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Nordic Accents

Michelin-starred chef Emma Bengtsson is making her mark in NYC with Aquavit, arguably the country’s most celebrated Nordic restaurant.


BY JULIET IZON | PHOTOS BY NOAH KALINA

The chef’s tasting menu at Aquavit reads almost like a modernist poem: “Kristal caviar and elderberries … Anise hyssop and dark chocolate…Arctic bird’s nest.” What the menu may lack in description is more than made up for when the dishes arrive artfully plated, intense with flavor, and just a bit whimsical. And, after chatting with executive chef Emma Bengtsson, it is clear how much of the chef is reflected in her food. Without a doubt she is dedicated to furthering the art of Nordic cuisine, but … is that a streak of pink hiding in her blond locks? With Bengtsson, you learn to expect a twist.

Originally from a small town in the west of Sweden, Bengtsson climbed the ranks of some of the most storied restaurants in the area, like Sollentuna’s Edsbacka Krog and Operakällaren in Stockholm, before moving to New York in 2010 to take over as executive pastry chef at Aquavit in Midtown Manhattan. Once installed, she focused on reinterpreting classic Scandinavian desserts as well as creating a new bread program. Just four years later, in the spring of 2014, owner Håkan Swahn offered her the keys to the kingdom: the title of Executive Chef. Her talent caught the eye of the famed Michelin Guide, which awarded the restaurant a second coveted star a mere six months after she took over the kitchen. The honor also made Bengtsson only the second female chef to lead a two-star kitchen in the States.

Central to her success is her deep knowledge of Nordic cuisine and the inventive methods she uses to cook these indigenous ingredients. The Aquavit kitchen features not one but two sous-vide machines, which Bengtsson says are constantly working. Certain traditional Nordic dishes, after all, call for cooking low and slow. “Back in the day when my grandma used to make old-school food, she would put it on the stove two days ahead or in the oven on a really low temperature,” Bengtsson says. “Especially since [Swedes] use the tougher animals, a lot of the meat has to be slow-cooked to become tender. Sous-vide is an easier way of having it under control.” Plus, unlike in her home kitchen, Bengtsson and company are cooking for more than just one table. “It’s not often I can reserve an oven for 72 hours; we need it for other stuff!” she laughs.

Nearly all the meats on the menu, from short rib to brisket, are cooked in the sous-vide machines—sometimes for as long as 72 hours. “Anything that needs tenderizing goes in there, even our kombu,” she says. At last count, eight dishes on the current menu incorporate the circulator in some way. And although Bengtsson has a nearly endless assortment of meats and vegetables with which she can experiment, her favorite sous-vide preparation is a simple one: the egg. “I still enjoy the perfection that comes out every single time. It’s really amazing,” she says.

The humble egg is also an excellent way for home chefs to start experimenting with sous-vide, a cooking method Bengtsson hopes will continue to gain in popularity. “We need to start using the whole animal again,” she says. And when you cook something sous-vide, “not only are you saving money, you’re creating something that’s more beautiful in flavors and textures.” There is one sous-vide frontier she has yet to explore, however: her former stomping grounds of dessert and pastry. “I never really thought about it in that sense,” she says. “But I definitely will,” she adds, with an excited grin.

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