Marcus Jernmark took over as executive chef at Aquavit several months ago, at which time he was charged with the task of reinventing the menu. A return to traditionally Scandinavian dishes and ingredients has been the main focus of his efforts. But the means to this end involve a fierce commitment to seasonality, a concept he says gets taken for granted these days — when it’s not completely misunderstood, that is.
So tell me about the new menu.
It differs in that I’m following the seasons as much as possible — I know they haven’t done that in the past. It’s also different in the sense that I’m trying not to use anything that’s not available in Swedish and Scandinavian water or forests. For example, we worked a lot with tuna and prawns in the past. I’m trying to stay away from that. Instead, I’m using cod and halibut and monkfish. I’m trying to tell the true story. I’m not just trying to tell New Yorkers a version of Scandinavian cuisine.
So, you’re re-Scandinavianizing the menu?
I can’t even say that word. But it’s true. In the bistro, in particular. We’re bringing back traditional food … dishes that are still served in bistros all over Scandinavia. As opposed to the dining room, where we’re staying contemporary in our touch. But I definitely want to have a farm-to-fork approach. Even though it’s very tough sometimes to work with that, I want to apply it as much as possible because it really brings out the best of our cuisine. It’s a challenge as a chef not to just call the purveyor and stick to whatever he carries.
You’ve used traditional and contemporary in the same breath when describing your cuisine.
In the presentation, it’s very contemporary. But in the technique, I’m going back to a forgotten kitchen. We’re stuffing sausages, smoking meat, curing fish. The average young chef in the city doesn’t consider stuffing his own sausage or curing meat. He wants to do sorbets with nitroglycerin or whatever. But I’m trying to focus more on where [Scandinavians] are coming from and what actually developed our cuisine.
What are some of your favorite ingredients of the season?
In springtime, artichokes have always been my favorite ingredient. Because it’s so high maintenance — it oxidizes and it’s very fragile — but it’s also very versatile, and if you give it the attention it requires, you can get something amazing from it. And hay. I came in this morning and my entire dry storage was stacked up with a huge bale of hay that [I had back-ordered]. I’ve been trying to get a hold of hay because I want to work with it on the table and I want to smoke meat with it.
Is that particularly Scandinavian?
I’m looking at my menu and saying, “How I can tweak it into summer?” Summer means barbecue, and with barbecue comes smoke. In American barbecue, you smoke for many hours to get that smoky taste. In Sweden, we grill the meat over high heat and it’s really just a matter of heat and char. I’m thinking with hay — maybe tying it around sweetbreads and grilling them — we can get that charred, smoky taste.
Do you worry at all about the state of fine dining in the city these days?
No, I don’t worry about it. Fine-dining restaurants are not as popular today as they were before. Fine dining is always going to be around, but it’s always going to take a different shape and we’re going to have to adjust. I believe Aquavit was much more pretentious a couple of years ago. They had five menus and it was complicated. I’m trying to simplify everything. I don’t want people to come and feel that it’s a challenge to eat at Aquavit. I want people to feel relaxed dining. And that’s people’s perception of fine dining, that it’s complicated. It’s, “Oh I don’t want to go there. I want to eat a steak and call it a day.” And I understand that. I’m totally the same. I don’t want to have a pretentious dining room; I want to have a very easygoing, fun place. It’s about having fun and who you’re there with and what you eat and drink. Fine dining might have seen better eras, but we don’t want to be a part of that. What trends are you sick of seeing in New York City restaurants?
I’ve always been a believer in organic and farm-to-table and all that, and when you’re a believer of something you try to practice it. But I see a lot of restaurants that are taking advantage of the idea. We do have numerous believers out there — like Blue Hill — and they are spending money, sacrificing things in order to accomplish this. And we’re one of them. So I wish farm-to-table became more of an honest thing. It doesn’t feel that honest anymore because everyone can say that they’re farm-to-table. People don’t realize what it is to be farm-to-table. People think that it’s just buying from someone who is close by, but that’s not really what it is. It takes time.
As in, time to seek out seasonal ingredients from good, local producers?
Exactly. When I put something on the menu, I worked on it for maybe a week, two weeks. It requires a lot of planning because you need to follow the seasons. Like nettles, for example, are off the market. [My purveyor] just called me yesterday and said, “No more nettles.” So what do you do then? You have 100 people coming to eat with you that night and you have no more nettles. I have a dish that is built up on nettles and everything has to be perfect. So, of course, if you don’t care, you can import because you can always get nettles. There’s always somewhere in the world where nettles grow. But if that’s not an option for you, it becomes a challenge, a challenge that drives me rather than haunts me. There are people that don’t really take that challenge too seriously. But I do. I take pride in it and that’s what I call farm-to-table. That’s what I mean takes time. I go out on weekends and if I get one day off I go [searching for ingredients].
Stay tuned for Part 2 …
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