The Sannas, restauranteurs of the North

A culinary hotspot on top of the world

Photo: Geir Johansen
After distinguished careers in the Norwegian military, Espen and Lill-Karin Sanna find themselves in new careers with their restaurant, Daniel’s Hus, not far from the North Cape in the north of Norway.

Marit Fosse
Geneva

The Sannas, Lill-Karin and Espen, are an amazing couple, people one gladly spends time with. My 84-year-old mother, who has had a chance to meet them, is now planning a trip to their restaurant up in the north of Norway. In the meantime, she is trying out the recipes in their cookbook. It is one of those cookbooks that take you on a trip to a foreign land you would never have known about otherwise, with lots of photographs and recipes that even the beginner can manage.

Let us go back in time a little, to when it all started. They both began their careers in the Norwegian Air Force. Lill-Karin went to work for the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations in New York, then joined her husband, who had been appointed military attaché in the Norwegian Embassy in Turkey. During their time in Ankara, they became cookbook authors and decided to set up Daniel’s Hus, a five-star restaurant in the north of Norway, close to the North Cape—Nord­kapp in Norwegian—in a small fishing village called Skarsvåg. It is a beautiful place, with some 60 year-round residents. The climate can be tough and rough, with the closest neighbor being the Barents Sea.

Photo: Espen and Lill-Karin Sanna
The Norwegian flag proudly waves at the entrance to Daniel’s Hus to welcome guests, who come from all over Norway.

In TripAdvisor, you will find the following: “Amazing restaurant on top of the world! Friendly, homely setting. Beautiful decor. The food was prepared with love and was so tasty! In fact, this was the best and most memorable meal on our three-week trip through Norway.”

Let’s now hear about this impressive —and immensely successful—project from Lill-Karin.

Marit Fosse: You have had an amazing career, ranging from serving as an officer in the Norwegian military taking you to the Balkans and beyond to a posting at United Nations Headquarters in New York, and finally as a book author and restaurant owner in the far north of Norway. Could you tell us about yourself?

Lill-Karin Sanna: I was born in the county of Nordkapp, and I grew up as the oldest of four siblings. Both of my parents were working full time. My mother was a pioneer in this sense and was very concerned about equal rights, so it became quite normal that I took responsibility for my siblings and cooked for them while my parents were working.

Later on, I moved to Stavern [near Larvik in the south of Norway] and started my career in the Air Force. It was in 1984, and it was the early days of women in the Air Force. I belong to the second cohort of women who graduated from this place. It was challenging, but it did turn out to be fine in the end. The year I finished my education, I met Espen, who was already an officer in the Air Force. We got married in 1984, three years after I had started my education in the Army. We got married in Honningsvåg Church in Finnmark. Espen comes from Telemark and has come to love the beauty of Finnmark.

Photo: Kjell Bendik Pedersen / Radio Nordkapp
The Sannas’ restaurant, Daniel’s Hus, has three long tables seating 10 persons each, which creates a cozy atmosphere, where their guests feel at home.

We have had different positions in the Air Force. At times we were together; at times we were separated. We continued working in the defense department both domestically and abroad. I was offered a job as combined administrative officer in the Stabilization Force in Bosnia Herzegovina for a year in 1996.

We had a residence in Rimini, Italy. There were many different units, and once again, I was the only woman among a lot of military personnel. Altogether we were 60 officers. I was then offered a position as military observer to the Middle East, where I was based in Israel and Egypt. Then, I was sent off to Afghanistan as a military assistant for the Norwegian base commander. The Norwegian presence was there under a mandate from the United Nations.

I remember that you were also based in New York working for the United Nations?

Before going to Afghanistan, I had sent in an application to the Department of Peacekeeping in New York. It took a year and a half from the day I submitted my application to the day I was offered a position. In the armed forces, much happens in a year and a half. So, when I finally got the position in the United Nations, I had already accepted the position in Afghanistan. I told the United Nations that I could come to New York once my assignment in Afghanistan was over, which is what I did.

So, I started in the United Nations in November 2007 as a staff officer in the Department for Peacekeeping Operations. I worked there for two years. My work was trying to recruit officers from African countries to the biggest operation they had at the time, in Darfur. We hired military personnel from 47 different countries.

When you are based outside your own country, you get to meet a lot of people. As a military officer, we can retire at the age of 57. Espen was offered the post of military attaché to the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. I then asked for leave without pay and ended up as a spokesperson and diplomat together with him from 2014 to 2018. At that time, Espen had served 37 years in the Air Force. Since we had from time to time been separated owing to our professions, we decided to stay together before retiring.

How did you get the idea for the book?

While we were in Ankara, life was a lot less hectic, and I had more spare time. There were several women who had also followed their husbands, and we did voluntary work to help women and children. To raise funding, we decided to do an international recipe book that we sold. While working on it, I realized that I also wanted to do something for the small village where I was born and raised, Skarsvåg in the county of Finnmark.

Photo: Torunn Brånå
While living in Ankara, Turkey, Lill-Karin Sanna worked on a cookbook with local recipes from her home in Norway.

I decided to do a recipe book from old recipes gathered from the elderly women in Skarsvåg who were still alive. I sent a letter to each one of them asking whether they would be willing to share with me one of their recipes. There were 12 or 14 of them, and they all responded positively. That launched me.

At the embassy, there were several young trainees, and one of them had training in journalism and photography. She took all the photographs published in the book. She also helped us put the book together, and we got it printed in Turkey. It was lots of fun, and it is now in its third edition. It became quite popular in the north of Norway. It is also being sold at the Nordkapp plateau and in the Nordkapp Museum.

Is the book available to purchase online?

Unfortunately, no, we haven’t reached that level yet. We are selling it in our restaurant though. We do have a lot of visitors, and then, of course, I sign the book.

Tell us about the restaurant, Daniel’s Hus.

When Granddad Daniel came back to Finnmark after the war, this was the first house to be built in the village. [The whole of Finnmark was burned down by the Germans when the Norwegians were chased out of there by the Russian Red Army]. I think there were over 20 people living in this small house of 30 square meters [about 323 square feet]. Afterward, he built the main house, where we live when we are there.

Photo: Espen and Lill-Karin Sanna
The Sannas bake their own bread, cinnamon rolls, and other delights for their restaurant, using the freshest of local ingredients.

For years and years, we had talked about refurbishing the small barn. We bought the main house from Granddad Daniel when he was still alive, and he was thrilled that we wanted to take over the place. When we were starting on the renovation of the barn, it turned out that it was in such bad condition that we had to pull it down. So we ended up building a brand new building. It is not overly big, only about 50 square meters [about 538 square feet] on the ground, with two stories.

The restaurant is not big either, and it has three long tables seating 10 persons each. The kitchen opens into the dining area, so that everybody can watch us while we prepare the food. People often tell us that it’s like being in our home.

We bake fresh bread and have simple, traditional food from the time when we were growing up. We serve fresh fish, reindeer meat, local food, such as berries picked in the region, mushrooms from the region, etc. We use only local products, all from nature.

Who does the cooking?

We both do everything. We try to encourage nieces and nephews to come and give us a hand, but in general we do at least 80% of the work.

About 70% of our guests are tourists, visiting Nordkapp. Some 350,000 tourists visit Nordkapp every year, so we do benefit a little from that. We get guests from Italy, France, and Germany, and they do fit in very well with the locals. Of course, we tell them about Granddad Daniel and the area, and we recount some local history.

How can one get there to visit you? It seems to be complicated!

It is not at all difficult to find us. There are several options. You can either come by plane from Oslo to Alta, or travel from Oslo to Tromsø or Honningsvåg, the latter which is only 20 minutes away from us. There are about three flights a day between Oslo and Honningsvåg, so we are much more accessible than you think. There are three different ways of arriving: by car, by bus, or by plane. It is not at all as difficult as you seem to believe.

What about accommodations? Did you set up a bed-and-breakfast?

Well, the owner of the fishing factory needed accommodations for the people who come and work for him during the fishing season. It turned out that the Summerhotel was for sale, and next to it, there was a house with eight rooms. He bought it all and contacted us, wondering if we would like to manage it.

Photo: Espen and Lill-Karin Sanna
The restaurant Daniel’s Hus was named in honor of Grandad Daniel, a World War II veteran.

We turned his offer down, because we were more than busy with our own building project and setting up the restaurant, but he kept insisting, emphatically. Then, we suggested that the house should become four Airbnb chalets, and he agreed. We had them redecorated, and today, there are four Airbnb chalets, each of which can host four persons. It is brand new, and it definitely looks very nice. We think it’s the nicest Airbnb in the whole region, because it’s all brand new, with all modern equipment.

You can check it all out on our website [danielshus.no] or on Facebook.

Now that it’s spring, the Sannas are soon heading north again. The preparations for the fishing season and the tourist season will start. Espen will be doing traditional fish hanging, they have five reindeer waiting for them, and—as if this were not enough—Espen has a new project—to make local beer.

Leaving them to their new careers, I only wish that there were more of their kind—so positive and never afraid of a new challenge. All we can do is to wish them success in all their endeavors.

And if you’re planning a trip to Norway, do pay them a visit. I’m sure that you will be well received and it will be one of the high points—if not the high point—of your trip.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.

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Marit Fosse

Marit Fosse trained as an economist from Norwegian school of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen (Norges Handelshøyskole NHH) and then earned a doctorate in social sciences. She is the author of several books. Nansen: Explorer and Humanitarian, co-authored with John Fox, was translated into Russian/Armenian/French. In addition, Fosse is the editor of International Diplomat/Diva International in Geneva, a magazine set up 20 years ago for diplomats and persons working in the international organizations in Geneva but also elsewhere. In her free time, Fosse is an accomplished painter.