Amidst the constant stimulus of everyday life, nature can help to keep us grounded and connected to ourselves. This is what chef, food stylist and restaurateur, Mette Helbæk, discovered when she left the city of Copenhagen for the swedish wilderness.
After successfully running the award-winning rooftop restaurant, Stedsans ØsterGRO, in the Danish capital for a year with her husband, Mette decided that it was time for a change. Seeking respite from her urban existence, she and her family moved out to West Sweden in the Autumn of 2016. It was there that she co-founded Stedsans in the Woods, a tranquil, food-centered lifestyle lab deep in the forest of Halland.
With the opening of this new venture, the puzzle pieces of Mette’s life seemed to fit together again: she could express her love for plants, be close to her family and be immersed in nature simultaneously.
Running Stedsans in the Woods, however, turned out to be more than just a labour of love. It wasn’t until the stress of running this remote idyll began to impact her wellbeing that Mette started to look at herself, and her career, in a much different light.
Mette and her family have recently moved to a small Swedish town called Unnaryd, where her life has regained its stillness. Inspired by her love for plants and her belief in their healing properties, Mette is working on a new project, where she plans to build a plant medicine garden around her home.
Bringing what she learned from the nature in Sweden into her everyday life, Mette concentrates on living each day more peacefully and being wholly present in the moment. On an early Spring day, we chatted to Mette about how nature has guided her on her journey to find freedom and equilibrium.
When did you first discover your connection with nature?
I think it all started when I began working with food. The fine dining restaurant I worked at in my early twenties as a waitress had weekly deliveries of fresh, local vegetables from a guy called Søren Wiuff, who later became one of the main vegetable suppliers at Noma. He would bring us everything from tiny carrots to wild garlic to colorful radishes. This was where the inspiration to write my first cookbook, a guide to local vegetables, came from.
After the restaurant was sold, I realized I just couldn't cook anymore. My food just didn't taste the same because I was having to go to a supermarket to collect my vegetables instead of getting them locally from the fields. It was killing my creativity.
I decided that I wanted to make the amazing vegetables I had had experience working with in the restaurant available to ordinary people in Copenhagen. I wanted people to see how truly wonderful it is to cook with really great, natural ingredients. So, I opened an organic vegetable shop called Din Baghave in 2010.
At the time, I was just a chef who liked to cook food that tasted really good. But as soon as I began to search for vegetables to be stocked in my shop, I realized that the very best ones were grown in a way that was closer to how nature would do it. Vegetables grown in the wild, tended to by farmers who really cared, tasted, to me, so much better than the crops grown in big industrial farms. This just began a whole quest for me to further explore what nature had to offer.
What are the benefits of creating a close relationship with nature?
I think there is an explanation for why people are feeling more unhappy in society today: we are getting so disconnected from the nature around us. Nature and people are connected, and we need to be connected physically. For example, one of the things I learned when I was studying plant medicine in Guatemala is that plants have a better effect on you if they are grown in your garden, rather than if they are flown in from another country. Being in close proximity to plants helps you to get the most out of their healing properties.
When I and my husband opened our farm and restaurant, Stedsans ØsterGRO, in 2015, we chose to place it on top of a roof in the middle of the city in Copenhagen to help people get closer to nature.
The restaurant was placed in a greenhouse with colorful plants growing all the way around and we used the vegetables that we grew in the garden there in our cooking. We wanted people to be able to see and understand where the food on their plate was really coming from.
Our guests said that the minute they emerged from the stairs and placed their feet onto the rooftop farm they felt happier and more relaxed. It just had this effect on people. Even though we were still in the center of a big city, just having that closeness with nature really helped make people feel more content.
What inspired you to create your lifestyle retreat, Stedsans in the Woods?
Up until 2017, we had been living in Copenhagen running this magical restaurant on a rooftop but we decided to sell it all and follow our dream of creating something that would bring us even closer to nature. While the restaurant and garden had plants and bees and sun, it was still constructed nature, and that is a very different thing to the nature you find in the wild.
We bought seven hectares of forest on the shore of Lake Halla in West Sweden. There, we could give our guests the experience of being fully surrounded by nature. Food was still a large part of the experience. We used the most beautiful, luxurious ingredients in our cooking and then gave our guests a comfortable, starlit cabin to sleep in at night.
Buying a portion of the forestland also gave us the opportunity to grow more wild plants ourselves. High vitality ingredients became more and more important to me over the years I spent as a chef and a food stylist. I could just sense that food grown locally and naturally had a different kind of energy than the things sold in supermarkets.
‘Stedsans’ refers to the idea of a sense of place in Danish. How does nature help us to establish our own sense of place and feel at home in our surroundings?
In our interpretation, a sense of place means to know where you are at in your life. When you look to nature, you can see how things change with the seasons and how we, as humans, should adapt to them.
Winter, for example, is a time for stillness. When everything is covered in snow, your heart starts to beat a little slower; you don’t necessarily expect as much from yourself. You can take the time to sit in front of the fireplace with your kids and play some board games instead of rushing around. There are so many things that we can learn by just watching nature and being present in the moment.
Cities are designed for people to keep up the pace all the time and deliver the same high amount of work every day. This contributes to a lot of unwanted stress, which is part of the reason we moved out to the forest in Sweden in the first place.
I think it's very important for human beings to be in sync with their inner nature – to know what they want and what is good for them – and we can do this by simply looking at what is around us.
How did opening Stedsans in the Woods help you strengthen your connection with nature?
The crazy thing is that we recently moved from Stedsans into a small town called Unnaryd twenty minutes away. We have kids now and another baby on the way this Summer and it didn’t really work for the children to live that way. It was also just too much work for us. Being busy all the time ended up being a less fulfilling way for us to live.
Leaving Stedsans was a very hard choice for us to make. The nature in Sweden was always there to make things a little easier. When you were stressed, you could take a walk into the forest or dive into the lake, but there were some aspects of that life that just didn't work for me.
So that's why I moved back to my little town where I'm starting my own project, Unnaryd Apotek, which is a platform to share my love for my plants and my belief in their healing properties. I am currently making a plant medicine garden around my house. It's not going to be open every day like what Stedsans was last year. It's just going to be a place where I can spend time alone.
Creating Stedsans in the Woods made me realize a lot about myself. It's not good for me to be around people all the time. At the moment, I'm just focusing on my work in the garden and taking care of my children.
Do you feel that nature has supported and inspired you throughout all of these important life changes?
Yes, it wasn’t until things in my life got really wild that I realized some new things about myself. Maybe that's what nature does – it makes you able to see yourself more clearly.
When you are in a city, constantly surrounded by stimuli, it can be hard to be objective about your life. In the wild, you have the peace to get to know yourself better.
Photography by Mette Helbæk. Interview and words by Miriam Partington, reWILD Studio