The entrance to Aquavit is unassuming—large glass doors open into a dim foyer with light wood paneling. Grassy plants lurk in the low light, and a hostess isn’t immediately available to whisk you into dining room. All this understatement does nothing to downplay the four Michelin plaques hanging prominently on the wall, not least of which is the coveted 2-star award.
Executive Chef Emma Bengtsson didn’t initially want the job. She was more than happy as the restaurant’s pastry chef. “Before I just had to rule my little pastry team of three people,” says Bengtsson, who took over as Executive Chef in April 2014. Since then, she’s taken a 30 year-old establishment and thrust it into the spotlight. Just six months after she took the chef’s hat, Aquavit was awarded 2 Michelin stars for the first time in its existence.
On the outside, Bengtsson too is unassuming. She speaks softly, sweetly, and you almost don’t notice the streak of pink in her otherwise blonde hair. But if her appearance is withdrawn, her food overpowers. Drawing from a childhood crowded around her grandmother in the kitchen, Bengtsson uses her Swedish upbringing to imbue Aquavit’s Nordic-inspired menu with favorites of the past.
In a brief moment of downtime between lunch and dinner, Bengtsson emerged from the kitchen to chat about life as one of the top chefs in New York City. She discussed how she plans her menus, the best way to chop an onion, what she eats on her day off, and more.
How do you think food has changed since you started cooking? These days, it’s practically a luxury good.
I think overall, art has always been important for food. It’s just that we see it in different ways. I always laugh when I look back at cookbooks from 20 years ago. I look at the recipes and the photos, and ask myself, why did people do that? But for them, back then, that was the fashion. That’s how they did it. And I’m sure in 10 years, people are going to look back to us plating on twigs and stones and say, what were they thinking? No matter what time you’re in, if you’re in the restaurant business, it’s always your art going out. It might change styles, but it’s always been about art.
I think for a home cook it’s different. When I grew up, my mom always cooked the food, and it was very important to sit down and eat and spend time together. There was never anything coming from cans, and we didn’t eat any TV dinners. We bought vegetables, and we cooked them. Now, as long as the industry keeps pushing out whole meals for $3.99, it’s hard to convince people to spend $10.00 on a carrot.
So, what’s the process for building a menu in fine-dining?
Normally, I talk to my purveyors and see what’s coming in, what’s good. I don’t work with a day-to-day menu—we’re not a restaurant that puts up new things every day—so, the ingredients we choose need to be things that can hold for at least of couple of weeks. If we know that nettles are coming, but they’re only going to be a very short season, I’m not going to bother incorporating them. I might put them in a little side dish somewhere, but they’re never going to be fully incorporated into a main dish.
Then, we start talking. I involve everyone in the kitchen. It normally starts with me and my sous chef, and then when we start playing around with dishes, we tend to ask people to taste. Sometimes, these people have ideas or they come up with a way to make it better. It’s always been very important for me to involve as many people in the kitchen as I can. If people want to say something, they should not be afraid to say it.
Where does your inspiration for desserts come from?
When it comes to desserts or pastries, my inspiration normally comes from colors or fabric or paintings, like if I see something out walking. For example, if I see something that’s purple and white and looks very nice, I start thinking about what foods are purple and white and which go well together.
You are one of only three woman chefs in the country to achieve the 2-star distinction. Can you talk about being a woman in the food and beverage industry, which is traditionally a very male-dominated industry?
I think overall, the industry in the U.S. is a little bit kinder than in Europe. And I would assume that it has something to do with the fact that the laws are stricter here when it comes to harassment. I know in Sweden—we don’t really have those laws. At least the U.S. has that working in its favor. There’s zero tolerance in kitchens here. I mean, harassment still happens, but you can actually do something about it here, and people will actually listen.
It’s a shame—I went to school with a lot of girls. I’m pretty sure none of them are still in the business. It gets tiring going to work everyday and being bullied or getting called names. You have to grow really thick skin to stay here.
Do you look to hire female chefs for your kitchen?
It’s very valuable to have female chefs. For me, I feel like they’re more organized and absorb knowledge better. Most of them, if they make a mistake once, they never do it again. But overall, in general, I like a balance. I wouldn’t run a kitchen with just women either, and I feel like an entire kitchen can benefit from having both women and men. An old head chef I had once told me that the guys mis-behaved much less when I was in the kitchen than when I had a day off. There was a lot more cursing and screaming. When I was in the kitchen, they would at least tone it down a little. I guess that’s a good example.
How do you know whether or not someone is going to make a good chef? What’s your test?
If I’m looking for interns, the basic skill I test is always onions and chives. It might not seem like much, but these skills really show your knife skills. I would rather have someone cut the onions perfectly and take 5 hours than rush through them in 10 minutes and show me poor work. And I never tell them to do the work fast. I just give them the task and ask them to do as good a job as they can. Someone who just stresses through it is probably not going to pay attention to details for the rest of the kitchen either. So, this person is probably not appropriate for a fine-dining environment.
So how does a 2 Michelin-starred chef chop an onion?
Here, we divide them. Onions are layered, right. So, you take apart the layers and chop maybe just two at a time. It takes a little longer, but then you don’t have to think about going through the onion and spreading the juice while you go down.
Take a red onion for example, if you split it, there’s white and red, white and red, white and red, and so on. The red can be very bitter. If you have a dull knife, that juice releases into the white part, so you get a pinkish mix that will smell and taste more bitter than if you chop individually. It applies to white onions too—the sharper your knife is, and the more you cut instead of chop, the less teary you’ll get. You might not cry at all.
What are your thoughts on the rise of celebrity chefs?
It’s a whole different kind of chef and one that I never want to be. I am very happy just being a chef.
As a celebrity chef, you’re very, very rarely in the kitchen. If you are, you pass through. I’m not saying that you never were—you probably started off as a chef in the kitchen, and then you moved on. I think you’re more of a leader. If you’re a celebrity chef who still has a name-brand restaurant, you’re probably there to check and be sure it’s still what you want it to be, but you move up into a different role.
You also have to be a TV personality. A lot of chefs, we’re not. Put a camera in front of me, and I have no idea what to talk about. It’s really two totally different trades, and you have to know if you are moving into this industry, you don’t finish school and then become a celebrity chef. Most of these chefs put in years of hard work from morning to night. You don’t wake up one night and become a celebrity chef. And once you become one, you have to live it. I’m sure their schedule is not very easy, flying here, flying there. I’ve been on sets for 30-minute shows, and it’s like a 9-10 hour shoot.
On your day off, what do you cook for yourself at home?
I do not cook at home. No way. I have coffee, a bottle of Champagne, and normally chocolate in my fridge. That’s it. [Laughs]
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