Since transitioning from hardcore to the ambient/instrumental scene in 2004, Ólafur Arnalds’ reams deep CV has included its fair share of twists and turns. There are his three solo albums, full of haunting piano lines and electric loops. Kiasmos, the pure electro/dance project he shares with pal Janus Rasmussen. Scoring the BBC series Broadchurch, a project that’s now three seasons and one BAFTA deep. Most recently he even found time to record and produce Island Songs, the film/album project documenting his time recording with seven different artists in seven different locations around his native Iceland. (“It was an inspiring experience, to look at other people’s lives and how they see this thing that I do for a living,” Arnalds enthuses of his time on the road.)
Given his history, one would expect continued diversity in Arnalds’ career. One would not expect…potatoes. But as co-owner of Reykjavík Chips, the city’s premiere spot for thick-cut, crispy Belgium fries, the musician was the driving force behind delivering salty, spud-filled goodness to his hometown. Open just over a year, the fries-only restaurant has been a hit — so much in fact, that during recent busy nights at Iceland Airwaves they resorted to exclusively selling small-sized chip cones to better meet demand. (Many hungry patrons simply ordered two.)
Ever the fan of potatoes (and junk food of all kinds, really), we caught up Arnalds to talk cross-cultural culinary appreciation, the surprising history of the Icelandic pizza and the tricks of surviving as a vegetarian on tour.
Paste: What was your first introduction to Belgium chips?
Ólafur Arnalds: I was on tour in Belgium. They’re actually something that people eat there for dinner! They actually do that. “Mom, what’s for dinner?” “Fries.” That’s a thing in Belgium. I was fascinated by that. I like fries, and I was always ashamed that they don’t get the respect they deserve. They’re not just a side dish, they’re real food if you do it properly. The Belgians do. You can select all these different toppings and they have mixed ones. They even put meat on them sometimes, even though I don’t eat that. So after a couple of times in Belgium we started always changing our riders when we’d play a Belgian show. We’d put a sentence in there that after the show there would have to be a lot of chips and at least five different sauces for the crew. Any sauces. They can select. We always wanted to experiment. Back then I said to my players and my crew, “We need to bring this to Iceland.” Icelandic people deserve to know what chips can really be! Not just frozen shit you buy at the supermarket and put in the microwave. That was the start of the whole thing, eight years ago.
Paste: So when did it turn from “We have to do this!” to “Oh we actually can do this?”
OA: I don’t want to be a restaurant manager, I’m a musician. I like my job and I don’t want to quit it to manage a chip shop. So basically my idea was to buy a food truck. I was looking for someone, like a friend who needed a job and could actually do the thing. When I was telling this idea to Friðrik Dór Jónsson, he’s an R&B pop singer in Iceland. One of the most popular people here. I was talking about this to him and he said, “That’s funny, a friend of mine just told me the same idea.” He wanted to start a place like this, but he was looking for an investor to help him do it. He actually became an owner too. So it became me, an R&B singer, and an actor who own this. Icelandic people love junk food. Not that this is junk food of any sort. This is quality stuff. They like fat.
Paste: Was the initial response to Reykjavik Chips?
OA: People fell in love with it. Initially we spent a month perfecting the recipe. It’s hard to make chips really good, because we first had to find the right potatoes. A good brand this year can be shit six months later because they had too much rain or whatever. So we had to find the right farms to work with, but we couldn’t do it with Icelandic farms because Icelandic potatoes are tiny. So we have import them. So we talked to a few different farms in Europe. That whole process was long and tedious. Just to get all the ingredients. And then we made eleven different sauces. All our sauces are homemade—they’re all our own recipes. When we announced this on Facebook, all the news and media, they actually talked about this because everyone thought it was so ridiculous that Friðrik Dór and Ólafur Arnalds, the classical composer, were opening a chip shop together. We were really lucky with that. We had so much press in the first few weeks that on our opening day, we ran out of potatoes by noon and we had to close. There was a line out the door and down the street. It was like that for a few weeks. It was instant hit.
Paste: So during that month before the launch, what was your job?
OA: They were trying different sauces and different temperatures of frying. They go through this process. They have a trick to make them extra crispy by pre-boiling them, instantly cooling them so the liquid goes out and they become sweeter. Then they cool them again and fry them again. That whole process took a while to perfect. It was great! I don’t want to take credit for anyone of it, because I didn’t do shit. But I went there and ate fries and told people my opinion. That was the whole reason for why I did this. I just wanted to be able to get those fries down my street. Just walk over and eat.
Paste: What’s your favorite sauce?
OA: We have a vegan cashew sauce, which is good. There’s a thing called Hannibal. It’s made from pickles. Almost nobody likes it. But I like it.
Paste: A lot of people associate fries with drunk food. Have you found that to be the case?
OA: That is true. We, however, consciously avoid trying to be that place. We’re not open after 11:00. We wanted people to take this people to take this seriously. We didn’t want this just to be the place where people go when they’re drunk. So we close early.
Paste: When you’ve had one too many what kind of food to you go for?
OA: I’m actually not much of a drunk eater. After a long night I like to not eat and go home to sleep. But if I would, I would have a falafel. Or fries. I live right next to the best falafel place in Reykjavik. Mandi. It’s some cool Syrian immigrants who run this place. It’s so lovely and fun to go there.
Paste: What food do you turn to after a truly crappy day?
OA: I’m a pizza guy. My friends still make fun of me for having eating nothing but pizza margheritas since I was 14. Only recently I started branching out and eating French fries as well. I survived.
Paste: Where can I get the best pizza in Reykjavik?
OA: I would say there are a few good places. There’s Gamla Smidjan. They do fire-baked pizzas. Weirdly, Dominos is actually really good in Iceland. There was actually a news story the other day about a Dominos place in Iceland, which is the best selling Dominos in the whole world. They don’t do the same recipe as in America. I tend to go for that too. There’s an app and everything. You don’t even have to speak to someone. They just come to your house and you don’t even have to pay. You pay thought the app. When you’re hung over it’s the most perfect thing. You don’t want to see anyone; you don’t want to talk to anyone. After they made the app their market share rose by 100 percent. That shows you what people really want in life.
Paste: Are there other foods you associate with childhood?
OA: No, I didn’t eat much as a kid. In Iceland we didn’t really have pizza. When I was a kid and my mom made pizza for my birthday party, a lot of kids hadn’t even tried pizza before. It arrived in the early 90s. Everyone was like “what’s this?” People thought it was funny that it was just bread with cheese. I was a pretty bad eater. I would just eat toast.
Paste: What other things do you look forward to eating while on tour?
OA: I try to try local stuff wherever I am. Being a vegetarian there’s always a fun game of finding vegetarian food wherever you are—which is easy in some countries and very difficult in other countries. There’s a lot of “I don’t eat meat” “But this is only pepperoni!” Or “that’s not meat, that’s fish!” So there are lot of those conversations, which gets tiring. But it’s a fun game for searching for who will point us toward vegetarian food. Southern Europeans haven’t even heard of vegetarianism. When you’re a vegetarian they respond with “Aww…are you okay? Is something wrong with you?” As a kid before we had vegetarian restaurants in Iceland I used to ask for a hot dog without the hot dog. It was actually great! I still like it. That’s the food that reminds me of my childhood. If I’m driving around the country and I stop at the gas station sometimes I still ask for a hot dog without the hot dog. Bread and ketchup. It’s wonderful.
Laura Studarus is a freelance culture writer. Sometimes she can go several hours without a cup of tea. Follow her on Twitter.