My Five Favorite Meals: Chef Emma Bengtsson
From Sweden to Vietnam to Japan, the acclaimed chef Emma Bengtsson shares the meals that have mattered the most to her.
Emma Bengtsson wanted to be a fighter pilot when she was growing up in Falkenberg, a small Swedish fishing village.
Fortuitously, for us, if not the Swedish air force, her grandmother steered her towards culinary school in Stockholm when she was 16 and Bengtsson was set on her life path. She is now the executive chef at Aquavit, the astoundingly good Swedish restaurant in New York, and one of the few chefs in America to have two Michelin stars.
In 2010, she was recruited to be the pastry chef at Aquavit, which has, for decades, been regarded as a superior eatery. So, she moved to New York, which she feels “could be a country of its own.” Four years later, she became the executive chef and that same year, under her leadership, the restaurant was awarded the Michelin stars. (It’s currently offering outdoor dining as well as takeout and delivery service.)
The restaurant was once, I think it’s fair to say, a bit stuffy, a little formal and somewhat atmospherically restrained. No more! Bengtsson oversaw a transformation in the kitchen and in the dining room, inventing new, more imaginative dishes and inspiring a brighter, more artistically decorated establishment and experience. It’s not a cheap restaurant but, as she likes to point out, for a Michelin honored one, it’s reasonable.
Aquavit’s signature dishes are gravlax particularly and salmon generally, served in a traditional way in the bar setting and “sparked up and made fine dining for the restaurant,” as she explains. “Our herring, too, it’s one of those things you would almost consider it being a peasant food back in the day—a cheap fish, a lot of fat, you could preserve it well. Turning that into fine dining is really fun.”
I asked her why Nordic food was so different from any other cuisine, something we are more profoundly aware of given the wide-reaching fame of restaurants like Noma in Denmark and KOKS in the Faroe Islands. “I think it comes down to our culture being so old, and cooking part of it for so long. We have techniques that have been developed for centuries in a very cold country. Our food today is obviously a reflection of how we cooked many years ago when we had ten, 11 months of hard winter.”
So it’s about having to preserve your food then?
“Preserving, pickling, yes, but for instance we eat very fatty foods, very salty, very little sugar, not things that metabolize too fast. We stick with what is heavier—oil, butter, all the parts of the animal, even things you might not normally use. I think it’s more of a survival thing.”
I mentioned that the most imaginative Scandinavian food seems to be a lot about foraging in very strange places, and coming back with some very strange things, and asked her where she did that here. “I think the strangest place would be Central Park,” she says. “You have to adapt to where you are. We use a lot of foragers and farmers from upstate. It is partly a niche thing, but more it is going back to what we survived on hundreds of years ago, where we realized almost everything in nature in Scandinavia is edible, one way or another.”
Here are her five favorite meals.
I love Sweden in the summertime, especially during August and crayfish season. I was planning on going back this summer for the first time since 2015, which is when this meal is from. It was early August and a wonderful day; warm but not too hot. I had been picking vegetables from my mother’s garden that we prepared as side dishes for the crayfish. We had baguettes, mayonnaise and some Nordic shrimp as well. I guess it is one of those dinners that are very nostalgic for me. It was perfect to have the whole family together and eating my favorite meal. We spent hours at the dinner table just nibbling away on crayfish and shrimp.
When I got to visit Noma in Denmark in 2005 that was the first time I ever made a trip just to go and eat somewhere. Like the guide said, “exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey” and this was definitely that to me. It was impossible to get a reservation back then and it was thanks to my chef’s connection with [chocolate maker] Valrhona that I managed to get a table for two. I remember thinking as a cook not making that much money, that it had better be worth it. The trip, hotel, and dinner was a lot of money for me, but I never regretted it. The experience blew my mind and started my curiosity for who I wanted to become in the future. What I remember the most was the playfulness to food and service and thinking that fine dining does not have to be stiff and uptight. It was the meal that started shaping me into who I am today.
In my teenage years and early 20s, I would save every dime I could so that I could travel for my vacation. In Sweden, you get four or five weeks vacation when most restaurants close during the summer. I would travel mostly to Asian countries, exploring the local culture and the local food. I would never stay in fancy hotels or eat at fancy restaurants. I would make it my mission to seek out the most local eating spots I could find. I remember eating food from street carts, sitting on corners on little plastic chairs and enjoying this amazing food that was cooked with love and sparse ingredients. The wonderful smell of different spices and meat being roasted filled the air and I could go from stall to stall for a whole night just eating.
I traveled to Tokyo around 2015 to visit the Aquavit location and to work with their team. During one of the nights off from the kitchen, we went out to dinner. I have followed Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa and his work during the years and I was excited to try his creations, but I did not know what to expect other than perfection. And, of course, they did not disappoint. Every bite was better than the last and I felt this pure joy while eating his food. The flavors reminded me of Nordic ones; everything was so light and bursting with flavors. The creativity and the playfulness spoke to me as well. I love how beautiful everything was arranged. It was a dinner experience that I will never forget. This is the first time I fell in love with an open kitchen concept and I have wanted to work in one ever since then. And now I finally do!
This is not so much one special dinner but many of them combined—these dinners were at my grandmother’s home. Her food is what made me want to become a chef. We lived a couple of hours away and never got to visit more than a couple of times a year, but the memories of the food and the smell that hit me as soon as I entered her home will never leave me. Every time I came to visit, I would find her in the kitchen wearing an apron, always covered in flowers. She was always cooking; good food takes time. She would normally prepare the roast for days before we arrived, and it was always so juicy and so tender—we didn’t even need a knife to cut it. The carrots would simmer on the stove in salted water covered in real butter. I remember the black currant gelée that she would make every summer when the berries were at their ripest. It was tart but still so sweet. I could eat that with anything. And she knew how much I loved her sweets, so she would prepare her rice pudding and her chocolate cakes for me every time I would visit. She even put some aside for me in a container, so I could take them home but they never lasted longer than the car ride back.
Her love for ingredients and the respect she gave them is a rare thing today to find and I carry her lessons with me every day. The world would be a much better place if every kid could grow up with a grandmother like mine.
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, distillers and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.