INTERVIEW

The Proud Roar of Trondheim

A quaint wooden house on Carl Johans street, typical to Trondheim’s midtown, is not only home to one of the city’s cherished restaurants. It is also home to one of its most staunch apostles, Roar Hildonen.

You need not go further back than 2018. If asked what Trondheim had to offer visitors, most locals would be quick to recommend the majestic Nidaros Cathedral or the Trampe bicycle lift. But as swiftly as the electric bicycle conquered the city’s uphills, so did Trondheim rise to Michelin stardom. With the outside acclaim came a newfound culinary self-confidence. Today locals will be as likely to suggest visitors try the mussels as the museums.

Acclaim may sometimes come at the speed of starlight. But make no mistake! A city that deserves it is not built overnight. Long before Michelin and the world’s foodies discovered Trondheim’s culinary qualities, Roar Hildonen was one of the city’s most staunch apostles, championing both people and produce. Be it a young apprentice, a local creamery or even a competing restaurant, Hildonen has long recognized and given them their well deserved prominence. For 40 some years he has worked his way up in the city’s restaurant industry –busboy to restaurateur – building his own career brick by brick and Trondheim as a distinguished food region stone by stone. The besuited, sociable and esteemed nestor has made it his life’s mission to spread the good word. 

“Twenty-five years ago I had colleagues in Oslo who urged me to move down there. They could not wrap their heads around why I worked in this–in their eyes–culinary hillbilly town,” Hildonen reminisces with a chuckle. 

“I told them they would be wise to move up here instead. To where we have the world’s best produce!”

Yes, Hildonen characterizes the Trøndelag region just like that. Without a pinch of humility, but an inescapable aura of authority.

“Trondheim has world class shellfish two hours west. It has world class reindeer two hours south. And it has farmlands, forests and mountains with world class everything else in between. We have kept on telling people that. And after shaking that ketchup bottle for many years, it seems like everything is suddenly coming out at once. Today the Oslo-papers are writing articles about how Trondheim is the place to be.”

They are not alone in directing their attention to Trondheim. Media outlets and bloggers from around the world have started spreading the good word about the original viking capital and its blooming restaurant flora. Places such as sustainability leader Credo, Fagn, Røst, Speilsalen, Bula Neobistro, Kraft Bodega, Spontan and Sellanraa are just some of those who have raised both the standard and caught the attention of the outside world. Aside from Credo, they have all opened their doors in only the past five years, though. Twenty years ago the groundwork for them to succeed was in large parts laid by one establishment in particular.

Two Rooms and a Kitchen

By its straightforward name it may sound like an establishment that is neither more nor less. But describing Hildonen’s classic Nordic-French restaurant, To Rom og Kjøkken (Two Rooms and a Kitchen) as merely an eatery does not do it justice. In 2005 his co-partner, Aleksander Skjefte and Hildonen opened the restaurant with an outspoken goal of adding a new type of high-end restaurant to Trondheim, with emphasis on local ingredients and fostering new talents in a competitive environment. 

“Two Rooms and a Kitchen was one of the pioneers in Trondheim when it came to cooking with local produce. There is no doubt that it played a central part in strengthening Trondheim and the whole region,” says former apprentice Adrian Leer Breiby.

If you ask anyone with a foot inside the industry today, they will describe Two Rooms and a Kitchen as an institution. A new generation of talented chefs, waiters and sommeliers–even a few restaurant owners–has sprouted from that quaint wooden house. Many of them can not even remember the city without it.

“I do not think there are many restaurants in Norway that has bred as many apprentices,” says restaurant manager, Oskar Sköld of Spontan Vinbar.

“Pride in vocational education is important, yet too scarce. Roar and his team work every day to promote exactly that.”

Taking in apprentices is one thing; it is always good to have an extra pair of eager hands. But the fact that all apprentices from the restaurant passed their exams, and that ten of them did so with merit, now that is a true testament to a nurturing and motivating environment. 

Hildonen cares about local food and produce with great passion. But his ability to make others care will likely be as important a legacy.

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Roar Hildonen, To Rom og Kjøkken

It is not only those seeking a career path who get to develop their skills at Two Rooms and a Kitchen. Every Saturday at noon, chefs from the restaurant hold food courses that are open to both curious novices and keen enthusiasts. A course is often on a preset topic–game, sauce, sheep, seafood and so on–and at the end participants get to enjoy a three course meal. There are also wine courses for those who are interested in grapes, soil, climate and of course tasting.

Beyond just being another item on the menu, the food- and wine courses also play an important part in Hildonen’s greater mission. A food destination can not base itself on visitors alone. Hildonen explains:

“I want Trondheim to be a great place to live, not just visit. When people appreciate good food and go out more, they have higher expectations. In turn, that leads to better competition and a wider range of cafés, bars and restaurants. We all gain from that, I believe.”

True to Concept

Hildonen has certainly gotten his long called for competition. And with more restaurants popping up each year, even a cherished favourite needs to adjust in order to stay relevant. Their style of cooking is more in tune with the New Nordic Cuisine today, than what was the case 15 years ago. Yet still: The wave of exposed concrete, monstera plants and food served on pieces of driftwood has not hit Two Rooms and a Kitchen. They have adjusted while staying true to their core philosophy. And all of a sudden an old classic has become the new outsider. 

“We have held onto the white table cloths and smartly dressed waiters. That is how we stand out. Since our guests still dress up before coming to us, it is natural that we greet them in an equal fashion.”

Staying true to concept for 15 years might not make you the hottest on Pinterest. But carefully maturing a quality product for that long will result in something else. At Two Rooms and a Kitchen that something else is a classic and complete restaurant experience, for all the senses. Great quality food and wine, well thought of acoustics and lighting, skilled and friendly staff, plus the jovial grand old man of Trondheim’s restaurant industry, all do their part in making your experience one to come back to.