Swedish Chef: Emma Bengtsson Draws From Her Childhood


Last week, the Michelin Guide unveiled its 2015 star rankings for New York City, bestowing two sparklers upon Aquavit (65 East 55th Street, 212-307-7311). That’s one more than last year, and it’s proof that Emma Bengtsson, who took over the kitchen as executive chef this summer after a long stint as pastry chef, has risen magnificently to the challenge of her new role.

Bengtsson grew up in Sweden, and says her cooking gene came from her grandmother, who lived on a farm and spent every day making food, down to milking cows and then churning her own butter. “I’ve always known that I was going to culinary school,” says Bengtsson. “I never thought about anything else.”

She spent three years studying, then landed a job where she externed (another two-Michelin-star kitchen, in her home country). She spent five years there working the cold line, where she was in charge of appetizers and desserts. Feeling burnt out, she decided to take a break so as not to ruin her passion, and went to Australia for a year, working in restaurants all over that country. When she returned to Scandinavia, she helped a friend open a bistro before another Michelin-starred restaurant called and asked if she wanted a pastry-chef position. She took it, but was immediately overwhelmed — “I had taken too much water over my head,” she says — so she stepped back into a sous-chef role so that she could hone her skills.

Five years later, Aquavit called with another pastry-chef offer, and this time she was ready. Bengtsson packed her bags and moved to New York for what was to be a year-long experiment; after her year was up, she’d fallen in love with the city, so she started the green-card process and stayed. Three and a half years into her tenure at the midtown Scandinavian restaurant, the executive chef left, and she was offered the opportunity to replace him. She tested it out for a bit; when she realized she could do the job, she took it officially. Now, she says, she’s starting to get the hang of running the whole kitchen, and she’s using her unique pastry-oriented viewpoint to give fresh life to the savory dishes.

Congratulations on the Michelin stars! How did you react to the news?
Really stunned and really shocked — I couldn’t believe it happened. I was super nervous. All I wanted was for them to not take away a star. I talked to them on the phone — a woman called and said she had really good news, she wanted to tell us that we got two stars. I think I blacked out a little bit. I was shocked, but really, really happy.

What do you think this means for the restaurant?
It puts us in a category where we’re going to stand out more, people will know who we are, and they’ll come here — bookings are starting to come in already. For my kitchen team, who’ve been working nonstop all summer, it’s nice to get something like this for working so hard.

I feel truly blessed and honored, and I’m excited for what’s to come. It’s a big responsibility, so I have to step up my game a little bit more. I have to make sure everything works the way it’s been working. Everyone here is super excited and motivated. It’s going to be a good year.

What did you do to celebrate?
Went out to a local pub and had a couple of beers. We did it kitchen style — nothing fancy. Just all of us together.

Can you talk a bit about your vision for Aquavit now that you’re running the show?
I want to make good-quality food, but it doesn’t have to be so complicated. I want people to understand what they’re eating — the flavors are amazing, but a cod should taste like a cod and look like a cod; it doesn’t have to be turned into something else. I like molecular cooking, too, but I don’t see Aquavit as being one of those places. This is a big ship for Scandinavian cuisine, and I’d like to highlight more traditional dishes going forward. I think back to my grandmother and what she would cook, and then I develop that into fine-dining dishes. I’m not afraid of using potatoes — in most Scandinavian cooking, if you make it at home, you’re using potatoes. And you don’t have to complicate it that much — you can make roasted potatoes tossed in brown butter; you don’t have to turn it into anything to make it fine dining. You just take the ingredient and give it a push. This is solid, good, grounded cooking so that people can understand what Scandinavian food is.

It seems like Scandinavian food has really evolved. Can you talk a little about that?
It’s hard to put a brand on Scandinavian food. We’re influenced by all regions of the world, and we take everything in. At the base and core, it’s potato, protein, and onion. We do a lot of curing, and smoking comes in, too — we didn’t have the refrigeration process back in the day, so that’s how we’d keep fish and meat in the winter. That’s how we would process it. Sugar has historically been really expensive, too, so we work a lot with acidity and salt. Even pastries coming from Scandinavia are not very sweet. And a pickled cucumber for us is really different from American pickles because we have so much acid in it and less sugar.

But we also pick up so much stuff along the way. Take spices from India: In the ’80s, we had curry in everything. As soon as a new trend is coming, we pick it up. A lot of Scandinavian cooking can go a little overboard.

I get that question a lot, “What is Scandinavian cooking? Is this [what you’re doing at Aquavit] it?” In a way, but we cook with local produce, we get everything from the farms, and we’ve always done that.

Can you tell me a bit about your creative process?
I try to think about what is classic Scandinavian, and how can I take that and make it fit New York and fine dining. For instance, we have a cod dish that I’m pairing with deep fried anchovies and some sauteed potatoes and sugar snap peas. That’s something I would eat as a child, but it would have just been thrown on a plate and it would not have looked very good. So I thought, oh, I’ll take the anchovies and fry them whole — they call them Swedish chicken fingers in the kitchen. And then we did something with the presentation to build the dish up and make it pop. I chose to keep the fish whole on the plates and then build around it like a nest.

For another example, we have a lamb dish. In Sweden, we do our version of pot roast on Sundays. It’s normally with beef, but I wanted to do something more unusual, so I’m using lamb. We’d eat it with it, potatoes, onions, and our Swedish version of a mustard, so I incorporated that. We’re rolling the lamb in the mustard and a parsley crust, and accompanying it with different kinds of onions cooked different ways. Then we coat smashed potatoes in leek ash. These are three main components that I used to eat, but in a more elegant version. So that’s how I’m trying to think about it — what do I really like, what do I want to eat, and how do I make it into something classic? Finding my inspiration always means going backwards in time.

Is that different from pastry?
Pastry was different — Since I’ve always been savory, I incorporated a lot of my savory sir in pastry. Worked a lot with fresh herbs 0 basil yogurt sorbet. Crossing both ways. I like that you don’t have to have — not everything in pastry needs to be sweet and sugary, and not everything in savory has to be hands down meat. When I was in pastry, I had to help exec chef — things had to come from pastry because it was our field of expertise. Now being in the middle, I can use my knowledge and incorporate that into hot food.

What was the hardest thing about transitioning into this role?
Can I say everything? Part of it is the creativity — I used to deal with four desserts. Now I have a full lunch and dinner menu, which means 40 dishes to keep an eye on. I have to make sure we have everything in-house, all ingredients in stock. That’s the hardest. In pastry, I could work throughout the season without much interruption. Now we get fresh vegetables, and next week, I don’t have them anymore. And then the dish falls apart. I have to be constantly on top of what is going out of season in a week.

What about the most rewarding part?
I’m always in a good mood and always happy. I think that’s a good thing. I didn’t notice it myself — my pastry girls told me. I like it. That, for me, is a reward — to have people point out that it’s making me happy.

Any challenges unique to coming in from the pastry side?
I was afraid, especially coming as a female chef, that it would be harder — but the guys in the kitchen are amazing. They’re so understanding, and they’re all there to help when I run into a problem. I’m really happy for the kitchen team I have — they’ve been supporting me 100 percent. They’re amazing. But that was one of my biggest fears — that they’d say, “Who are you?”

Any challenges unique to being a woman?
It’s really hot back there!

What are your biggest lessons learned over the course of your career?
I always said to be humble — it doesn’t get you anywhere to stand on a rooftop and shout. Learn. You don’t know everything, and when the day comes when you feel like you know everything, you need to take a step back, be humble, and realize there’s so much to learn. There’s so much you can become better at, and so many people to share your knowledge with. I’m not going to last forever — if I don’t pass my knowledge on, this industry is not going to work in the long run.

What do you love most about doing this?
I like the hands-on cooking, to actually to be able to help out in the kitchen. I like teaching and helping people out; I like when they ask questions. I like when we get interns who want to build up their careers. I like to involve myself, and help them — that’s why this role suits me so well. I get to help people along the way.

Any thoughts on the restaurant industry here in New York as compared to Stockholm?
There is a broader spectrum of diversity here — even if a lot of restaurants are in the same genre, they still cook very differently. When I went back to Stockholm and went out to eat, it felt like a lot of things were the same; restaurateurs are close-minded. Here, you can find basically anything you want. You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to get a great meal. There are a lot of smaller places that cook fantastic food, and everyone can enjoy it. I wish I had more time to go out and eat.

See any pressing industry issues?
I feel sometimes that a lot of restaurants are depending on reviews — and some places that might not get that much attention really have amazing stuff to put out there. It’s a hard business to compete in. There are not enough journalists or reviewers out there to go everywhere. A lot of smaller restaurants are really good, but they close because they never got any attention. There is so much competition — there are restaurants everywhere.

Any advice for someone going into the business?
Think long and hard about whether this is what you want to do. It requires long hours and hard work — physically and mentally. And it’s not very well-paid, especially when you’re first getting in. It takes a very long time to work yourself into positions where you can make some money, and not everyone gets there. So if you don’t love it, I would think about whether you want to do it. But if you love it, go for it, it’s the most amazing job. You get to spend your days cooking and being free in the kitchen, not stuck somewhere. You’re always moving around, and it’s a good workout even if you eat constantly.

What are your goals?
My short-term goal is to make this restaurant bloom — I want it to be filled with a steady flow of people. A busy lunch, busy dinner, and constant movement. I want it to be one of those spots where people say, “Let’s go to Aquavit — it’s always fun, and they have good food.” Long-term — really, really long-term — I want to open up my own restaurant. I’ve always wanted to have a small place in the countryside where ingredients are local and organic, and everything is made in-house. A small place where the food is amazing. You don’t have to show up in a suit. That’s somewhere in the future. When I’m done with the city.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 7, 2014

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