ABBA, Alfred Nobel, Bjorn Borg, Greta Garbo -- Sweden has many famous faces. But there might be one character whose ways in the kitchen have made him one of the best-known Swedes in the world today: The Swedish Chef character from "The Muppet Show."
Someone considerably less known, however, is Lars Kuprik Backman, the man who for years has claimed he's the real-life model for the whimsical kitchen oddball of the popular TV show.
"Yes, I'm sure it's me. I used to look exactly like that," the ruddy-faced and sandy-haired 64-year-old chef said in his catering office and storage space on the outskirts of his northern hometown of Rättvik, where he is a local celebrity.
But, the jovial and somewhat rotund Backman continued, it was not only the way he looked in the 1970s that made him think he inspired the late Jim Henson to create the crazy puppet chef who tosses cutlery and pans around the kitchen while babbling incomprehensibly in a "Swenglish" accent.
"There are so many things that make it difficult to think that it wouldn't be me," he said.
It all started in 1969, when Backman moved to Los Angeles, at the age of 19 to work as a chef at the Viking Horn restaurant, which specialized in Scandinavian food.
After a few years, the buoyant young cook was invited to appear on ABC's "Good Morning America" to cook Swedish food – on live TV .
"I was 24 and thought it would be a piece of cake," he said, shaking his head at his own naivete while puffing on a cigarillo in his small office.
Backman planned to prepare some typical samples from the Swedish smorgasbord: a big salmon and a long open meatball sandwich, which he was going to decorate with mayonnaise that he had in a pastry bag.
"I had it all set up. I was ready. It all seemed fine. How hard can four minutes live on TV be? I thought."
But then suddenly some 50 people entered the studio, he explained.
"Nobody had said anything about an audience! I became terribly nervous. My heart was racing. I started to sweat and suddenly they were counting down 'three-two-one' and then …," he paused.
"I was live on TV in America, and I was paralyzed. I couldn't speak! I couldn't remember any English or any Swedish. But I knew the show had to go on, so I started talking, but the only thing that came out were these guttural sounds," he said with raised eyebrows in disbelief over his terrible performance.
"It was unintelligible, and I was still holding that silly pastry bag, shaking with fear. The only thing I wanted right then was to go home to my mother in Sweden."
Even more telling, Backman claims, is that he worked as a chef in the canteen of 20th Century Fox studio lot for seven years from 1976, where Jim Henson worked during the early years of the Muppets. It all that makes Backman believe he was the inspiration for the Swedish Chef.
Henson, the late founder of the "Muppet Show" and a driving force behind Sesame Street just like many others at the company, often drop into the kitchen to greet Backman and his staff, Backman claims.
"There was always a show going on in there," said Backman, smiling at how he and the 30-odd people who worked for him used to fool around in the kitchen, partly fueled by a hidden box of beer.
"We sang and we danced. We threw things in the air and pans on the floor," he said, adding that they would often come out into the canteen and perform: "clown around, sing, chop cucumber or something."