April 18, 2019
STRANGER: Mikko Kosonen
LOCATION: Mikko, 1636 R Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Learning about Nordic food at a former embassy chef’s restaurant
On a regular weekday, Mikko Kosonsen could use a break; he’s putting in 16-hour days juggling a long-established catering company and his relatively new Nordic restaurant Mikko. On the weekday I meet him, he’s days away from the venue’s one-year anniversary May 1.
“It’s very tiring sometimes,” he says, closing his eyes briefly as if to catch a millisecond nap. “Last week I had a 170-people wedding, and I was also the best man, a 60-people thing at the Austrian Embassy, and the night before we did events at the EU Embassy, the Lithuanian Embassy, and a sit-down dinner with a guy who used to be very high up in the World Bank,” he adds, then stares off in the distance in mock horror at the memories. “I almost lost my belief in the whole thing.”
Then the edges of his mouth curve up, and his expression looks like one of a man happily resigned to his fate. He has ambitious plans for Mikko’s birthday, looking to expand the restaurant’s capacity at its current location so he can help more people discover the joys of Finnish food. “It’s tiring, but still fun. And I’m looking forward to the second year.”
Mikko is 49 but his cheery, youthful face makes him look much younger. He speaks in a relaxed manner, as if talking to an old friend, with his Finnish accent still evident. When we meet at his restaurant on a mild Thursday evening, he’s wearing a t-shirt with the Mikko logo: red, white and blue triangles that form a square, the colors taken from flags of Nordic countries.
The same tricolor scheme covers the front of the three-story building in which the restaurant calls the ground floor home. A patio filled with eye-catching blue, red and yellow metal chairs and tables leads inside to a display case of the day’s freshly made pastries, sandwiches and other snacks. Nearby is a shelf with Nordic items for sale. On the day I’m there I see Mikko’s brand of rye crisps, mugs featuring the Moomins (Finnish children’s comic book characters), imported chocolates, and copies of a DC-based suspense thriller by locally based Finnish author Mika Hentunen.
Following Mikko through to the back of the restaurant, I see a counter with six seats that looks into the compact kitchen, where a handful of workers are in constant motion.
Our tour even includes a peek in the bathroom, which evokes saunas with its cedar cabinets and plant plots, and a picture hanging of the wall of an actual sauna. Mikko says that a future dream is to convert the second floor of the building (he owns it) to install one.
As we head back outside to sit down, dine and talk, I start by asking what prompted the decision to open a Nordic restaurant in the District. He answers simply: “Because nobody else was doing it.”
Now Mikko’s doing it. He opened the restaurant on May 1, 2018, and is preparing for a party to celebrate its one-year anniversary. Among the highlights of launching Mikko, he says, are his neighbors and other people in the Dupont Circle neighborhood.
Mikko has a solid contingent of regulars, whether popping in for morning coffee and pastries or an evening meal. From the minute we sit down, returning patrons stop by our table to say hello to the chef and will do so throughout our meal. He greets them all warmly, by name, remembering minor details as he asks for updates on their life. And this natural hospitality isn’t just for the repeat visitors, because he offers the same welcoming charm to first-time diners.
If he succeeds with his plans for the restaurant’s future, even more people will get to experience the joy of meeting Mikko and eating his food. He’s got his eye on renovating the second floor of the building once the current tenant leaves, which will open significant space for new chairs and tables. And he’s still figuring out what to do with the location’s large basement.
Our meal starts with a fish soup cocktail, one of several beverages that show off the Scandinavian spirit Aquavit. “When we opened last year, we applied for our liquor license and got it right away and then we had to figure out of cocktails,” Mikko says, the royal “we” referring to him and his partner Rob, who works for the government but is also a constant presence at the restaurant.
“We decided to base all of them on Aquavit because we wanted to be a little different. We were mixing Aquavit with everything, trying to find something nice. And so I thought let’s put some lemon, some cucumber and sparkly water, crack some junipers in, and some dill, and see where that goes,” he says, pointing to the drink in front of me.
I take a sip. Very refreshing, the lemon kicks in first before the cucumber makes an entrance, but both in a subtle way that blends well together. I praise the drink, and he smiles. “We had 80 people at our opening party and served that drink and people are still talking about it.”
Mikko is also prompting District residents to talk about Nordic food, and he’s eager to promote the healthy, clean dishes of his home region instead of the tired old jokes about unappetizing food. “I don’t know why Finland got that reputation,” he says with a shrug. “I think maybe it’s just people haven’t tried it before, or they’re thinking of serving herring in America with a heavy cream sauce that makes it mushy. But we have fresh herring and it is the most delicious thing.”
When I ask him to describe the typical flavors of Finnish food, he says you can usually find dill, fennel, anything with a “licorice-y” taste, but always relatively basic ingredients and preparation. “I try to keep things to five ingredients, no recipe will have something like 25 ingredients.”
Smoking produce is one of his favorite practices, whether it’s meat, fish or vegetables. “I have a smoker here,” he says, looking in the direction of the kitchen. “I smoke all my salmon, sometimes the mushrooms for mushroom soup, or potatoes for potato salad, apples, chicken, duck breast, lamb, beef, pork, anything, you name it, everything can go in the smoker.”
Mikko has lost count of the number of times people have resisted trying Nordic food but then dined at his establishment and become instant fans. “I’ve been able to market the cleanliness, the healthiness, we eat lots of fish, berries, mushrooms; people try it and they think it’s pretty good.”
Count me among those people, because I’m won over with the first dish.
Our friendly water sets down two bowls of soup. The first is a fish soup (a real one this time, not another cocktail). Mikko describes it as a simple creation, potato and onion based with water and dill, and a dash of butter added at the end. Floating alongside the potatoes are generous chunks of perfectly cooked salmon and cod, but the overall taste is pleasantly mild, there’s nothing overwhelmingly fishy about this fish soup. “We try to keep this very light when summer comes, so less potatoes and more stock. I have lots of people who come here just for this.”
The other soup I’m trying is a pea soup, one of the best I’ve ever had. I tell Mikko this and he responds modestly, describing it as “nothing special” — though it’s obvious that he puts a lot of care into creating his menu, including this blend of spring peas, water and cream.
Mikko’s not eating and is instead watching me try a sample of his menu, talking me through his creations. And so while I eat, I pepper him with questions about his life, eager to learn how a boy from a Finnish port city ends up in DC after a long history working for diplomats. Thankfully, he’s a great interviewee, open, honest, friendly and just as eager to tell his story.
He was born in 1969 in the small municipality of Pyhtää and raised in the port city of Kotka, about an hour and half from Helsinki. Mikko’s hometown was by the Baltic Sea, so fresh fish was on regular rotation in the family’s kitchen, as well as locally picked berries and mushrooms. “My dad was more interested in cooking than my mom, but my mom did most of the cooking,” he says. Saturdays were for baking, including cinnamon rolls, cardamom buns and rye bread.
When Mikko was 12, his grandmother on his mother’s side suggested that he spend the summer working at a restaurant the family owned in Stockholm. “She said to come do the dishes, and I went, and it was like, you know what, that’s what I want to do, I want to work in a restaurant — obviously not doing dishes forever, but I liked what working in a restaurant was all about. Wow, it was a whole new world, because we didn’t really go to restaurants growing up.”
The family’s restaurant, which opened in 1954 and is still in operation, was run at the time by what he Mikko calls “really hardcore chefs, and my aunt was one of them.”
He took on more tasks, returned the following summer with even more responsibilities, and then another summer. The chefs gave him valuable experience learning how to taste and cook, and eventually Mikko realized he’d found his future profession. He signed up for culinary school, which took three years of study and another year to formally become a chef.
After graduation in the late 1980s, Mikko got a job at a renowned fish restaurant in Helsinki. He worked there until it was time to do his mandatory army service in Finland, working as a cook. During his time in the army he was stationed with peacekeeping forces in Lebanon and Syria. “Damascus back then was so interesting, it had fabulous food, and amazing spices in the marketplaces. And now you look at it,” he says sadly of the current state of the country.
Eventually he returned to Finland and got a job working as the chef at the Finnish embassy in Lithuania in November 1993. He was thrown in at the deep end from the beginning, tasked with creating a menu for a dinner to celebrate Finnish Independence Day on December 6.
“When I arrived in Lithuania it was very nasty; rainy and cold. The ambassador’s wife gave me some rubber boots and told me we’re going shopping,” he recalls. Choices were limited to simple vegetables and meat, testing his creativity to make the embassy’s food exciting.
Mikko worked in Lithuania for almost two years, then worked at a restaurant in France. That’s where he discovered he’s allergic to shellfish, after his fingers swelled and bled after handling shrimp. His next job was a return to his family’s Stockholm restaurant and he worked there until he was hired to cook for the Swedish diplomat in Washington, DC in 1996. When I ask him what inspired the move from Europe to America, Mikko shrugs and says, “I thought why not?”
One year later he went to work for Finland’s ambassador to the United States as the diplomat’s resident chef and held that position through several ambassadors. “Once the fourth ambassador came and kept me on I realized that if I was going to do anything else with my life I had to leave. If I did one more ambassador I would just have retired there, because it was a very nice job, very high-level people, nice parties, and you have access to lots of interesting things.”
Wanting to try something new, Mikko launched a catering company in 2013. Through his extensive work history he’d developed an impressive list of diplomatic contacts and was soon catering for embassy parties around the city — something he still does today. “Just last week I had the spring meeting of the World Bank, the EU, Austrian, Finnish embassies. It was pretty brutal.”
When Mikko started his business there wasn’t much kitchen space in town, though one year later Union Kitchen opened with commercial kitchen space for nascent food businesses. His catering company was a fast hit, though he found the long drive from Union Kitchen’s Northeast location to clients in Virginia frustrating and inefficient. He wanted to base his company somewhere closer to his house, and eventually found the building that now houses his restaurant.
In a prior life the building was a Chinese restaurant. Once Mikko took it over he was inspired to launch a café in addition to operating his catering business out of the same location. “All these years I had been in DC and been wondering why there’s nothing Nordic. In Helsinki or Finland you have all these independent cafes, so I thought why not try to do the same here with morning pastries, soups, sandwiches, and in the evening do a few specials,” he says.
I’m about to try two more of those specials, my mouth watering as the entrees arrive.
Short ribs are served alongside vegetables a top a pillow of mashed potato. Mikko says this dish has been a hit during the District’s extended cold spell, but that the arrival of warmer weather means this menu item will likely soon disappear. “Rob said people are going to be unhappy when that happens,” he says with a laugh. I have to agree with his partner, because I’m a fan with the first bite. Which becomes a second, third, fourth and more bites until the plate is clean.
The second entrée is seared cod, served with mushrooms, flattened potatoes with the skins still on, and a bed of pea and asparagus puree. “I try to always have two fish choices on the menu,” Mikko tells me as I tuck into the top-notch cod. “With this one I put mushrooms because living in Finland they are such a big part of everything, I use them for the whole year.”
Mikko’s story, and his explanation of the dishes tonight, are part of his broader narrative encouraging people to try Nordic food. “I see my role as introducing something new to the general public,” he says. “I was doing that in my 16 years at the embassy, but that was just to a very select group. Now I get people from DC, Maryland and Virginia trying something new.”
He’s excited for the summer, which he says is his favorite season for cooking because of the fresh fruits and vegetables that become available. “That’s when you get new potatoes that you don’t even need to peel, you just poach then boil for a little, and serve with some herring and it’s the most delicious thing,” Mikko says. “Then the strawberries come out in June, and then the blueberries come right after. And July is crawfish season, even though I can’t eat them anymore.”
Our dinner interview is almost over, though Mikko says he’ll be at the restaurant until much later in the evening. “I just got an email two hours ago saying someone needs pastries for 25 people by 9.15 tomorrow morning,” he tells me of his latest catering order. It explains why the successful chef is still putting in 16-hour workdays, and why he finds it tiring sometimes.
But the enthusiasm with which Mikko talks about food, and the joy on his face when he sees me and others enjoying his Nordic treats, help to explain why he persists with it. And as he prepares to celebrate the restaurant’s birthday, he’s optimistic about the future, saying his experiences with the highs and lows of year one will help make year two even better. “I think the second year is going to be easier because I know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be fun.”