Francois Mauraisin's story has more twists than a Nordic noir novel, and doing it justice isn't a straightforward endeavour. Born in Paris, after finishing school he went to work in London at the UK's first three Michelin star restaurant, starting at the bottom of the ladder in waiting and working his way up.
“I was one of the only ones getting on well with the waiters and the kitchen staff, which is unusual,” he recalls.
A meeting with millionaire nightclub owner Lennie Bloom led him to switch jobs and become a cocktail barman – which included working at the private party for the launch of Pink Floyd's 1982 The Wall. Pretty soon he was running a restaurant, and everything was going well, until…
“The French army called me to do national service! I complained that they were asking me to close my business and put people out in order to join up. They answered straight away by sending me straight to a semi-disciplinary camp in Germany,” he chuckles.
Disruption became opportunity however. Mauraisin was put in charge of catering for the international troops and excelled to the degree he was asked to stay on once his service was over (he politely declined). After leaving, a car crash almost cost him both of his eyes and put him out of action for two years, but thankfully he soon met his wife and went into business supplying clothing for yachts in Cannes. Sir Alex Ferguson for example has him to thank for the clothing worn by his yacht captain at the time.
“We then moved to Paris and I accepted an interview with Groupe Geraud markets. My father had been involved in markets before and they'd always asked me to come in. They were happy and they wanted me to join the company,” he recalls.
Mauraisin in Sweden. Photo: Francois Mauraisin
But what about Sweden, you may ask? Little did the Frenchman know that the decision to get involved in street markets would change the course of his life and eventually result in him moving to the Nordic country.
It's all thanks to him deciding to focus on international street markets. The idea was born when he was running markets in Manchester's Moss Side in the 1990s, an area which was struggling with social problems at the time. Shifting the focus of the markets to a more continental feel brought success, and they eventually spread to other cities in the UK including Glasgow and Aberdeen, the latter of which won an award for best speciality market.
“I was contacted by Gunnar Ericson from Malmö Stad (The City of Malmö). They were looking for something to help the city centre, which was suffering from the establishment of big shopping centres outside town, dragging people away and impacting footfall. They contacted me and asked me to come and do a presentation, which I did.”
“At the end of the presentation they said 'Francois, what do you need?'. 'I need the best,' I replied. 'Ok, you have it!' So I had the best location right away. Then Stockholm said they wanted it at Sergels Torg, and it spread,” he adds.
One of the markets in Linköping. Photo: Francois Mauraisin
Between 2008 and 2012 he ran the International Street Markets across Sweden while still being based in Liverpool. After doing it for almost a decade now, he feels the markets have helped to bring some life back to smaller Swedish towns left behind by urbanization:
“These events we deliver refuel a lot of cities. It can’t be 12 months a year in most areas, but it helps with unemployment. The next step is to develop those squares that are dead most of the time now in Sweden.”
“We also have specific targeted markets, like in Södertälje (a town south of Stockholm with a large Assyrian community) and some areas of Stockholm where we have ethnic markets. They’re like the ones in the suburbs of Paris, where there's a real mix of people. It's fantastic. That’s what I want to achieve here in Sweden as well,” he adds.
The experience of working in Sweden was so positive that eventually Mauraisin pushed to move there permanently in 2012. Initially, his employer had reservations.
“I told my bosses at the time 'I need to go to Sweden'. They weren't convinced and said it wouldn't work. I pushed and they had to accept. They were very happy afterwards,” he laughs.
His theory is that many people in the UK have the wrong image of the Nordic nation:
“When I first told people in the UK we were going to Sweden they thought 'hang on, it's an iceberg up there'. They don't really have a correct image of Sweden and think it's always cold. But I've always been a traveller. I like to mix with different people and nationalities, and I knew Sweden was the only step to grow. I was also very attracted by Scandinavian countries and a bit fed up of living in Liverpool.”
Francois in Luleå, northern Sweden. Photo: Francis Mauraisin
The success of the markets in Sweden suggest the Frenchman was right to push to move. “The first time we did it in Falun, they couldn't believe it,” he reveals. “People jumped on it like crazy. In Lund for example you'll hear customers say 'this week we’re not cooking. We'll have paella one night, langos another'. We focus on details, quality, and give respect to people, smile. That’s why it works.”
It hasn't all been straightforward though. One of the big challenges is not being able to offer card payment because many of the people running stalls at the markets are international traders from outside the country – an annoyance in Sweden, where society is increasingly cash free.
“The main problem is the banks. Because the stalls are foreign traders they can't open bank accounts in Sweden, which means they can't take card, and that's a major problem. Or if we take card, people have to pay a 10-15 kronor charge due to the exchange rate and what the foreign banks take,” he bemoans.
“For the public it's not a major issue though. Sometimes the ATMs empty so we always have to ring ahead to make the banks aware we're coming.”
Another bugbear, though minor, was being targeted by some angry activists on Facebook:
“We've got 13,000 followers and are rated at 4.3 (out of five). We were at 4.7 or 4.8 but had some problems with vegan people in Stockholm, who hammered us with one star ratings!”
“We have vegetarian options on every stall, but they were protesting with pictures of people eating meat. I was really annoyed.”
A market in Luleå. Photo: Francois Mauraisin
The businessman stresses that these are small grievances though, and from the way he speaks about Sweden, it's clear that his view is his adopted home compares positively to the other countries he has lived in.
“What I love about Sweden is they say things straight. Maybe it isn't as easy to make friends, but at least you don't have someone putting an arm on your back one minute, then stabbing you in the back as soon as it can benefit them. You don't find that so much, there's respect. I also think the politicians show that through example, which isn’t the case in the UK, France and many other countries,” he notes.
The Swedish style of education is another thing he admires, something he has had a chance to see at both ends of the spectrum, having some kids in school and others in university.
“In France you need to be able to read by 'x' age, but here in Sweden they say 'no, first they need to be taught to respect each other and grow. And be close to nature'. That's perfect.”
“I have two of my kids, 20 and 21, at uni here too. Once they had done their A levels (secondary school exams), I gave them a kick up the arse, sent one out to Australia with a nice backpack. He toured there for eight months then I called him back as soon as Malmö University agreed to take him. He's learning English literature and Swedish at Malmö university, he’s very very happy.”
“The other did his A levels and we kicked him towards Tahiti in French Polynesia where he attended uni. As soon as he knew he was being taken on by Jönköping University he stopped uni in Tahiti, travelled around all the Polynesian islands, then came back here. A bit of a difference in temperature!”
Linköping, southern Sweden. Photo: Francois Mauraisin
The results of going to university in Sweden have been positive according to the content dad. It has also changed their eating habits (and not yet led to any angry reviews on Facebook that he knows of):
“They were kids before, drinking alcohol, eating too much occasionally. Now they don't drink and they're both vegetarians! Focusing on learning, enjoying it very much, and when they go back to France they stay for three days, see some of their peers and think 'my god, what is this?' and can't wait to come back. It's great.”
Mauraisin has one change he would like to make himself meanwhile: learning the Swedish language. That hasn't happened so far because of how busy he has been with work, he explains, and also because it has in some ways been beneficial to his work with international food not to.
“I'm often on radio and it’s always much better for the kind of international event we do here to have a broken French-English accent, which is a little more exotic. My consultants have told me not to learn. But I think it would be respectful to do so.”
“My daughter was born in Liverpool and was at school there then moved here. She speaks fluent Swedish but never wants to do it in front of us! So if the teacher talks to her and we're there she doesn't answer. It's silly, but she’s totally Swedish. When there's a game on, France against Sweden, she supports Sweden. My little boy who is four doesn't care, he speaks Swedish, and my wife learned it at SFI. So I'm the only one! I'll get there,” he promises.
Along with being determined to learn Swedish, Mauraisin has decided he wants to go one step further and fully commit to becoming a Swede.
“I'll apply for nationality next month. I'll die here!” he emphasizes.
Content with his life in Sweden, his advice for others is to do what both he and his children have done and try new cultures and countries.
“I think if people don't feel that great in their country and don't think they can achieve something, they need to travel. Travelling opens doors. Languages open doors. Meeting people opens doors. That's the best way to do it,” he concludes.