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Hello, Suomi! Working in Finland: Malaysia-born chef Boo Niinivaara talks surprises, challenges, people

Chef Boo Niinivaara was born in Malaysia. He left for Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu at the age of 17 and came to Finland in 2013. He has worked in Helsinki fine dining restaurants Postres, Gaijin and Olo and in Lucy in the Sky (Espoo) since 2020.

The biggest surprise in Finland?

People are open and that I haven’t felt pressure to speak Finnish in the kitchen. At first, I thought I had to know the local language, but people welcomed me with open arms and even offered to teach me a few Finnish words. It made me want to learn the language because people were so nice.

The biggest challenge?

Adapting to the ingredients I’m used to but aren’t available here and adapting to the local ingredients, which do not exist in Malaysia. Now I like mixing Asian and Finnish ingredients in the kitchen. A good example is sticky rice in which I use forest berries instead of mango.

Your favourite Malaysian ingredient?

Belacan, fermented shrimp paste. We use it to make fried rice and noodles. If I don’t have it in my freezer, I get stressed out. I would love to use it in Lucy’s kitchen, but the smell is quite strong. It’s not super bad, but it’s fishy.

Best thing at work?

I enjoy cooking but also socialising with people. I love working at Lucy because we have people from 15 different countries – the work is not just about food but also about learning from different cultures.

The best feedback you’ve received?

Recently, a customer came up to me and said: “The food is great, the night has been perfect, but I enjoyed most watching you run your kitchen because you have a smile on your face the whole time.” I would also like to know if something hasn’t gone right so I can fix it. Sometimes, I think people here are too polite and do not say it if they don’t like the food. Please have the courage to give feedback!

I bring to the work community…

My positive energy. I used to be quite tough in the kitchen, but I’ve improved. I’ve learnt to communicate with my staff rather than raise my voice which was the way I was taught to work. I am trying to change the mentality that the kitchen isn’t a harsh place to work and screaming isn’t the only solution.

Strangest Finnish taste?

Definitely salmiakki, salty liquorice. I just don’t understand the combination of sweet and salty. I’ve tried it in all kinds of products, but it just doesn’t taste good. I like mämmi though, which is a surprise to many.

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Boo Niinivaara

  • Head Chef
  • Restaurant Lucy in the Sky, Espoo
  • Born in Malaysia

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