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. [Read more…]