Food & Drink
Emma Bengtsson, rising star in New York’s restaurant scene
This is Emma Bengtsson
Hometown: Falkenberg, Sweden’s west coast
Family: Mother, father, sister
Career: Early interest in cooking led to enrolment at Stockholm’s Hotel and Restaurant School, followed by training at some of the capital’s top restaurants, including the 2-star Edsbacka Krog and Operakällaren.
Like a small, overheated microcosm of the city itself, New York kitchens have a reputation for big personalities, big ambitions, and big tempers. Throw in brutal hours and fierce competition to impress some of the world’s most demanding and savvy foodies, and an analogy like “pressure-cooker environment” can become literal as well as figurative.
In the midst of all of this there is Emma Bengtsson. Recently named one of 2015’s best new chefs by New York Magazine, the former pastry chef stands apart for a few reasons, not least of which is her humble first reaction when offered a promotion by employer, Håkan Swahn, who asked her to take the helm at Aquavit, his 27-year-old Nordic restaurant on chichi Park Ave.
She turned it down. “Initially I didn’t want the job, because it’s a big kitchen, with a lot of staff, and I came from a position where I was creating a menu with four dishes for lunch and four for dinner. Now, all of a sudden, I have over 40 dishes to do every night,” says Bengtsson. “It was scary.”
Instead, she made a gradual transition, running the restaurant for the first six weeks with the idea of simply maintaining it until a new head chef came along.
“Somewhere along the line, I stopped thinking about hiring someone else,” she says now. “It was hard and there were a couple of months without much sleep, but I came to like it and realized I could do it.”
A second Michelin star
Less than a year into her tenure as head chef, the restaurant won a second Michelin star, making her a force to be reckoned with on the US food scene. However, unlike many of the alpha personality types who dominate the cooking world, the chef gives full credit to the sous chefs and the kitchen team who work alongside her.
The cliché of the frothing, tyrannical, red-faced chef is tirelessly repeated for good reason, she says – but that’s not how she runs her kitchen.
“In almost any top-notch kitchen you’ll find that, and I don’t think any chef would lie about it. You’re very temperamental about what you do, because you put in so much time and love into the dishes, and you want the person who is doing it on a regular basis to see what you see. And it is frustrating to not have that vision realized,” she says.
“We all deal with it in different ways. Some have a raging temperament and let it out that way, while I’m the other way, towards the quiet way of dealing with it.”
Some of her staff, however, tell her that silence can be just as terrifying as a kitchen where communication is carried out via screams and hurled pots.
Bengtsson laughs. “I try to have a friendly dialogue with them and give them a chance to catch up, but they know if it’s really quiet, it’s because I’m in a bad mood. At least I don’t throw things at them!”
Harder for female chefs
The promotion of Aquavit to two Michelin stars sets the executive chef apart for another reason. She is now the only female chef in the city with this status, and one of just two in the United States.
It shouldn’t be important, yet it is. Aquavit’s team is a 50:50 mix of women and men, she says, and if the slew of résumés she receives from highly qualified women is any indication, there is no shortage of talent out there. So why are there still so few female chefs in the top spot?
Bengtsson suggests that the length of time it takes to become a head chef means that the big break often arrives around the same time that those interested in starting a family are doing so.
“It’s hard to work 80, 90 or 100 hours a week with a baby, or even a kid,” she says. On a chef’s schedule, a supportive partner is mandatory. “Some are happier to step down a level so they can keep doing what they love, but it might not be as important to them to be a head chef.”
Bengtsson acknowledges her good luck in having a supportive employer and team, but she also thinks women could learn a few things about entitlement from their male counterparts: “We’re less used to grabbing and taking what we want,” she says. “There’s only one person running each kitchen, so you have to stand up for yourself and your dream – and that goes for a lot of men out there as well.”
Clearly, there are no prizes in the kitchen for shrinking violets of the male or female variety. It’s a physically demanding job full of burns, cuts, sprained backs, bad knees and days upon days of standing. Chefs have to operate on little sleep, and turn up sick or well.
“I have friends with children who say their kids are not going to be cooks,” she laughs. “But it’s worth it, 100%, to do what you love every day. For me, it’s almost like a second home, and a second family.”
Text: Sam Eichblatt
Published: January 28, 2016