With love from Las Vegas
A Norwegian chef brings the taste of Scandinavia to Henderson
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
Las Vegas has for some time been known as one of the culinary capitals of the world. With over 40 million visitors each year, it is home to dozens of celebrity chef-helmed restaurants: Gordon Ramsay, Emeril Lagasse, David Chang, Bobby Flay, José Andrés, and Kimberly Ann Ryan—just to name a few.
The variety and quantity of food offered appears to be unsurpassed, with buffets that offer 500 types of food and restaurants that serve more than 70,000 pizzas a year. The most expensive sundae in the world is made there, and you can even treat yourself to a budget-breaking $5,000 burger.
Vegas seems to have it all for the food lover, but that said, authentic Nordic cuisine has been missing on most menus there—until just recently. At Saga Pastry + Sandwich, located in a strip mall in the suburb of Henderson, about 16 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, chef Gert Kvalsund, who hails from a tiny town of Moltustranda in western Norway, is changing all that. It came as a surprise in the desert for me on my trip there a couple weeks ago, and I knew I absolutely had to share my discovery with you.
The first question that comes to mind is how a Norwegian guy ended up in Las Vegas at a suburban sandwich shop? Fortunately, Kvalsund had the time to sit down and tell me his story.
At 16, he started culinary school in Åndalsnes back home in Norway, and from there, he moved on to an apprenticeship in Molde. He earned his chef’s certificate at 20, just in time to work at the Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994. This would turn out to be a life-changing experience for him.
Working under the chef for the International Olympic Committee, he prepared food for royalty and elite, including the King of Norway and First Lady Hillary Clinton. His talents did not go unnoticed. His superiors saw potential in him and encouraged him to expand his horizons. Eventually, he received a phone call, asking him if he would like to participate in an exchange program with the Waldorf Astoria or Flamingo Hilton Hotel. He chose the latter, because there was a Norwegian chef there.
There was one hitch though: Kvalsund thought he was going to Atlantic City. When he left Norway on a flight with connections via Copenhagen and Seattle, he knew something wasn’t quite right. When he finally arrived in Las Vegas, he simply could not believe his eyes. With the shining tall buildings, he had arrived in an entirely new world.
In Las Vegas, Kvalsund was “a fish out of water,” but he soon learned to adapt. About 18 other Norwegians went through the program, in batches of four or five, and with time, he made friends. Many of them went on to become famous chefs.
Above all, Kvalsund learned a lot at the Flamingo. In his own words, he “went from being a young, innocent blue-eyed Norwegian chef” to full-fledged professional. At the end of the program, he was recruited by the Hilton Corp., and soon he was running up to a dozen restaurants, with 25 chefs working under him. He had become one of the top chefs in Las Vegas.
After his years at Hilton, Kvalsund continued full speed ahead, traveling the world as a chef. But then things slowed down when he injured himself on an oil rig that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. He had to undergo five surgeries over three years and went completely off the grid. It wasn’t long, though, before he got phone call from IKEA. They wanted him to open up a café in their Las Vegas area megastore.
But for Kvalsund, Scandinavian food is about much more than meatballs, and while he was at IKEA, he got the idea for Saga. He saw the people were interested in Scandinavian food, and he wanted to bring them the real thing: authentic Nordic fare, full of fresh flavors.
The Norwegian chef understands that the secret to good Scandinavian food is the ingredients, and he goes to great lengths to find the right ones. Currently, his offerings at Saga are based on three things: Arctic coldwater shrimp (not the same species as the shrimp we find in the United States), Norwegian salmon (containing no nitrates or artificial coloring), and fresh waffles.
Kvalsund gets his waffle batter from Nordic Waffles in Minneapolis. While he could easily mix up his own, he is anxious to support a network of Scandinavian vendors, who are producing quality products. Norwegian Baked out of Brooklyn is his source for homemade knekkebrød.
He also outsources his pastry production to a Chef Flemming’s Bake Shop, a nearby Danish bakery—understandable, once you tasted his assortment. I was happy to try a piece of “Verdens beste kake” from Norway as well as piece of Swedish “Princesstårta,” green-colored marzipan and all: both were delicious.
But it is the open-faced sandwiches that are at the center of the menu at Saga. The Arctic cold-water shrimp sandwich was my favorite, but the Norwegian salmon, and ham and Jarlsberg cheese sandwiches are arguably just as good. They are served on freshly baked bread, and for $10, they make for a satisfying meal. Following the Scandinavian tradition of foraging, chef Kvalsund uses some local herbs to garnish them, giving them an extra taste of freshness.
Another unique offering at Saga is the “Killer Viking Coffee.” With up to 20 times the amount of caffeine in a regular cup of coffee, it will bring out your inner Viking and give you a lift for the entire day. For those less adventurous, Italian espresso and cappuccinos are offered, as well as selection of teas.
If there were one word to describe the food and atmosphere at Saga, it would be “simplicity.” This is what Kvalsund strives for in his food, reflected in the interior design of the café, which could be described as Scandinavian modern, with its clean white walls and minimalist décor.
On the walls, you can read about four key concepts of Nordic culture: Swedish fika (coffee with pastry or cookies), Danish hygge (comfy simple pleasures), Norwegian koselig (cozy warmth), and Swedish lagom (just right).
On the back wall, there is a black-and-white mural of the Kvalsund Viking ship from 690 A.D., found in his father’s hometown in the 1920s. It symbolizes chef Kvalsund’s own saga or story, his journey from Norway to a new life in America, right to this new location in Henderson.
Saga Sandwich + Pastry has only been open since last May, but so far the response has been overwhelming. While the emphasis is more about good food than being a Nordic café, it’s becoming a mecca for the Nordic community. Saga serves as an information hub for Scandinavians all over town, and when in Vegas, tourists drive out to Henderson to check it out. One Swedish man even came all the way from Sacramento to celebrate his 80th birthday.
And it’s no wonder. The cozy gourmet café is already winning local awards, including “The Best of Vegas” and the “Best Waffle 2019.”
“It’s no coincidence that the heart shape figures prominently in Scandinavian food, chef Kvalsund told me, as he served me a heart-shaped waffle with sour cream and lingonberry compote for dessert. “There’s a lot of love in Scandinavian food.” At Saga Pastry + Sandwich in Henderson, you will definitely feel this love—I just can’t wait to go back.
Saga Pastry + Sandwich is located at 10345 S. Eastern Ave., #100 in Henderson, Nev. For more information, visit www.sagapastry.com.
This article originally appeared in the February 7, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.