Chef Name: Emma Bengtsson
Title: Executive Chef.
Awards: Two Michelin Stars.
Three Stars, New York Times.
How old were you when you started cooking professionally?
I was 15 when I first enrolled in Stockholm’s Hotel and Restaurant School and then I went on to intern at Edsbacka Krog, the only two Michelin starred restaurant in Sweden at the time.
What’s your earliest and fondest first memory of food?
There are so many to choose from, although they all revolve around cooking at home with my mother and grandmother. I was allowed in the kitchen at a very young age and would always help as much as I could, although I tended to make more of a mess than actually cook in the beginning. My favourite was always making Swedish cookies and pastries, like kladdkaka, which I actually cook at the restaurant as part of the Arctic Bird’s Nest, as well as Sunday evening pot roasts.
Which chefs inspire you most and why?
Elena Arzak and Ana Roš are certainly role models for their work. I also admire Magnus Nilsson’s and Daniel Berlin’s food. They are both Nordic chefs who are looking backward to traditional Swedish cooking techniques and traditions that are the root of our cuisine, which is something I am trying to emulate at Aquavit. And of course, the late Paul Bocuse, whom I learned about from day one of culinary school and is already greatly missed.
What are your two favourite cookbooks and why?
One of my favourites is Magnus Nilsson’s The Nordic Cookbook. It is also the book I look to the most for inspiration, so much so that the binding is coming apart. It is a fantastic reference guide to traditional Scandinavian cooking and it has sparked many ideas, especially with old-world techniques. Another favourite is The Flavor Bible by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen A. Page. What I like about The Flavor Bible is that it’s not a traditional cookbook, but more of an encyclopedia that is designed for inspiration. Often when I am just starting to think of a dish, I will pull it out to look for ideas for different flavour combinations to base a new dish on.
Which two ingredients could you not live without?
Attika, which is a highly concentrated Swedish vinegar that is incorporated in all of the dishes at the restaurant. It is a key ingredient in any Swedish pantry. The other would have to be butter. I simply love it. Not only is it versatile, it also has the ability to elevate the flavours of a dish into something rich and extravagant; it makes everything better.
What is your favourite comfort food to cook at home?
I never really used to cook at home but after moving and finally having a great kitchen I now cook on my day off from the restaurant on Sundays. When I cook at home I tend to make things like stews, soups or pasta – dishes that can be cooked in one or two pots/pans since I’m not a fan of doing the dishes.
If you could eat at any Michelin star restaurant in the world today, where would it be and why?
If I could eat at any Michelin star restaurant in the world, it would have to be Alinea in Chicago. It’s been on my list for years because not only is Chef Achatz brilliant, but his style of cooking is intriguing to me. It’s quite different from mine and the dishes he creates are genius – I’d love to be able to try them one day.
And who would you take as your guest?
Michelle Obama. She is a wonderful role model and I admire her humility and poise. It would be incredible to hear more about her experiences and get her insights on leadership.
What do you look for in a good chef?
I look for someone who is determined as well as someone who is also a team player. Being able to effectively contribute is crucial for anyone that works in my kitchen, especially since we’re a small team, and I strive to have the kitchen be a collaborative space.
What advice would you give to chefs starting their career paths now?
I like to tell chefs to be patient, take your time to practice the craft and also at the same time don’t be afraid to take risks and go out of your comfort zone.
Chef Emma Bengtsson is Executive Chef at Aquavit.
Address: 65 East 55th Street, New York, United States.
Telephone: +1 212 307 7311