ever cheerful, gave me an introduction to this beautiful world that literally left me in tears.” Dagný Rós compares the creation of the book to a pregnancy. “I carry all kinds of ideas around in my head. And then I get to put them on paper and find a common thread or story in the book. I have to know my reasons for making the book.”
“The best part of creating the book was getting to know all these fabulous people. I was pleasantly surprised by how all these young Icelandic chefs are making it happen for themselves. It was great to see the chef in Höfn í Hornafirði call the fisherman, who takes his boat out daily, and ask him what would be on the menu that day.
“Creating the recipes is no small feat either. I am not a chef, so this isn’t something I can just whip up. I am often inspired during my travels and the recipes develop over the course of several months. I write them down and then need time to test and tweak them. I can’t stand a hastily made recipe that flops when you go to make it. There are far too many cookbook writers and food bloggers who aren’t putting the work into their recipes. Unlike my other cookbooks, this one also includes a few recipes from the chefs I met on my trip,” Dagný Rós explains. She can also be quite pleased with how beautifully the book turned out as Icelandic nature plays a feature role. Along for the ride was a team of six Belgians who handled the photography, videography and other supporting work. “I also see the book as a wonderful travel guide for Belgians who want to come to Iceland and visit the places I traveled and talk about in the book,” say Dagný with a twinge of patriotism in her voice.
HARD TIMES AND ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENTS
Despite a bright career in Belgium, the work and stress took a toll. “My illness must have been a long time in the making with several setbacks and other difficulties over the years. Three years ago I was diagnosed with mononucleosis, which lead to my eventual burnout. It took me a long time to accept it, and in the end I just fell apart. I saw a doctor who told me that I was experiencing burnout and that I needed to acknowledge it. I went home and cried my eyes out, and my husband had to remind me to be grateful that it wasn’t cancer or worse. From that point on I thought about my life differently, changed the people I surrounded myself with and stopped doing things that didn’t matter. I quit putting myself in positions I had convinced myself were important but, in truth, didn’t matter. I used to say yes to everything, and I’ve stopped that and now choose only what I think is interesting and right for me.
When I was working on this book in Iceland over the summer, there was a lot to do in only one month, but I’ve reconceived how I work and take better care of myself. If I feel stress coming on or insecurity I shut off the computer, take the dog for a walk or watch a show and clear my mind.” When asked for the secret behind this newfound wellbeing in her life, she says she doesn’t overthink things anymore. “I believe that your attitude has a profound impact on how your life unfolds. I used to judge others and got jealous and was quick to go on the defensive. But I’ve learned to take a breath and try to see the positive in life and focus on that. I choose to believe my glass is half full. I learned to be satisfied even when I don’t have much and to be grateful for what I’ve been given. I’m a modest person and don’t live like some celebrity, but more like a regular person and people like that,” Dagný Rós says in closing, seemingly quite content with her life and the adventure she has created for herself in Belgium.
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