Alf Roald Sætre – Bergen's Last Cowboy
The Cornelius seafood restaurant offers world-class food and provides guests with a truly unique culinary experience.
He might appear intimidating to the many thousands of guests who, over the past 20 years, have embarked on the 20-minute boat ride to the seafood restaurant Cornelius just outside Bergen.
His white stubble and cowboy hat do indeed stand out in the crowd on the quayside in Bergen. But standing out is something to which diver, restaurant owner, captain, entrepreneur, inventor, cowboy, and bon vivant Alf Roald Sætre is well accustomed.
Throughout his life, he has never followed the norm. First as a North Sea diver during the oil boom of the 1970s, before a holiday trip to Seattle in the USA turned him into a pioneer in salmon farming in the American city.
In recent years, he has been back in his homeland, fully focused on building up his popular seafood restaurant on the seaward approach to Bergen. The sprightly 71-year-old still dives to collect much of the seafood served at his restaurant himself.
In 2019, he single-handedly harvested over 6,000 kilos of oysters and 9,000 scallops... "Many of the tourists just call me Oyster Dundee," he says, laughing heartily.
The tourists are, of course, referring to Crocodile Dundee, the Australian film hero from the 1980s.
The nickname is quite apt. His family has a long tradition of oyster farming along the Bergen coast, and it was Alf's grandfather, Cornelius, who started cultivating oyster in the region as far back as the 1880s.
Named after his grandfather
Although the 71-year-old never met his grandfather, he followed the family tradition and took over the oyster nursery as the third generation of his family to run it. Among other things, Alf has developed much of the equipment still used in Norway's shellfish industry today.
But one day about 20 years ago, everything changed. Chef Odd Einar Tufteland from Bergen went out to check a shellfish collection point and met Alf. Tufteland was so impressed with the quality of what he tasted that he insisted the two of them had to start a restaurant together.
Alf wasn't hard to persuade and embraced the idea. On a ten-acre islet, they began a project many thought impossible. With a focus on local seafood, finding a suitable name was easy: Cornelius Seafood Restaurant on the Islet.
Today, 'shell man' Alf has plenty to smile about.
"Local food and ingredients are very trendy, but we felt that we were ahead of the curve when we started 20 years ago. World-class seafood and ingredients have been important to us all along and have been a success. Cornelius has become quite well-known, not just in Norway, but internationally as well," he says with a sly smile.
The restaurant that inspired the film The Menu
Indeed, it is not only for its fantastic seafood that Cornelius has become famous beyond Norway's borders. Thanks to the horror-comedy The Menu (2022), starring Ralph Fiennes, the restaurant has gained considerable international attention.
Screenwriter Will Tracy was on his honeymoon in Bergen and visited the restaurant. He became fascinated by the entire Cornelius concept: from the boat trip from Bergen city centre and the amazing food to the unique location.
"When the boat left and Tracy realised he was 'trapped' on the island for the rest of the evening, he became a bit anxious. But the film has given us great publicity."
"Fortunately, it doesn't seem like our visitors have taken to heart just how badly things went for the guests in the movie," laughs Alf.
Before and after the attention that came with The Menu, Cornelius has been a popular stop for international celebrities. John Travolta, Bruce Springsteen and his band, and Imagine Dragons are among those who have visited.
Dining at Cornelius is a real experience
The screenwriter may not have been far off the mark when he chose Cornelius as his inspiration.
Alf explains that he and the restaurant team place great emphasis on sharing stories with their guests – from when they are picked up at the quay in Bergen at 6:00 pm until they return at 11:00 pm.
It's an open secret that Alf puts on a show for those who visit the restaurant. Among other things, there are live shellfish in tanks on the quay, and tales still circulate of the times Alf has eaten live crabs in front of surprised guests.
While wearing his cowboy hat, of course.
"Haha. That may have happened once or twice," says the captain, before adding:
"It's a truly unique experience to see the food you will later eat – an experience very few restaurants offer. We talk about the food, the ecosystem, and our philosophy."
"We showcase the archipelago and the sea on the journey to Cornelius. It's meant to be sustainable and exclusive, but also an attraction in itself," explains Alf proudly.
If you stay at one of Strawberry's hotels, such as Clarion Collection® Hotel Havnekontoret or Clarion Hotel® Bergen, it's just a few minutes' walk to the quay in Bergen from which the boat takes you out to the restaurant.
Top the Fjords
The success of Cornelius has led Alf and his family to offer visitors even closer contact with the sea and nature. The captain's wife and daughter run Top the Fjords, a tour operator where the captain takes visitors out to sea and shows them shellfish and other seafood.
Lunch is as fresh as it gets, whether it's a fish soup with fresh ingredients from the sea added along the way, or another Bergen classic: fresh saithe cooked and served on flatbread with butter.
"It's mainly foreign tourists who want to join these tours, and they simply love it," chuckles Alf.
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