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He booked a one-way ticket to Thailand the day after finishing high school. Now he’s a top Bangkok chef

<i>Courtesy Villa Frantzén Restaurant & Bar via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Oyster with smoked cream and nutty sea buckthorn oil.
Courtesy Villa Frantzén Restaurant & Bar via CNN Newsource
Oyster with smoked cream and nutty sea buckthorn oil.

By Philipp Meier, CNN

Bangkok (CNN) — Nilas Corneliussen doesn’t need much sleep. In fact, the 32-year-old finds it unsettling when a city turns quiet at night.

“I’m both a night and morning person,” says the Swedish-born executive head chef of Nordic-Asian fusion restaurant Villa Frantzen, one of only two Nordic restaurants in Thailand’s capital.

“I much prefer to be in a dynamic city that never sleeps, and Bangkok gives me that.”

But while Thailand had long appealed to him, even in his youth, Corneliussen says he never imagined a career in cooking.

Instead, he was drawn to Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, the striking art known for beautiful sequences of powerful punches, ax-like knees and elbows followed by lightning-fast kicks.

It was that instant confirmation of being better than his opponent that absorbed him; that immediate result based on ability and skill. On high school breaks, he even traveled solo to Thailand to join Muay Thai training camps.

“During those trips, I fell in love with the country,” Corneliussen tells CNN Travel.

But that frisson of excitement – it wasn’t to be. After sustaining a hand injury while boxing, he was forced to move on from Muay Thai. However he didn’t stop thinking about Thailand.

Out of the ring and into the classroom

The very day after graduating from high school in Sweden, Corneliussen booked a one-way ticket to Bangkok and applied for a study visa.

“That’s how I ended up studying economics, because I needed a way to get a visa to be able to stay,” he grins mischievously.

It wasn’t until halfway through his studies, from 2010-2014, that he was inspired by a fellow student and friend who “ran local Thai eateries, nothing fancy.”

Still, there was something inside of him that was drawn to the experience.

“The atmosphere inside the kitchen fascinated me – everyone has to come together to make it happen,” Corneliussen recalls.

At the time, the chef didn’t think he could pursue his new passion for cooking in Thailand. Instead, he thought it would be best to go back to his roots and understand the flavors he’d grown up with before cooking anything else, so he finished his studies and moved back to Europe.

It’s a view he doesn’t agree with today.

“No cooking style is more important than another,” says Corneliussen.

“The broad spectrum you gain from exploring cuisines from all over the world is what lends every chef a unique skill set and better fundament for creation. That’s why, after working in different kitchens, I became interested in Asian cuisines.”

Starting out in a Stockholm trattoria, he honed his skills and earned a place in Michelin-starred restaurant Noma in Copenhagen – voted world’s best restaurant for several years. In 2019, he won the silver in the Bocuse d’Or, the world’s most prestigious international cooking competition, as part of the Swedish team.

Despite those successes, he knew he wanted to return to Asia to pursue his passion for culinary arts.

In 2022, Corneliussen made the move to the Villa Frantzen, which opened that same year, where he showcases casual Nordic food with Asian influences in a series of set menus.

“In Thailand, I get this feeling of belonging and connection to the people, food and culture,” he says, recalling his first days as an expat in the Thai Kingdom.

“It was just amazing. It was like living in paradise every day. I hate cold weather!”

Villa Frantzen: Nordic cuisine with Asian influences

Part of the Frantzen Group, a restaurant empire owned by famed chef and former footballer Björn Frantzen, Villa Frantzen is located in Bangkok’s Sathorn Road area.

The oak-scented Nordic-style villa, with its open kitchen, is surrounded by the garden’s bubbling mini-waterfalls and snuggled against a giant Jamjuree tree, evoking a sense of warmth and nostalgia. It also sparks Corneliussen’s creativity.

Engaging in a labor of love, the former Thai boxer cooks dishes thick in consistency, like the amber, richly flavorful beef consommé and creamy foie gras wontons, which taste like venison-flavored butter with hints of liver.

And while people have slurped oysters directly out of their shells before, the Nordic-Asian version, spiced up with a pumpkin condiment, might be alien to their tongues. What’s special about this juicy oyster with smoked cream and nutty sea buckthorn oil is that it’s cooked at 63.4 degrees Celsius for an hour.

“If I find something that I like, I can spend days on that,” says Corneliussen of his creative process.

“And I can go a long time with few hours of sleep a night. I don’t know what it is. I go to bed late, wake up, and feel fresh.”

Even when he’s off work, he doesn’t spend time in bed; he goes out exploring Bangkok.

“I’m an introverted extrovert; very outgoing and social with people I know and like,” says the chef.

“In larger groups, I refrain from stealing the spotlight. But in the kitchen, I have to be more commanding.”

As for the future of Bangkok’s restaurant scene?

“It’ll be booming even more,” says Corneliussen when asked what to expect in the next five years.

“There’s a lot of big names coming in, and young chefs are opening their eateries … I think you have to be sharp and relevant, and that pushes restaurants.”

It’s now been more than a decade since Corneliussen first set his sights on Bangkok, and he acknowledges that his career path was unusual – and anything but easy.

“Taking the leap from studying economics to entering the kitchen was risky and demanding,” he says.

“Instead of a joyful youth, the last 10 years have been filled with hard work and dedication to hone my culinary skills.”

But it certainly panned out – particularly given his feelings for cold weather.

“It’s a blessing to have summer every day,” he laughs.

Villa Frantzén – Restaurant & Bar, 7 Soi Yen Akat 3, Chong Nonsi, Bangkok; +66 (0)87 344 8222.

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