Aquavit’s Emma Bengtsson on dessert dreams, old-world traditions and helping the hungry

From invoking “hygge” in homes to “fika” in offices, Scandinavian culture has made a slow and steady rise in American life, encouraging cozy comforts, fresh cuisine and general peace of mind. And in New York City, where almost every culture is represented through food, there has been a slight uptick in Swedish/Danish/Nordic restaurants and bakeries. But the first on the scene was undeniably Aquavit in midtown, which opened in Manhattan in 1987.

Though it was always considered a pioneer in the American dining scene for its high-end, modern take on Nordic cuisine, the restaurant was taken to new heights when Emma Bengtsson became its executive chef four years ago. Since then, Aquavit has earned three-star reviews from the New York Times, Eater and Forbes, and since 2015 has retained two Michelin stars—making Bengtsson the first female Swedish chef to win two stars and only the second female chef based in the U.S. to do so.

Bengtsson also believes she can use her “great platform” as a city chef to make a difference in people’s lives, and will take part in City Harvest’s annual BID Against Hunger event on October 4.

Old world meets the new

Growing up on the west coast of Sweden, Bengtsson says she was a very picky eater throughout childhood — she recalls hating the school lunches — and that it was only when she visited her grandmother for holidays and long weekends that she began to appreciate food.

“She spent so much time in the kitchen preparing everything from scratch, and I just fell in love with her relationship with food,” she said. “It was very healthy, the way we would all sit down and enjoy the meal together. I was always in the kitchen with her… it was the best place to be.”

Her favorite meal from that time—and still to this day—is her grandmother’s pot roast, which was “cooked for so long at such a low temperature that you never needed a knife, it would just fall apart.” The moist meat was served with classic Nordic black currant jelly, and carrots dripping in butter.

When she was older, Bengtsson decided to pursue a culinary career full time and attended Stockholm’s Hotel and Restaurant School. She later interned and worked at some of the most renowned restaurants in Sweden before moving to New York eight years ago, when she joined Aquavit’s team as executive pastry chef. When she was offered the executive chef position a few years later, she decided to take the leap.

Throughout her time at Aquavit, Bengtsson has focused on a balance of keeping traditions alive as well as “meeting the new world” through her dishes, and the restaurant offers those two separate “worlds” under one roof. At lunch there are classic, traditional comfort offerings — what “you could find your grandmother making” Bengtsson says, and “dishes that have been passed down for decades.” At dinner, she puts a more modern twist on those same traditional ingredients—for example, a Matjes Herring (raw pickled herring) served with Swedish cheese, sour cream and red onion.

Bengtsson finds it difficult to pinpoint specific causes of inspiration for her dishes but emphasizes she doesn’t come up with ideas single-handedly.

“I run a very open kitchen and have people around me with great minds, as well,” she said. “I believe that a kitchen should never be run with a hierarchy, so I do involve all of my staff in everything. I’m always open to every idea in the kitchen that anyone has.”

But there is one food item of which she can pinpoint her personal inspiration.

“Desserts I know about — they come to me in my dreams,” she said with a laugh.

‘Everyone has to do their part’

Bengtsson strongly believes in giving back within the food community, which is why she serves on the Food Council for NYC’s first food rescue organization City Harvest, celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.

“There is so much that the Earth provides to us, and just goes in the garbage,” she said. “Before I got involved with City Harvest I didn’t realize how much food was actually wasted, how many vegetables get thrown away because they’re not ‘pretty enough’ for stores.”

She most recently participated in the organization’s Cadillac Dinner Series, where Bengtsson hosted a multi-course dinner with her mentor, chef Elizabeth Falkner. She is also participating in their annual BID Against Hunger event on Oct. 4, a fall tasting event featuring 50 of New York City’s best chefs and mixologists where guests can bid on once-in-a-lifetime foodie and travel experiences to raise money to feed the more than 1.2 million New Yorkers facing hunger.

“We, as chefs, have a great platform and an opportunity to make the world a much better place,” she said. “And feeding people and making sure everyone has a chance to survive and get a meal every day is something that has always been very close to my heart.”

Bengtsson debated what to serve at the event — either a traditional Swedish dish or something with a spin on Scandinavian flavor, and because of the “Cuban/Havana Nights” theme, settled on the latter.

“Havana is one of my favorite places on Earth, and one thing I practically eat every day I’m there is a Cuban sandwich, so I took that idea and wanted to spin it a little bit more toward Scandinavian flavors,” she explained.

Aquavit staff will be slow-braising pork for two to three days until it is completely tender, then shredding it by hand, and topping it with a fermented cabbage they started last week, Swedish wholegrain mustard, and likely some Swedish cheese.

Since it’s sometimes difficult to leave the restaurant for these types of events, Bengtsson wanted to do something that could give back to City Harvest more often—and created a special lunch tasting menu that donates $3 for each menu purchased. She curates it seasonally and makes sure it reflects City Harvest’s ideals—fresh, nutritious food that is filling and can sustain you throughout the day.

“I wanted to help a little bit every day. Everyone has to do their part,” she said.

To do your part, the City Harvest menu is available at Aquavit year-round, and you can donate at cityharvest.org/donate.

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