Aquavit New York opened 30 years ago. Why bring it to London now?
Emma Bengtsson: It’s the perfect time for it. It’s a big city and we wanted to be part of it. It’s a very exciting time for London.
Emma: It’s a Nordic restaurant that opened in Manhattan in 1987. It has a long story that goes up and down. The idea was to bring classic Swedish cuisine to New York and when Marcus Samuelsson became head chef [in 1995], he infused a lot of his background into the cooking, so for many years the cuisine was a mix of traditional dishes with a twist.
After him the restaurant struggled to know where it was going but a number of head chefs did a good job of going back to serving traditional cuisine. I joined in 2010 as pastry chef and became executive chef in 2014. I tried to do something that represents what I know. The way I cook is traditional but with a touch of the New Nordic to it.
Going from pastry chef to executive chef is an unconventional move...
Emma: It wasn’t something I wanted at the time. It started as me just helping to run the place while they found another head chef but that never happened. I started to enjoy it and one thing led to another. My experience with pastry has proven to be useful – it is always a positive to have two sides to your cooking. Pastry requires more attention to detail, it’s a good strength to have. The restaurant got its first Michelin star during my second year as pastry chef and its second star in 2014.
How will Aquavit London differ from the original?
Henrik Ritzen: It will draw on what Emma does in New York but London will be a much larger restaurant. New York is around 45 to 60 seats but London will have 140 seats, so where some of her dishes have 30 different elements on the plate in New York they will have only five or six over here to cope with the size of the restaurant. It will be a more informal setting as well. It’s relaxed dining.
What about the style of food?
Emma: In New York, the focus for lunch is on classic dishes that highlight the basics of Swedish cuisine. Our dinner menu focuses on newer thinking. The idea for dinner is for people to experience old cuisine in a new form with a tasting menu of smaller dishes. In London, we will look to combine these two approaches so there will only be one menu.
Henrik: On the drinks side we’ll have a good selection of aquavit and some Swedish beers and ciders but the wine list will be more international.
Most Londoners will likely associate modern Nordic cuisine with Noma. How different is Swedish cuisine and Aquavit’s cooking?
Emma: Noma put Scandinavian food on the map but there are some great restaurants in Stockholm and Gothenburg that are known internationally for their food. A lot of the Nordic countries have a similar culinary background but one classic recipe in each of the countries will be completely different.
Henrik: People associate foraging and odd flavour combinations with Nordic cuisine but that will not be a core element of Aquavit London. Noma is so abstract and avant-garde and it is not for everyone. We will serve classic Nordic cooking but for the 21st century, and we hope people will want to come back and eat it time and time again. We won’t be using only Scandinavian produce or ingredients from a certain area, and we’ll look to buy British where we can.
What will the price point be?
Henrik: Lunch will be around £35 a head, and dinner £45–50. It will mainly be à la carte although we may do some tasting menus in the PDR. We want to give groups of people the opportunity to choose what they want and not bind a table down to a tasting menu.
Will any of the dishes in New York be recreated over here?
Emma: No dishes will be copied. We may try some of our signature dishes but change them to work in the different setting. I change my menus a lot. The only thing that has been on the menu in New York in the five years I have been there is my Arctic bird’s nest dessert. I had a liver pâté on the menu for two years but that is taking a break right now.
What will be the biggest challenge with opening in London?
Henrik: Finding staff is always an issue, especially with so many restaurants opening.
Emma: It is the same in New York. We take people from Sweden to work over there. The biggest population of cooks in New York is the Koreans. They come for the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and stay for a year afterwards to work in a kitchen. We don’t have a problem taking people straight from school.
You’re one of only three two Michelin-starred female chefs in America. Is it hard to be a woman in the industry?
Emma: I try not to think about it too much. I have discussions about it with Dominique Crenn (the first female chef in the US to be awarded two Michelin stars) and we’re fed up with it. It’s cooking for god’s sake, I can’t figure it out. I think women in general don’t pay as much attention to getting to the top. I’m ambitious, but it was never a dream of mine to be famous.