Emma Bengtsson is 35 years old and the executive chef of Aquavit, the critically acclaimed Swedish restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Her state-of-the-art kitchen on East 55th Street is a long way from the small town she grew up in on the west coast of Sweden, where her grandmother nurtured her culinary spirit, teaching her to bake while on holiday from school.
Those lessons took Emma from her little village to Stockholm’s Hotel and Restaurant School, where she trained in every restaurant role, from savory and pastry to waiting tables and hostessing. From there it was off to the pastry kitchen at Edsbacka Krog—the only Michelin two-star restaurant in Sweden at that time—then Restaurant Prinsen, one of Stockholm’s oldest and busiest bistros. Next Bengtsson joined Operakällaren, the award-winning historic restaurant located in Stockholm’s Opera House, where she remained for nearly five years.
In 2010, former Aquavit Executive Chef Marcus Jernmark asked Bengtsson to join the restaurant as pastry chef, where she promptly revamped the restaurant’s bread program and built a reputation for Scandinavian desserts grounded in local ingredients and inspired by the seasons. Aquavit was recognized with one star in the Michelin Guide New York City in 2013 and 2014.
When the executive chef role opened up in the spring of 2014, owner Håkan Swahn did not look far for his replacement. He looked to Emma. One year later, she doubled the restaurant’s Michelin stars — which makes her the second female chef in the United States to run a two-star kitchen and the first ever-Swedish female chef to do so.
Andrea Strong spoke to Emma about taking over a Michelin-starred kitchen from the pastry side, how to make an edible bird’s nest, and the best phone call of her life.
Tell me about your background and how you got into food.
I was very young, about five years old, when I started cooking with my grandmother. We made everything from chocolate cakes to apple crumble and rhubarb pie. I knew I wanted to pursue cooking as a career when I was in high school.
I was never a school person. I was struggling a lot, and you had to have good grades to go into culinary school. So my last three years of high school I studied really hard to get my grades up so I would get in, but I didn’t get into the culinary school I wanted, which was the new culinary school in Stockholm. That school was focused only on cooking; the school I had gotten into offered many things aside from cooking. So I told my dad to write the school I got into a letter to say I wouldn’t go unless they transferred me to the school in Stockholm. I got a letter a couple days before the school started saying that they transferred me.
Did you always want to be a pastry chef or did you prefer savory cooking?
When I started my career I actually wanted to do savory, but the pastry chef at my internship said that I was working for him. So that’s how it started. I stayed for five years there, at Edsbacka Krog, which was the only Michelin two-star restaurant in Sweden at that time, so it was a great opportunity to start off on that level.
Where did you land after you left Edsbacka?
After taking a year off living in Australia, I joined Restaurant Prinsen, a very high-class bistro where I worked in the cold section, doing desserts and all the cold starters and garde manger. Then out of nowhere I got a job offer to become the pastry chef at Operakällaren in Stockholm’s Opera House.
I am always doubting myself, and this case was no different. I knew I wasn’t good enough for it and didn’t know enough for it. I felt I needed more guidance. So I offered to become their sous chef in pastry, and I am glad that I did because I ended up working under Daniel Roos, a pastry chef who is brilliant, and I learned so much from him. And from there, I got the offer to become pastry chef in Aquavit, and I felt I was ready.
How did you feel about moving to New York?
I was so excited. I spent a weekend here in 2003 and I fell in love with the city. I am also a bit of a traveler and I love going places and seeing other cities. I packed my bags and expected to be there for one year because the visa I was on was only for a year. But I didn’t want to leave after that first year, so I ended up getting a Green Card and staying.
You changed the entire bread program when you took over as pastry chef. Why was that?
When I came here we had bread delivered to us from a commissary bakery. I have always been in places where I make all the bread every morning, and I didn’t understand why we would buy mass-produced loaves. They were really good but they didn’t have any love behind them or personality in them. So that was a project that took some time and a lot of work, but it’s something I would not want to have someone else do. Bread doesn’t have to look exactly the same or be perfect, but when you make it yourself it’s in the flavor. It’s a living thing.
We have a white sourdough and we do a classical rye bread with a lot of seeds and pumpernickel in it, and a seasonal bread as well that my baker works on. We just switched over to a seed bread baked in a big loaf shape with whole sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
Two years ago you were asked to become executive chef. You were the pastry chef. Was that surprising?
It was. I actually said no. But they needed someone, so I agreed to step in and do the job temporarily since I had been there for such a long time. I was waiting for them to find someone else, but they had decided to never find someone else. So, it was just me. I am really happy for that now, I needed that push, but it was a hard time transitioning.
Tell me more about the transition.
When I took over as chef a lot of people left, either because they didn’t believe that I could do it as well as the previous chef, or maybe that is just what happens when a new chef comes on? But the people I have with me today have been with me since the beginning. They are an amazing team.
How did you change the menu?
I started slow. We had one Michelin star, so I didn’t want to turn that all over. We were going into summer so that helped change things, because it wasn’t possible to stay the same. So, little by little, one dish at a time, we tried to change things. Slowly, within two-and-a-half months the whole menu was shifted over to me.
How do you create a dish? Do you start with a protein, an idea, or a season?
I work a lot with the seasons and what is locally available from our producers here. That is always a big backbone to dishes. We have a sirloin on the menu which comes from the 7X Farm in Colorado. I like how they are treating their animals. It is amazing how they care for them on massive acres to go outside, and they only slaughter a certain amount; they are not just overproducing to send up meat.
I am proud of the producers we use because I can see that they are making a difference in the world and how we raise our food. Because it’s not just about the food, but about the food that our food eats. It’s about the whole chain.
Once you have your protein, in terms of creating a dish, how does that process work?
We are a very collaborative team. My kitchen has been with me the entire time I have been here and they are all such amazing individuals, and everyone’s ideas are inspiring, I try as much as possible to involve everyone. And of course, I have a brilliant executive sous by my side. He helps me a lot, and we talk a lot about how we are doing, and it’s amazing to have a second in the kitchen who stands by me 100%.
As a woman running a kitchen how do you hire? Do you look for women?
I would not say I am looking for women, but I do have quite a few women in the kitchen. We are all good at different things, and having that balance of both is nice. Right now it’s about 40% women and 60% men.
What’s a dish that you will never take off the menu?
The one thing that I have never taken off the menu for the last five years is a dessert called The Arctic Bird’s Nest. I imagined how you can walk out in the forest and find a nest in the snowy trees. We built an edible version of a nest made from honey tuille; the eggs are made of a goat cheese parfait, and we replicate the egg yolk with sea buckthorn berry curd—it’s a bit sour and tart. Then we have some halva for feathers, some chocolate branches, flowers, and blueberries. We add on a bit of snow made from edible yogurt. It reflects the climate in our region where you can have snow even when it is summer.
Where were you when you found out you had earned a second Michelin star, and how did that feel?
I was so nervous when it came time to get the call. I had only been chef for six months, and I was afraid that they were going to take the one star away. The fear was still there that I took on something that I wasn’t good enough for.
The day I knew they would call, I came in and was trying to work, but I don’t know if I did that much good. I spent a lot of time just watching the phone. And then I got the call, and they didn’t take the star away — they gave me another one. And that was so amazing. I can’t even remember it, but it was the best phone call of my life.
Photo Credit: Signe Birck