In Southern Nevada where, a couple of times a year, people gather to dine on lutefisk — the Scandinavian dried fish that’s treated with lye, soaked for days and cooked to a gelatinous state — more accessible food from the region has been much more difficult to find. Gert Kvalsund is changing that.
Kvalsund (pronounced “qualsund”), a longtime Las Vegas resident and chef, opened Saga Pastry + Sandwich late last year in Henderson, and it has become something of a retreat for natives of Scandinavia and those interested in the culture. A Swedish-themed gathering in early March, Kvalsund said, drew 60 people, two-thirds of whom were native Americans.
“I think they were people who are curious about the Swedish culture and the food as well,” he said.
Kvalsund is Norwegian, and it was his heritage that brought him to Las Vegas in 1995. A native of Moltustranda, with a population of 250 (the tourism/extreme sports gateway Aalesund is nearby), he was recruited through a student-exchange program sponsored by Hilton Hotels, which may have stemmed from the fact that hotel-chain founder Conrad Hilton’s father was Norwegian. Kvalsund could go to either the Waldorf Astoria in New York or the then-Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas. He chose the latter because it had a Norwegian chef.
Besides, he thought he was going to Atlantic City. He arrived, looked at all the big buildings and realized his mistake.
“What have I done?” Kvalsund remembers wondering. “But you commit.”
Initially planning a 1½-year stay, he was at the Flamingo for 12 years, in large part because he married an American woman.
And they were halcyon years at the Flamingo. Kvalsund, who was acting executive chef of the resort when he left, opened the Paradise Garden Buffet and took part in its themed ethnic nights.
“A lot of Scandinavians came out,” he said. “We had that ethnic pride. We got to serve potato dumplings on Las Vegas Boulevard. Who can do that?”
After his divorce, his parents in Norway were in their declining years and he got an offer from a family friend to join a Norwegian company that worked with offshore operations. For eight years he traveled the world. Then he was injured, on the infamous Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig.
“I kind of went off the map for three years,” Kvalsund said.
It was another Scandinavian company, the Swedish Ikea, that would bring him back to Las Vegas. He only worked as the chef at the local Ikea store for about a year, but it presented a new opportunity.
“It opened my eyes that there were a lot more Scandinavians in this town than I thought,” Kvalsund said. “It inspired me to open a restaurant specializing in Scandinavian slow food — quality ingredients from the homeland, accessible to Americans.”
“Saga” is the Nordic word for “story,” and through the restaurant he’s telling the stories of the Scandinavian people, following the example of the Viking kings who ordered the sagas recorded. His logo is the prow of the seventh-century Kvalsund Viking ship found near his family home in 1920.
And the food presents a taste of home.
“There are a couple of things that will never go off the menu,” Kvalsund said. “The shrimp sandwich, waffles, Princess Cake and The World’s Best Cake.”
The shrimp sandwich, served traditionally open-faced, is made with cold-water shrimp that take four to six years to develop, compared with about six months for warm-water shrimp. Cold-water shrimp represent only 6 percent of harvested shrimp, he said, and mostly are shipped to Scandinavia. They have a cleaner, fresher taste than their tropical counterparts, and one thing Kvalsund always asks his expatriate customers is whether the sandwich tastes like home.
“A hundred percent have answered yes,” he said.
His smoked salmon is caught in the Faroe Islands and processed by the Severn and Wye Smokery in England, using only the fish, salt and sugar.
“It’s the best-tasting salmon I’ve ever found,” he said.
He uses Danish butter and serves lingonberry drink and many other Scandinavian favorites. He’s even hoping to find Scandinavian artists — or artists interested in Scandinavia — to adorn his walls with their works.
For pastries, he reached out to another Scandinavian, Flemming Pedersen, chef/owner of Chef Flemming’s Bake Shop in Henderson, who is a native of Denmark.
“To me, Chef Flemming’s stuff is a sign of quality and authenticity,” Kvalsund said. “I called him and said I wanted to do waffles, Swedish pancakes,” Kvalsund said. “Could we work together and not compete?”
The answer: “Absolutely.”
Kvalsund and Pedersen teamed up on Fat Tuesday, March 5, to bring a fellow Scandinavian that hometown taste. After hearing a Swedish Instagram post of Vegas Golden Knights player William Karlsson lamenting the local lack of semla, the Swedish pastry that celebrates the day, Pedersen prepared some and Kvalsund delivered them to a delighted Karlsson during practice at City National Arena.
“Hopefully,” he said, “we can grow together and put Scandinavia on the map in Las Vegas.”