New Nordic Cuisine: Chef Emma Bengtsson
In person, Chef Emma Bengtsson looks like some kind of a fairy, with pale hair, a slender frame, and a gentle smile always hanging about her lips. The 36-year-old grew up in the small town of Falkenberg on the west coast of Sweden, with an abundance of fresh produce from the backyard, the ocean, or the land. One of her favourite foods was the humble potato. “You harvest them from the ground, and cook with some salt. It’s good,” says Chef Bengtsson.
“Because of the cold climate, the potatoes in Sweden have a more intense, crispy flavour.” Originally trained in pastry, she’d been presenting modern Scandinavian desserts at New York’s Nordic restaurant Aquavit
for four years, before taking over the helms in the hot kitchen three years ago. In the same year, the restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars. “Twenty years ago, Nordic cuisine used to be hearty,” says Chef Bengtsson. “It’s a cold country, you need to survive.” Dishes were heavy, with a lot of fat, starch, and protein. “Today, we’ve lightened it up a little.” In the days before refrigeration, salmon, which is beloved by the nation, was traditionally ‘buried’ in the sand with salt by fishermen.
Today, Chef Bengtsson presents gravlax seasoned with salt, sugar, pepper, and dill, topped with sea urchin emulsion, sea buckthorn berries, and coffee tuile. “The most important thing you can do when you’re young is not to stress,” shares Chef Bengtsson. “You don’t want to become a head chef or celebrity chef like that too fast. You want to learn, you want to find a cuisine where your heart is. Because you’re going to do it for the rest of your life.” She’d worked in Paris and Australia before moving to New York. “It wasn’t even supposed to be seven years. I was only supposed to be there for one year. And I fell in love and stayed.” One of the chefs whom she admires is Chef Dominque Creen, who runs two-Michelin-starred Atelier Creen in San Francisco. “She pushes the boundaries, and similar to me, is passionate about her growing up (she’s from France), her background, her family.”
A foie gras ice cream, served with blackberries, birch syrup, and rye crumbles, is bold and irreverent. “I think it has to do with me being in pastry,” explains Chef Bengtsson. “When I went over to the hot kitchen, I wanted to bring pastry with me. I started to play around with different ideas, and the fat from the foie gras goes well with the dessert.” She encourages young chefs to experience restaurants in different countries. “Even if you have no money, and have to live on noodles alone, travel. If you love what you’re doing, you’ll succeed in it.” I’ve tried mangalitsa pork before, but this is the first time that I’ve been able to taste the tenderness of its fatty bits melting over the tongue, filling the mouth with a richness of flavour. Accompanied by lardo, baked celeriac, and apple vinaigrette, every bite is a work of art. “Wherever I went, I always paid attention, and I always want to see what everyone is up to,” says Chef Bengtsson. “The day you become comfortable, that’s the day you lose focus.”
Chef Benjamin Halat, Curate
: “I’m from Germany, and Chef Bengtsson is from Sweden; our cuisines are similar. Both are cold countries, with similar cooking methods; both use fermentation and fatty ingredients. I thought our cuisines would flow well in a four-hands dinner.”
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Adapted from the Mar Apr 18 issue
of Cuisine & Wine.