Spend a day cooking with Emma Bengtsson, executive chef at Aquavit in New York, and you’ll discover that there’s way more to Swedish cuisine than those iconic meatballs (even though hers are some of the best we’ve ever tasted). But you can still trace nearly everything Bengtsson makes today to the lessons she first learned as an apprentice to the most authentic Scandinavian chef she knew: her grandmother.
“I cook food that I love to eat,” she says. “It’s food that comes from where I’m from. It’s what I grew up eating.”
Today, however, she’s far removed from her childhood in the small Swedish fishing town of Falkenberg: Bengtsson lives in New York City, where she stands at the helm of Aquavit, for which she’s earned two Michelin stars. “Obviously it’s a little more complicated,” she says of the upscale fare served at her elegant Manhattan establishment, “but the flavor is still there.”
Before arriving in New York, Bengtsson spent 9 years as a pastry chef in Stockholm’s busiest and most lauded kitchens (which is probably why her caramelized almond tart and chocolate cake are so stunning). Her talent eventually caught the eye of Aquavit’s former executive chef, Håkan Swahn, who recruited her for the pastry position. She took the restaurant by storm, reinventing the menu with her dazzling desserts and instituting a new bread program. However, when she was offered the executive chef job, she was hesitant: “It wasn’t necessarily, at that point, something that I felt like I could handle,” she admits. “But the more I got familiar with it, and thanks to my amazing people in the kitchen who pushed me and encouraged me on, it got easier.”
Perhaps it's not surprising that Bengtsson has fearlessly forged a unique path in the fine-dining world, since even her hobbies are varied and surprising. In her spare time, she’s an avid practitioner of bachata, a dance form originating in the Dominican Republic; she participates in international summits and competitions. Plus, as the daughter of two parents who were in the military, Bengtsson also likes to practice her marksmanship at firing ranges.
Fortunately for us, Bengtsson found time between the dancing and shooting to share some of her favorite Scandinavian classics with us. Whether it's silky cabbage stuffed with luscious beef and pork, a delicate casserole of potatoes and gravlax, or a heavenly caramelized almond toscatårta, these dishes are a sampling of clean, elegant Swedish cuisine at its most delectable.