Swedish chef Emma Bengtsson holds two Michelin stars at the New York City based restaurant Aquavit. She is the first female Swedish chef to win two stars, and only the second female chef based in the United States to do so. Learn more about the Swedish star chef in New York.
Long before the New Nordic movement burst onto the global culinary scene, even before the term “fusion” became a source of fascination and then derision in the food world, there was Aquavit.
“I was not prepared for this, not at all”, says Emma Begtsson (40). “Everything has gone so fast. I just wanted to cook good food. And then everything changed”.
Emma Bengtsson was born in 1981 in Falkenberg, Halland County in western Sweden. She originally wanted to be a fighter pilot, and in preparation for a military career, would go to shooting ranges with her father. Bengtsson was inspired to cook by her grandmother, and went on to study at the International Restaurant School in Stockholm. She interned at Edsbacka Krog, the only restaurant at the time in Sweden to hold two Michelin stars.
The Swedish fine-dining restaurant Aquavit opened in Midtown Manhattan in 1986, and to this day it remains unlike any other dining establishment in the city. Polished and elegant with a distinctive menu that reflects the evolving cuisines of both Sweden and New York City, Aquavit remains unique, balancing traditional fine dining with modern-day whimsy while maintaining its Scandinavian roots under the watchful eye of owner Håkan Swahn.
Related: Scandinavian Eating in New York City
“No matter which menu you choose, each of the delicious and often ambitious dishes is a clever and focused expression of the recently promoted chef Emma Bengtsson’s vision,” wrote the representatives of the Michelin guide in October 2014, six months after the young dessert chef had reluctantly taken over the job as head chef after her predecessor Marcus Jernmark. This wasn’t something Bengtsson had sought, as she had only intended to help out the kitchen while a new executive chef was recruited. Under Bengtsson, the restaurant gained a second star.
Aquavit is probably best known for launching the career of chef Marcus Samuelsson, who surprised and delighted diners with dishes like curried herring that seemed so adventuresome at the turn of the century. And it’s not the most frugal New Yorkers who come to the restaurant at the fashionable Manhattan address Park Avenue Tower, across the street from the Ferrari store and in the same block as the luxury hotel St. Regis, especially not after the other Michelin star was achieved.
Related: Scandinavian Aquavit Made in the USA
“The food for the last couple of years has been so focused on taking something, breaking it down into a thousand pieces and putting it together so it looks like something else, and it’s amazing and a lot of places make it look awesome, but you don’t have to do that with everything,” Bengtsson said. “Stuff that’s already delicious the way it is, if you cook it right, you use the right ingredients, you don’t have to do much else.”
Aquavit opened a second restaurant, in London. This one differed from the New York establishment as it was significantly larger and so the dishes under supervision by head chef Jonas Karlsson are less complicated to allow the kitchen to cope with the number of diners.
Swedish Star Chef in New York, written by Tor Kjolberg