Aquavit’s Executive Chef on Why She Came to New York, the Value of Collaboration, How She Spends Her Sundays, and the Topic that Won’t Go Away
photographs by Evan Sung
Emma Bengtsson, executive chef of Aquavit, has pulled off a nifty trick over the past few years: After serving as the restaurant’s executive pastry chef since 2010, she was tapped by owner Håkan Swahn to switch to her current position in spring 2014. What seemed an unlikely transition proved a triumph: Bengtsson has received three stars from the New York Times, and the restaurant was awarded a second Michelin star in the 2015 guide. Bengtsson was raised on the west coast of Sweden, trained at Stockholm’s Hotel and Restaurant School, and worked in kitchens in Sweden and Sydney, Australia, before moving to New York City and Aquavit. We sat down with her recently in the lounge at Aquavit to discuss her career, how she managed the switch to savory, and some related topics.
[Ed. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Friedman: Let’s talk about your relationship with New York City. Had you visited before you moved here?
Bengtsson: I was here for, like, two days in 2005, maybe. I’d spent a couple of weeks in Mexico and I had a stopover in New York, so I always wanted to see the city. I figured: why not? Came here without knowing anything. I was so lost the entire time, which kind of was the fun part because I got to walk everywhere.
Friedman: Were you alone?
Bengtsson: I was alone. And I fell in love with the city. After that, my goal was always to somehow get back to New York, but it’s not easy. You have to be sponsored. You have to have a restaurant. There’s so many things that have to factor in. I kind of gave up on the idea. I was actually trying to figure out a way to move back to Sydney, which is another city I love, when I got a Facebook message from [former Aquavit chef] Marcus Jernmark.
Friedman: When you say Facebook message, that usually to me means you don’t know the person personally.
Bengtsson: No, I did not.
Friedman: So that was the only way he could get in touch ‑‑
Bengtsson: Yeah. We have the same teacher from school… he was actually the one connecting us.
Friedman: What hit you so much about New York?
Bengtsson: I think the possibility of being whatever you want or wherever you want, that kind of struck me. I always felt like living in Sweden, you always were in a box. You were this person, you hang out with these people, you went to these restaurants.
Friedman: And you picked up on that just in two days of freedom?…