Emma Bengtsson | A Swedish girl in New York

31 Jul 2016
5 min read
Emma Bengtsson has had an unbelievably busy year at the helm of two Michelin-starred Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit in New York. Sophie Cater finds out the story behind the Swedish chef…
Swedish roots

Emma Bengtsson was born on the west coast of Sweden in a small fishing town called Falkenberg. Growing up in a family that revolved around cooking and eating, Emma’s culinary ethos and passion at two-Michelin-starred restaurant Aquavit in New York where she is the executive chef, is engrained in her roots. “From the beginning, I was with my grandmother or my mother in the kitchen (I think more making a mess than actually cooking!),” Emma says, chuckling. “I was always allowed in [the kitchen] and I helped as much as I could at that age.” She has very fond memories of her childhood, which are echoed throughout her cooking today. “I cook food that I love to eat,” she says. “It’s food that comes from where I’m from. It’s what I grew up eating.”

The image of a bright-blonde mini Emma rummaging through the bushes and fields to collect berries, apples or rhubarb to make a crumble in Sweden is vivid. Today, the same bright-blonde Emma is more likely to rummage through the markets of New York’s busy Union Square in search for fresh produce for her Scandinavian dishes at Aquavit. “Either me or my sous-chefs go down to the market during the summer and pick up vegetables from local farmers,” she says. The majority of the ingredients Emma uses at Aquavit are sourced locally or imported from Canada, which lies on a similar latitude to Scandinavia and therefore offers a similar selection of produce. Emma builds her dishes around the seasonal ingredients that she and the team find, as well as her favorite Scandinavian flavors. “We have a cod dish that is accompanied by a dill and chive foam, trout roe, some salt-baked celeriac and some fennel,” she describes. “It is a version of what my mum used to make. She used to bake a lot of cod when I was growing up and the idea is coming from there. Obviously it’s a little more complicated, but the flavors are there.” Each dish at Aquavit highlights the ingredients and aims to intensify them through different cooking techniques and combinations. “In general, I cook basic. I try to go back to the Swedish roots. If you have a beautiful fish, I try not to disturb it too much and I cook it to bring out the best flavors in it.” The core menu at Aquavit changes four times a year with the seasons, “with little tweaks here and there if some things have a shorter season.” However, the chef’s tasting menu changes more often, depending on what interesting things Emma and the team can find on their market rummages.

Although her training began in her family home, Emma completed her professional culinary education in one of Sweden’s top cookery schools, and it was here that her passion and drive were ignited. While completing her final year she undertook a six-month internship at a small restaurant on the outskirts of Stockholm called Edsbacka Krog. “It was a little country house in the middle of a beautiful park,” Emma casts her mind back. “I started there for six months and when I graduated from school they offered me a job. The place was something special.” The team was like a second family to Emma. They were focused and driven, and in her first year the restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star. “The drive behind the head chefs and the cooks, and the passion that they had for everything that went out on the plate, down to the smallest detail, was something that inspires me today. I have a lot to thank the guys over there for who I am today. They basically made me who I am today.”

After Edsbacka Krog, Emma said goodbye to working in the savory kitchen and made leaps and bounds down her prolific pastry path in two of Stockholm’s most established restaurants, Restaurant Prinsen and Operakällaren, the latter of which she stayed at for almost five years. “To actually be offered a position [in the pastry section] coming as a cook was a major break.” Emma explains that it was thanks to her experience at Operakällaren that she was offered the pastry chef position at Aquavit in 2010. And with a thirst for travelling and a goal to work abroad before she was 30, she jumped at the opportunity. “It was a dream come true!”

As Aquavit’s pastry chef, Emma governed a team of three female chefs with whom she built a close-knit, hard-working and successful relationship. Her pastry was illustriously spectacular and she became renowned for her creative interpretations of classic Scandinavian desserts.

Under executive chef Marcus Jernmark Aquavit was awarded its first Michelin star in 2013, but in the spring 2014 Jernmark stood down and the position of executive chef was offered to Emma. Having never had a position of such stature before, let alone having not worked in a savory kitchen for almost 10 years, Emma needed some convincing from the restaurant’s owner Håkan Swahn before finally accepting the role. From working in a small team who knew the pastry drill inside out, Emma found herself with a mountainous weight on her shoulders: she was in charge of additional 12 chefs, the ordering, budget, costing and the task of reinventing the menu. Emma unsurprisingly admits “it was a rough six months” and “was a lot to learn”. But with her toes dipped into the role’s sea of responsibilities, she and the team got some news that would astonish her: in New York’s Michelin Guide 2015 Aquavit was awarded its second star, placing Emma as the second woman in the country with two stars. “It took me by a lot of surprise!” Honored and excited, Emma makes it clear that she is adamant that she hopes that more women will join her and Dominique Crenn in holding this award of culinary excellence. “Now that there are more role models, the younger generation may have an extra kick to know that there is room for us up there.” The accolade is something that she’s proud of not only on a personal level, but also on a social level.

Having successfully lead the kitchen into a different realm of Nordic cuisine–a stripped back, flavor-focused ode to Scandinavia–Emma now aims to keep hold of the second star by remaining utterly devoted to providing a wonderful experience. She wants her guests to enjoy each ingredient and the dish as much as she does. She tells me “I cook the food that I love, but I also need them to love it”. Although many of the guests at Aquavit are local New Yorkers and international visitors, “Swedish people [also] show up interested in what I’m doing outside of the country.” With such a diverse audience, Emma indulges those who know was to expect and to surprise and delight those who are new to Scandinavian cuisine. “We have a lot of local food like herring and gravlax that might not always be what some people know. I still have it on the menu and surprisingly a lot of people turn up thinking that they might not like it, and by the end of the night they change their mind.”

It is not only the cuisine at Aquavit that brings a little of Scandinavia to New York though: the décor is reminiscent of a warm, rustic Nordic escape combined with contemporary, sleek simplicity. Neutral tones, furry shags, and branches bring the rugged landscapes of Sweden in, while frosted chandeliers and clean lines add a sophisticated New York atmosphere. At the bar, guests are invited to try some of the menu’s lighter bites while becoming acquainted with the impressive array of home-infused Aquavit (of course) and Nordic-inspired cocktails. The restaurant is a successful balancing act between an authentic Scandinavian culinary experience and a contemporary cosmopolitan setting.

The city clearly inspires Emma and her cuisine at Aquavit but it seems to do more: it provides her with well-deserved respite and solace. “Even though it’s a very hectic city, for me it has a soothing effect. If I have a day off I go through Central Park or through Park Avenue. I’m in love with this city – I’m staying!” She is a Swedish girl in love with New York.