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?
Bengtsson: Yeah. And everyone was so nice, everywhere I went, whether walking or just going into a bar or restaurant. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the restaurant I went to, but I did go to a place and I had a chef’s tasting and they took such good care of me. And then afterwards I got to go into the kitchen and hang out with the cooks and they took me out, and I was like, “Wow!”
Friedman: You don’t remember the restaurant?
Bengtsson: No, I don’t. It’s bugging me so much. I don’t even know where it is. I was so lost. I just know that I looked it up and I really liked their cuisine. It doesn’t exist today. It’s gone, so I can’t figure it out.
Friedman: Did it surprise you how friendly you found the city to be?
Bengtsson: Yeah, it did. Everyone always said it’s such a rough city and it’s so hard. I didn’t get that.
Friedman: What about in terms of kitchen culture? You’ve worked in Sweden, obviously, and also Australia. Was there a big difference you perceived working in a kitchen here in the States?
Bengtsson: I think that kitchens in the US are more secure in a way for every individual. The culture, especially all over Europe, is set from a little bit of the old school, French way. It can be really hard‑‑very, very hard‑‑especially if you’re a woman. And thanks to all the laws and the regulations and lawsuits that can happen in the US, you work more towards making everyone feel comfortable. It’s not the same harsh name‑calling or bullying that you could normally find in European kitchens. [Ed. Note: There are clearly still problems here as well, as evidenced by the alleged behavior described in the news that broke last night.]
Friedman: Still today?
Bengtsson: Still today, yes.
Friedman: You just brought up something that I usually don’t bring up. Or I do bring it up but I always apologize. You just said, “especially if you’re a woman.” I’m always hesitant to bring up the topic of being a woman chef because I feel like nobody starts off in life saying, “I want to be a woman chef.”
Friedman: I read a lot of interviews with you, getting ready to talk to you. It comes up in every single interview. Does that get to be a drag at some point or do you feel like that’s just something you should and want and need to be talking about? Do you wish sometimes you could have an interview and not have that be part of it?
Bengtsson: In the beginning, yes, I did. I felt like, “Oh, my gosh, seriously? They’re bringing that up again?” All I do is just being a chef. When all the interviews started, it kind of bugged me a little that it was talking so much about it and not more about what I was doing. And then I started realizing that I can’t really forget what I went through. So if for some reason I can help young women or young girls coming into the business highlighting that it’s not an impossible thing to do, that you just have to maybe work a little bit harder at some point. So it’s one of those split things–as a chef I don’t like the question, but as a woman I still feel like maybe it is important to talk about it … because it is hard.
Friedman: So it doesn’t bother you that I followed up on that?
Bengtsson: Not at all.
Friedman: You’ve spoken openly of one day wanting to open a bed and breakfast, or a country place. And you talked about starting to be interested in food at your grandmother’s farm.
Friedman: I’m assuming your grandmother wasn’t cooking food like you’re doing here?
Bengtsson: (laughs) No.
Friedman: And probably you wouldn’t necessarily be doing this style of food at a B&B?
Friedman: But here you are in the middle of this very accomplished, technical, sophisticated, big city, competitive (to some extent) world of cooking. What took you from having this initial spark of thinking, “I want to be around food,” to wanting to do the style of food you do today, as opposed to, say, just being in a bistro or the equivalent of that somewhere?
Bengtsson: It actually dates back to the restaurant [Edsbacka Krog] where I started as a apprentice while still in school. I pretty much spent my whole third year in school just going there on my free time working.
Friedman: Was it connected to school, an externship?
Bengtsson: The first three months was externship and then I just stayed working for free just because I wanted to. And then as soon as I graduated I got offered a full‑time position so I started up there. I always feel like that kitchen was run very differently. It was in the countryside. It was its own little world outside of Stockholm. I think I was there a shorter time than most people, and I was there for almost five years. It became like a family, the kitchen. And the way they did it as well was that the head chef would come up with ideas but it was our responsibility to make it happen. So from the beginning you were part of the creation process. You were not just given a recipe and told to do this. You actually got to be helping. Even me, who was fresh out of school.
Friedman: So that’s where you got the ambition to go in the direction that you ended up going?
Bengtsson: The fine dining world, yeah.
Friedman: Your food here stays very much “on message” in terms of what this restaurant does. You do it in your way, but you’ve managed to not be overly seduced by a lot of the influences of the city, whereas I think a lot of people who cook in New York are very subject to‑‑I don’t really know a better word‑‑trendy ingredients seeping into their food. Do you have to consciously shut those things out?
Bengtsson: It’s a constant struggle. Every day. Because my whole kitchen is involved in creating with me. And a lot of times someone comes up with an idea, and even if it’s good, I still have to go, “No, this would never work for us. This is not what we are. This is to much towards another cuisine…”
But it’s a give and take. Like Swedish cuisine is very close to Japanese, so it’s also a constant battle to not venture too far [in that direction] so diners coming in aren’t, like, “Oh, this is very Japanese influenced.” But we actually have a lot of those flavors compared to Japan as well. We do the curing, the fermentation process, and the pickling and salting and raw fish. A lot of that is pretty similar and I don’t even think people know, actually, how very close [our countries’ cuisines] are. There’s so many Japanese restaurants in Sweden, especially Stockholm. They’re everywhere. And I think you can even see going back to Stockholm how many restaurants lean towards that cuisine. Because we love salt. You have the soy and you have all of that from Japan as well. But it is a battle every day to try and stay in our compartment, so to speak.
Friedman: This has been written about a ton, but let’s talk about the switch from pastry to being the executive chef of the restaurant. A lot of people I know who are classically trained feel like everybody should do at least a year in pastry because you learn certain disciplines, you learn to be precise. It’s great to be able to improvise, but in pastry there’s much more measuring and weighing–it’s so much more specific. A pastry chef once said to me, “Chefs are surgeons. Pastry chefs are pharmacists.” [Ed. Note: It was Wayne Harley Brachman.]
Bengtsson: That’s funny.
Friedman: When you made that switch, you hadn’t exclusively worked in pastry in your career?
Bengtsson: No, just for the last ten years.
Friedman: So in terms of becoming the chef, in terms of your food going on the menu, how prepared were you for that when you and Håkan Swahn first had that discussion? Did you have a notebook of ideas for savory food? Was that part of your mind still working during your pastry years? You’re smiling.
Friedman: Was that part of your evolution that was going on in the background, or did you really have to switch gears after being a pastry chef for a couple of years and say, “Now I have to create a menu.”
Bengtsson: No, I had absolutely no ideas and I wasn’t really ready to switch.
Friedman: You were all in on pastry?
Friedman: Did you think that was pretty much where you’d be for the rest of your career?
Friedman: So what was that process like?
Bengtsson: I don’t think I could have done it without the backup of my cooks in the kitchen. They are tremendous. There’s a couple of them who’ve been with me from the start and were even here before I took over. I mean, just little things, like some of the butchering. I haven’t broken down a pig since I went to school. I don’t really have any idea how to do that but I have a guy who’s brilliant in butchery. So he all of a sudden rolled up and took care of that… to at least get me more comfortable, so I’m doing it. And my executive sous chef Simon, who’s by my side all the time, is brilliant. What do you call like—“brainstorm”—where you kick ideas back and forth? He helps me a lot as well so just the switch over wasn’t easy. The first menu was nerve-wracking. I tried to go back to, “What do I like to eat? What do I want to eat? What can we do with this?” And so a lot of my processes was, “I might not be able to do everything, or know everything I want to do, but I know what I want on the plate, and I’m surrounded by these amazing cooks who might know techniques in the savory world that I don’t know, and then I can bring the pastry world into the savory place.”
Friedman: Meaning what?
Bengtsson: I do a lot of ice cream, gelées, panna cottas, and stuff like that on my savory menu right now, with savory flavors. And then I want to be the kind of chef that lets people grow in the kitchen with me. Because no one is ever fully learned, and I want to learn as well every day. So I never feel like I know everything. I have another guy who’s brilliant in fermentation; that’s his passion. He does it at his house. I know the basics of it but I’m not as good as he is. So listening to him gets me to the point where, ah, okay, I don’t have to go somewhere else or to books or to look for it. I have a guy in the kitchen who’s really good at it already. Why not collaborate and have him come into the project as well?
Friedman: So will knowing you have someone on the team who has a particular strength trigger an idea for a dish?
Friedman: It seems like there’s a certain amount of successful execution built into the way you conceive dishes because you’re playing to the individual strengths of your team.
Friedman: When you first started doing this job, if you had an idea, would you go to the person who does X and talk to them about that one piece of it, or would you kind of huddle everybody together and talk about the dish as a group?
Bengtsson: No, I try and involve everyone. I feel like if ideas only come from one person, there’s only so far you can go. You can’t create a perfect dish, but what if you can create an amazing dish with ten minds? Cooking is for the customers. I want them to get the best experience. I’m not egocentric. It’s not about me. It’s about them. I never put myself on a pedestal and highlight me because I’m not running my kitchen by myself. I have a whole team back there who’s pulling their weight every day to get the food out. So even if I’m responsible for everything that goes out, it doesn’t mean that I stand by the stove and cook everything. That’s always something that’s really important for me to highlight as well, that every kitchen is a team effort.
Friedman: This seems like a very unusual approach to me. I know it happens more and more and I know even years ago there were places where people referred to their kitchens as laboratories and things like that. But you describe it as though you allowed yourself to be in a very vulnerable place with your team as opposed to being, “Now I’m in charge. I need to really kind of exude this leadership vibe, the boss vibe.” It seems like that really served you well. I mean, when you were just talking about your team, you were visibly different; you were smiling and really brightened up.
Friedman: Are a lot of the people who were with you at the transition still here?
Bengtsson: Yeah. My core of the maybe five or six people, they’re still here.
Friedman: So years now?
Friedman: That’s great.
Bengtsson: And my sous chef in pastry, she’s been with me for four and a half years.
Friedman: I wanted to ask you about that because I didn’t see anyone billed here as pastry chef since you shifted.
Bengtsson: No, I’m still there.
Friedman: So you have a sous chef who’s dedicated to that?
Bengtsson: Yeah. She’s backing me up but I’m still the one creating all the dishes.
Friedman: Is that less collaborative than the other stuff?
Friedman: It came up when I was at dinner here that you like to shoot. And I’ve read that you enjoy Latin dancing. How did you come to those two things? I’m always interested in what chefs do in their leisure time because it’s almost always something that gives them something that you can’t get at work, maybe some kind of a release. Do these things provide something that’s a counter‑balance to your day-to-day professional life?
Bengtsson: Shooting, actually, that started when I was a kid. I think it’s called air rifle. I used to compete in that when I was a kid and I recently got to do it again when I went to Dallas. I think what that has in common with dancing is that it’s one of those things where you have to disconnect your brain for a little while, and just be focused on what you’re doing. And the dancing has been with me for four or five years now. It’s a way to get out of the work. Just because you have a day off it doesn’t mean that I don’t call somebody, check my e‑mails, or check in or come in here for some reason.
Friedman: You mean you are doing those things on your day off?
Bengtsson: If I don’t have my dancing to go to, I end up doing that.
Friedman: Whereas if you’re dancing, the phone is in the locker, in your bag?
Bengtsson: I’m not about to have it. And the routines and the techniques and all of that that you’re doing, you can’t really split your mind to think about work and do that at the same time. So it’s a way of letting go of this person and becoming another one.