Innovative. Ambitious. Genre-defying. As the former Pastry Chef and current Executive Chef at Aquavit in New York City, Emma Bengtsson has earned all these adjectives and more. Yet rather than a dominant, aggressive personality, it’s her calm, centered persistence that has earned her a spot at the top of the culinary food chain.
You’ve done something that few other chefs have ever accomplished: transitioning from a pastry role to leading the savory side of the kitchen. How did that come about?
Initially, I thought I wanted to be a savory chef. I went to hospitality school in Stockholm, and only ended up making desserts because, at my internship, there was a big guy who came up to me on day one and said, “Great. You’re with me.” I didn’t realize he was the pastry chef, and at first, I was really disappointed. What’s interesting is that I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and the ability to focus on the little details ultimately made me fall in love with pastry.
I spent 15 years just doing desserts, and then the opportunity to become the Executive Chef at Aquavit arrived. I know about Swedish cuisine from having grown up there, but I still said no for a while. Yet I had already been with the team for five years as Pastry Chef, so they knew how I ran things and my determination to always make things better. I think that was why they believed it could work.
What was the biggest challenge about making that shift?
Cooking protein. I hadn’t butchered anything since I was in school, and there were literally 15 years of evolution in the industry that I had missed. It’s a scary thing going into a leadership role and not being the expert. But I had the help of the cooks in the kitchen, and the ability to read, to learn, to study. In the end, there are people who are perfect at one thing; but very few people who can do everything. I’ve decided to try and do everything – with help. I want to learn, to grow and to be better, so it’s the perfect opportunity for me.
So, in essence, your secret is that you lean on the strengths of those around you?
I never got into the industry for fame and glory. Even when it comes to awards or reviews for the restaurant, it’s never about me. It’s the bigger picture. If we can get recognition for the restaurant and everyone who work here – works so hard – what’s satisfying is that those reviews reflect the contributions of the entire team.
Let’s talk about the vision of Aquavit. It opened in 1987, long before Scandinavian cuisine was enjoying the global popularity we see now.
I think it’s important to acknowledge the difference between “Nordic” and “New Nordic” cuisine. What we do is rooted in the former, as it’s inspired by the dishes and the flavors you would experience growing up in Sweden. For me, that means there’s a high level of salt, acid and umami. Of course, what my palate likes is sometimes different than the diner – which I think is true for all chefs – so sometimes I have to scale back those flavors to adapt to our guests’ tastes.
On a larger scale, I’m excited to see that the industry is increasingly interested in Scandinavia. There’s a reason those countries always lead the lists of happiest people, the least criminals and other measures of quality of life. I believe a lot of that is cultivated through food. If you grow up with your parents cooking for you, you’re sitting down and talking with each other on a regular basis. It’s a civilization that is built on socializing. From a health perspective, that’s as important as the ingredients you eat.
I try to bring that atmosphere into the restaurant. For example, we prefer to have no cell phones. Dining out should be a time to relax, to step out of the world and into a completely different space. It’s our job to help guests detach from what is going on in the city outside, to create a little oasis where you can focus on the other people sitting across from you.
Beyond Swedish culture, what inspires your creative process?
Most of our inspiration comes from the seasons and collaboration with the team. I like to follow the philosophy that there are no bad ideas. No one has to come up with a completed dish; they can just offer a suggestion of a technique or a flavor combination. From there, we research, we test and we continue the conversation.
As far as presentation, you always have to wing it with plating. Sometimes you have a clear idea, but it turns out horribly when you try it. Other times, you don’t know what you want to do, but you just start plating and it comes together perfectly. It’s fun because you never know; it’s a game.
In terms of innovation and pushing the envelope, what’s next for you?
The bottom line in our business is that you’re not cooking for yourself; you’re cooking for someone else. But I would like to see Americans become more open-minded about ingredients and consider the issues we have with agriculture in this country. We’re used to eating just 10% of the animal, but there’s also the liver, the hoof, the neck – different cuts that might not be initially appealing. There might not be the same issues ecologically if people were more willing to try those kinds dishes.
On the other hand, I think that fine dining is adapting to the diner. You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars. At our bar, it’s possible to enjoy a cozy evening with just a few dishes à la carte.
In the end, it’s about the whole experience. On my days off, I don’t seek out a restaurant because it has Michelin-starred food. What I’m looking for is coziness: the ability to sit somewhere for a few hours and forget about the world outside.
Learn more about Emma’s restaurant, Aquavit, by visiting their site.
Written by contributor, Carly DeFilippo from Life & Thyme.