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Today, I’m bringing you an interview with chef Wil Reidie. His recipes are inventive, delicious and unexpected, especially what he does with miso! He’s also a great writer. We caught up on his working in Michelin-starred restaurants, moving to Finland from the UK and writing. Our conversation is below.
Wil is the writer behind a food newsletter called The Recovering Line Cook. Launched in early 2023, the newsletter tells the story of Wil’s career change at age 28 from office drone to restaurant chef. As well as his ongoing memoir essays, the newsletter includes recipes, tips and tutorials from a career in some of Northern Europe’s best restaurants.
In 2024, Wil plans to expand the newsletter by serialising his latest work, How to Fail at Being Finnish. This book-length memoir explores what life in Finland, the country ranked happiest in the world six times running as of 2023, can teach about finding joy in an often frightening world. This is told through the story of Wil’s first year living in Finland, his experience learning the Finnish language and culture, and its positive impact on his own struggles with anxiety.
Wil lives in Finland with his wife and two kids.
Lloyd (LM): Thanks so much for taking the time. I always start with language. How many languages do you speak?
Wil Reidie (Wil): Two: English very well, Finnish not so well.
LM: What’s a word or phrase in Finnish that you love but doesn’t translate to English, and vice versa?
Wil: Not a word or phrase so much, but a construct of Finnish grammar that I find particularly fascinating. It’s something called the partitive case that is found almost uniquely in the Finnic language family. The form designates a lot of different things. It can designate unknown amounts of things, for example. But the partitive also does something else, something more profound.
It suggests the incompleteness of an act, a process, an ongoing action. This is why to love someone is always to love the partitive of that person. If I love you in Finnish, I love sinua (the partitive form of you), not sinä or sinut or any of the other forms of you that exist in Finnish. With this being so, love is always an incomplete act in Finnish. A process. A resolution possible yet never found between two things. The one who loves and the loved. Sinua, the you my love can never fully reach.
LM: Has living in Finland changed your relationship with English? How so?
Wil: Before I started learning Finnish in Finland, I was always in a position of confidence and power when it came to speaking English with my Finnish family and friends. I now find myself in the opposite position, one of profound weakness as I struggle to find the words in Finnish. At first this struggle did little more than prove how much my Being relied on an extensive knowledge of elaborate English. But the more I get by in Finnish, the more I continue being myself and even learn, for example, to make people laugh in Finnish, the more I wonder how necessary words even are. I do think I’m keener on speaking more simply and directly now. Though that is probably much to do with picking up Finnish character traits as anything.
LM: In your memoir, you write about the repetition involved in being a chef. And especially around language:
I learned pretty quickly that I needed to get over myself and shout “yes, chef” with the same enthusiasm as everyone else. I did feel silly. I felt like I hadn’t earned it somehow. But I learned to ignore my feelings and, after enough repetition, I even got used to it. It just became another word.
Eventually, once I moved to Stockholm, “yes, chef” turned into “ja, tack”.
Maybe that made it easier for me. The distance of another language.
Can you talk about how working in another language changed you and changed how you view English? Are you a different you in a language other than your native one?
Wil: These are, of course, two different things. Working in Sweden in Swedish, a language I had never learned, I was entirely distanced from the words and their meaning. To say ‘ja tack’ was to say something largely meaningless to me that satisfied a job requirement. I felt silly saying ‘yes chef’ because I felt like a fraud when I did. I never felt like a fraud saying ja tack because it meant nothing to me in any real sense.
Speaking Finnish is very different. I am at the point I’m not constantly translating the words anymore. The words have access to their own meanings within me now. I’m still working out if those meanings amount to a different version of myself. I like to think they might do. Possibly even a better version. But that remains to be seen.
LM: Talk about your migration From the UK to Sweden and then from Sweden to Finland.
Wil: The move from UK to Sweden was very exciting. It was a new start in many ways: both a new country and a new career as a cook in front of me. It was a very smooth process. I think the many hours I spent in restaurant kitchens as opposed to the outside world itself perhaps reduced any possible culture shock.
The move to Finland was different. I was moving with my wife of 3 years and two kids to a country I already felt like I knew. In a way, it felt more like coming home.
LM: How has moving changed how you feel about Finland? Did you have preconceived notions that were confirmed or dispelled?
Wil: After many years being part of a Finnish family and a fair bit of time spent in Finland, I think I had an idea of what I could expect. A very cold place, people that are a little less talkative than Brits or Swedes, a little more reserved. But what I learnt is how warm and welcoming and generous Finns can be behind that slightly tough exterior. I’d always known my parents-in-law to be like this, but the more I dealt with other Finns, the more I saw it widely as well. I was also pleasantly shocked by how much investment is given to integrating foreigners like me. On arriving I signed up for a 10 month integration course that included paid benefits and free language training.
LM: How has moving changed how you think about the UK?
Wil: I don’t want to be the guy who leaves and goes on to criticize his old home. Instead I’ll say this: I have come to learn that silence and reservation doesn’t mean a lack of affection in Finland. But on returning to the UK, I do so enjoy how strangers in shop queues make friendly small talk. That’s almost non-existent in Finland.
Wil Reidie at work
LM: You worked in marketing and then became a chef at world-renowned Michelin restaurants. What prompted the career change?
Wil: I’d never had much interest in marketing, but having gone to university it seemed like the right kind of job to do. When I met my future wife, I realized all that mattered was our being together. That gave me the confidence to do whatever the hell I wanted in life.
LM: How was the process of retraining? Especially given you’d already been working and had an established career?
Wil: It was great fun. At culinary school I was put into a slightly older group of students, most of us career changers. I was the youngest one in the group which also made me feel good at the time. I made the very sensible choice of working weekends at a London Michelin-starred restaurant when I was training weekdays at school. This made all the difference to me. While my fellow “mature” (and frequently stubborn) students occasionally got into little arguments and squabbles over who was doing enough washing up, I understood how that just wouldn’t stand in a professional kitchen. I learned quicker about the importance of teamwork and getting on with the job above all else.
LM: Do you see similarities between marketing and cooking at the top restaurants in the world?
Wil: Not in any particularly profound way. Cooking is harder and much more fun.
LM: Why did you return to marketing?
Wil: I had a young child, and a baby on the way. I needed to do something that required fewer weekends and evenings at work. It made perfect sense to jump back in to marketing.
LM: Can you talk about how you approach writing a recipe versus writing a memoir and newsletter? What do they share and not share?
Wil: A recipe is a practical thing for me. The artistry of the words is secondary to making it easy to follow so the reader can get the best result. Memoir is of course very different. I don’t want to just tell a story with my memoir work, I want to elicit a feeling through both form and content. This is where the two things cross over and why I feel food and recipes can function much like art. Through memoir I want a reader to feel how I once felt. A recipe, in a similar way, works to make a reader know a dish, a flavour, as I know it. Both things are concerned with sharing lived experiences.
LM: One of things I love about reading recipes is that often they are part memoir, part geography, part history lesson. I also admire the way food writers write about the senses and in particular texture.
Wil: This is definitely where the artistry of the words of recipes is important and it is something I enjoy doing occasionally, though I feel my style is to keep recipes separate from my food writing/memoir work.
LM: Lastly, pick a recipe that sums up you and your philosophy of food.
Wil: This one is a good example. Simple but with thoughtful steps to make the most of the ingredients.