How Helsinki sparked a restaurant revolution

Published on: Monday, October 27, 2014

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Gavin Haines visits an abandoned abattoir in Helsinki, which is changing the concept of eating out for millions of diners.

An arctic breeze blasts down the streets of Helsinki. Snow tries to fall. Once again, the Finnish capital is succumbing to winter. Fortunately for me I’m holed up in a distillery, warming my cockles with liberal measures of liquor – gin, whisky and applejack – which are being free-poured by an excitable Kai Kilpinen.

Looking dapper in his tweed jacket, Kai has every reason to be excited. Over the summer he and his pals, Mikko Mykkänen and Seámus Holohan, made history by bringing the ancient art of distilling back to Helsinki after an absence of nearly 100 years.

This hiatus is a legacy of prohibition, which was enforced when Finland became independent from Russia.

“Between 1919 and 1932 we had prohibition,” explains Kai. “People were only allowed alcohol for medical purposes – so there were a lot of sick people.”

Since a referendum ended prohibition, the Finnish spirits industry has remained bereft of innovation. But from this disused power station in the city’s up-and-coming Kallio district, Kai and his pals are hoping to change that.

Their start-up has already won a blind taste test with its gin, beating the likes of Hendrix and Bombay Sapphire. Helsinki’s bars are aquiver.

But aside from the distillery’s gleaming copper stills, the rest of the facility still looks, well, like a derelict power station: broken glass sits in peeling window frames; brickwork crumbles. But next summer the lads plan to renovate the rest of the space into a bar, where visitors can sample their artisan booze.

There are even plans for a sauna in the old chimney stack. “It’s going to be heated by the waste from our whisky production,” says Seámus, who moved to Helsinki from Cork, Ireland. “It’s going to be the world’s first whisky-powered sauna.”

Restaurant revolution

The Helsinki Distilling Company is the latest food and drink start-up to open in The Abattoir, a new culinary hub in Helsinki, which, as the name implies, occupies a former slaughterhouse (the distillery was the abattoir’s power plant).

Dating back to 1933, the facility was built in the days when industrial architects cared as much about style as they did substance. The red brick building is reminiscent of the glory days of European industry and, to stop it falling into disrepair, city officials decided to invite entrepreneurs to pitch for premises within the complex.

The authorities could have talked to Nandos or another homogenous chain (they probably would have in other cities), but instead they decided to open the door for innovation.

“They had this idea that they wanted to create a food hub – something like Borough Market in London,” says Seámus. “They wanted to attract some of the edgier independent businesses.”

So they helped with the renovation, kept rents low and invited businesses to sell their ideas in a sort of Dragons’ Den pitch. Today The Abattoir is home to an ever-growing list of eateries, as well as pioneering businesses such as the distiller and Jädelino, an award-winning ice-cream maker.

The Abattoir is part of a wider gentrification process happening in Kallio, a once rundown industrial district that’s being revitalised with new bars, cafés and, this being Finland, saunas.

“When I was studying, students came to live in Kallio but went to the city centre to party,” explains Kai. “Now there’s lots of cool places to go around here.”

Independent businesses, particularly food outlets, are at the heart of this regeneration, which has gathered momentum since the launch of Restaurant Day in 2011.

“Restaurant day is the biggest food carnival in the world – and it started in Helsinki,” says Johanna Rönnlöf, Communications Officer at City of Helsinki. “It’s a time when anyone in the city can set up a restaurant – in their living room, garden, attic or wherever – without needing any permission.”

Since 2011 more than 35 countries have developed a taste for Restaurant Day, which has spawned an estimated 14,000 restaurants and catered for approximately 1.6 million diners.

“Everyone can get involved, even if you live in an apartment,” says Johanna. “I have seen people selling sandwiches in buckets and lowering them down from their windows.”

The next Restaurant Day will be taking place on 15 November and Johanna says The Abattoir will be a hotbed of one-off eateries.

“We are offering space in our courtyard for free so there will be many restaurants,” says Johanna. And if visitors don’t like what’s on the menu?

“There’s a public grill in the courtyard,” says Johanna. “People can just come and cook a sausage.”

NEED TO KNOW

Getting there
Finnair (www.finnair.com) fly daily from London Heathrow to Helsinki Vantaa Airport.

Where to stay
Located on the edge of up-and-coming Kallio, the Scandic Paasi (tel: +358 9 231 1700; www.scandichotels.com) has a rooftop sauna, comfortable rooms and excellent links into the city centre. Alternatively fall asleep in the timeless Nordic elegance of Hotel Kämp (tel: +358 9 576 111; www.hotelkamp.com), which is located in the heart of Helsinki.

Where to eat
Kellohalli (tel: +358 50 339 5400; www.kellohalli.fi) serves excellent fare at affordable prices in The Abattoir, and coffee for just €1. In between shooting films, the talented guys at Flavour Studio (tel: +358 40 021 1921; www.flavour-studio.com) are serving fine Nordic fare, also in The Abattoir.

Further information
The Abattoir (tel: +358 40 765 9387; www.teurastamo.com)
Visit Finland (www.visitfinland.com)
Restaurant Day (www.restaurantday.org)
Helsinki Distilling Company (www.hdco.fi)