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Executive Chef Emma Bengtsson Talks Aquavit, New York City Culture and Her Journey to Culinary Stardom

lobster cuisine by chef Emma Bengtsson at Aquavit

Signe Birck

Learn how Chef Emma Bengtsson worked her way up the culinary ladder as a two Michelin star winner at Aquavit and fully integrated herself into New York City culture.

Swedish chef Emma Bengtsson is a culinary rockstar—the ingredients are her music and the kitchen her stage. With the success of the New York City-based restaurant Aquavit, Bengtsson is the first female Swedish chef and the second female chef in the United States to win two Michelin stars.

Emma Bengtsson chef at Aquavit New York

Eric Vitale

“From a very early age, I knew I was going to end up in a profession that would lead me into using my hands and not having to sit by a computer. I was always a very, very picky eater, so I came to terms when I was really young that I liked my mother and my grandmother’s cooking, but that was about it,” Bengtsson said.

Taking the saying “if you want something done right, do it yourself” literally, she found that, if she wanted to eat something that she would truly enjoy, she could just cook it herself. With this seed of culinary desire already planted, it grew larger and larger as she moved through school and eventually became the Chef Emma Bengtsson we know today.

As a 15-year-old in Sweden, Bengtsson entered a three-year trade program that offered hospitality as a concentration. Half of her time spent in the program was focused on academics (math, English, Swedish, etc.), while the rest of her classes were entirely focused on hospitality. She went on to receive formal training at the International Restaurant School in Stockholm.

“I’m very happy that existed. It’s something that works specifically for kids like me. I had dyslexia and couldn’t sit still. I was in and out of meetings with the principal, not doing very well in school, so this worked out well for me,” Bengtsson said.

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elegant cuisine by chef Emma Bengtsson Aquavit

Signe Birck

This desire to always go, go, go made her a frequent traveler. Bengtsson claimed that “Sweden was never really big enough” for her. When she stumbled upon New York City on her way back from Mexico, she fell in love with the city within three days. From that moment, she decided that she would one day live and work in New York.

About seven years later, this dream became her reality. Working her way up from a pastry chef at Aquavit in New York City, which received a Michelin star under Chef Marcus Jermark, Bengtsson eventually acquired his position of executive chef and led the restaurant to a second Michelin star. Under her leadership, sous chefs are appreciated and encouraged.

Aquavit Main Dining Room in New York

“I tell a lot of women out there—and men as well—that if they feel like they are not being treated fairly at a workplace, then that’s not a workplace where they should be. There are millions of restaurants who are crying for good welfare, so if you feel like that is not the place for you, then move on and don’t take it,” Bengtsson said. “It shouldn’t have to be a fight going to work. It should be what you love to do, and you should be happy. Move on to a place where people appreciate you.”

It’s almost hard to believe that Chef Emma Bengtsson, with such a soft voice and caring energy, is an adventure-junkie—pushing herself to skydive, swim with sharks and bungee jump when she has free time. And yet, it makes perfect sense for someone working in such a fast-paced, unpredictable industry, especially in the wake of a global pandemic, to face the things that scare her head-on.

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“Dining out at the moment is something that I’ve started looking at it in another light, and it is definitely a luxury. That is what New Yorkers live and breathe.

desserts at Aquavit in New York by Emma Bengtsson

Signe Birck

“Dining out at the moment is something that I’ve started looking at it in another light, and it is definitely a luxury. That is what New Yorkers live and breathe. If you move into the city, you’re very social, and you need that energy that you get from going out to restaurants,” Chef Emma Bengtsson said. “As soon as we got the green light to open up, I was the first one out there to support restaurants. I still go out on my days off to eat as much as I can outside. We cannot lose what we have. We cannot lose what New York has.”

In these trying times, the hospitality industry is taking an extra hard blow. As someone who constantly interacts with people, stay-at-home orders were challenging for the chef, but she managed to find a new outlet: Instagram. Someone suggested that she start showing her followers what she cooks at home so that she could still receive feedback and communicate with others. Through live cooking sessions, she was able to stay in touch with the outside world.

Chef Emma Bengtsson at Aquavit in New York

Signe Birck

Upon reopening, Aquavit refocused many aspects of its New York City dining experience, including a complete revision of the menu. Rather than opening back up with a chef’s tasting menu that results in a $400 bill after three to four hours, Chef Emma Bengtsson wanted people to have that everyday luxury of being able to go out, dine and support a local restaurant.

“We adapted it for Alfresco dining. We made it more affordable, more approachable, with ala carte, sharing plates, things like that. I’ve gotten great feedback, so it’s definitely here to stay,” Chef Emma Bengtsson said of the restaurant. “We have the luxury of two dining areas, so we started having ala carte in the bar and lounge area. If you still want the chef’s tasting, you can sit in a certain area. I think it’s very important nowadays to cater to all the people around us.”

outdoor dining at Aquavit in New York

Though Aquavit continues to plan for upcoming holidays such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day, it’s still essential to prepare for another derailment. Right now, her advice is to keep surviving, to stay afloat, to stay alive. Bengtsson stressed that it’s impossible to know what the future holds, whether that be another government shutdown or a vaccine, but you should always think ahead, especially in a restaurant.

“One of the important things I always tell friends and family right now is that I don’t think you should be afraid of living your life and going out to restaurants and supporting them as long as you’re taking precautions and being safe,” Bengtsson said. “I don’t want people to be afraid, even though it is a very scary thing. If we all do this together, we can do this.”

Aquavit in New York City now offers indoor and outdoor dining for both lunch and dinner, as well as takeout and delivery options.

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