Updated: Jun 24, 2020
Swedish chef rewarded 2 Michelin stars, Emma Bengtsson is the second female chef in the U.S. accorded that honor. Her cuisine, an ode to seasonality and locality, tells us a story from Sweden to New York.
Photo by Eric Vitale
Born and raised in a small Swedish fishing village, Emma Bengtsson made her dream come true by coming to the city that never sleeps in 2010. She has certainly become one of the key characters in the New York culinary scene since she was awarded two Michelin stars at the fine dining Nordic restaurant Aquavit in 2014. Her style reflects evolving cuisines of both Sweden and New York City, which features a lot of seafood and wild greens. Aquavit focuses on local and sustainable ingredients, and Emma has built a very strong relationship with the farmers who she has carefully selected.
After talking to Emma, it is obvious how much passion and love she puts into her art, and how difficult being far from her kitchen is to her. “It’s been a little over two months now that I feel like a child who has had all her toys taken away" she confides.
She shares with us today her vision on the future of the restaurant industry, her doubts and her desires to re-open, most likely with a twist.
Welcome Emma to Chefs for Impact!
By Emma Bengtsson as told to Chefs for Impact
What brought you to the US?
"I grew up in a small town on the west coast of Sweden. As a child, I was very lucky to have delicious homemade meals, thanks to what we now call "farmers' markets". I realized quite early on that I was not very good at academics. Cooking has always been one of those things that came naturally to me. Growing up, I became a picky eater because I was so spoiled that it was always easier to cook for myself. I think this led me through all the stages I went through in my life. I left my small town to go to Stockholm cooking school and I was lucky enough to land in a few fine dining restaurants where everyone was so passionate and pushed this way of thinking. I love Sweden and I love the food there, but I felt that it wasn't where I belong. I visited New York in 2004 and after that I couldn't get the place out of my mind. It took me five years to get here. I finally arrived in 2010 and since then, I have never wanted to leave."
What are you doing to keep busy while your restaurant is closed?
"I was lucky because we reopened the restaurant yesterday for take-out and I finally got my kitchen back. For the past two months, I have been at home. I have tried to cook and stay positive because you have to cook to survive and eat. I have to say that there have been ups and downs. It's almost as if you're a child and someone takes away all your toys. Cooking for yourself at home has nothing to do with my job and what I do every day. I have a deep respect for everyone who cooks at home every day. But it has been an interesting journey. I have kept myself going and tried to come up with new ideas, but I was so eager to get back to the kitchen."
How does one adapt fine dining cuisine to home delivery?
"We decided to make classic Swedish take-away food because it's almost like it was made for that. We started this way to be sure of the result and the quality. Now, I'm trying to develop à la carte and three-course menus. It's something I put a lot of effort and thought into. The difficulty lies mainly in finding dishes that the customer can easily assemble and reheat at home.
It is obviously a challenge for us, coming from an environment where you have forty-five different things on a plate, huge ovens, and ten cooks to assist you.
Now you have to scale it all up and get back to "real cooking", so to speak. My thinking in developing takeout is to remember what I ate when I was younger, what my parents cooked, and what people want to eat now. What did people miss when they were locked up for 2 months? It's a new way of thinking, that's for sure."
What is your definition of Sustainability at Aquavit?
"First of all, Food waste is something that has always been on my agenda. It is something that is very dear to what I do. I have always pushed to have as little waste as possible. I do not live in that era where you cut the carrot out into a baby stick and you throw the rest away. That is not sustainable any more, we have to think about utilizing every single scrap. And of course, you have to find a balance. When you are a fine-dining restaurant and you cook a piece of meat, you are going to have to trim the edges. To be honest, we save these parts and we make ourselves a staff family meal at the end of the night. Every little thing you can think about is not being thrown away in my restaurant.
Then it also comes to sourcing and finding ingredients. We have been working tirelessly for the last 5 years to find products and vendors that are sustainable. We do not touch fish and shellfish that are about to be endangered. We have been looking for small farmers in the country who are raising fish in a sustainable way and are taking care of the planet. We do not ship around the world and we try to do as much as we can locally. NY is an amazing area for agriculture. We try as much as possible not to import. It’s an ongoing project that never ends."
Could the coronavirus produce any positive changes in the consumers' relationship with food?
"I think people are more careful about what they eat and they are re-evaluating where they put their money. I can feel in my bones that it will be a long time before the top fine dining restaurants return to normal. I have already seen the movement in Sweden where there is more of a restaurant culture where you can go out and eat good food 4 days a week instead of going out once a month to an expensive restaurant. So, I see that culture changing and I'm pretty sure it will happen in New York too. In the future of food, the consumer will attach more importance to more affordable restaurants than to high-end restaurants."
What changes do you plan to make after the outbreak?
"We’ve already been thinking about the whole scenario where people are not really going back to fine dining restaurants. Luckily enough, we remodeled the restaurant last October and we just launched our bistrot inside our restaurant. That kind of cuisine is more affordable, enjoyable and does not take as long. People might not want to sit for three or four hours anymore. For the near future, I think it is the direction that we should go towards. Everyone is trying to be one step ahead without really knowing where to go. Maybe it is time for the people to start having a more balanced diet and eating more grains, seeds, vegetables instead of beef and chicken."
Is this a direction your cuisine will follow?
"I have always been very vegetable forward, and I work mostly with seafood, instead of land protein on my menu. There is a huge problem with the chicken industry in this country. It is not that we have to stop eating chicken, it is that we have to start thinking about where it comes from. It is a slow-moving process.I think Chefs are trying as much as possible to do little by little."
What’s your favorite seasonal vegetable?
"Asparagus! It’s so nutritious and so good right now!"