Coming to America: Emma Bengtsson
“I always said that I would move to New York City before I turned 30.” This was Emma Bengtsson’s life goal nearly a decade ago—and she succeeded.
Growing up in Falkenberg, a quaint fishing village on Sweden’s west coast, Bengtsson was cast in the culinary arts throes due to her grandmother being an avid home cook. She attended the International Restaurant School in Stockholm at the age of 16 and then began cooking as a pastry chef at Edsbacka Krog—the only two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Sweden at the time.
But all the while, Bengtsson’s heart called her to the City that Never Sleeps. “I always knew I wanted to work [in New York City],” she says. The young pastry chef, then in her mid-20s, recalls the energy she felt when passing through the city in 2005 on her way back from vacationing in Mexico. “Anything I wanted I could find. There was never any restriction to restaurants who would close down with the last booking at 10:00. If I wanted to eat at 3:00 a.m., I could do it. After that, I knew for sure I was going to end up here.”
As luck would have it, Bengtsson was recruited stateside by Aquavit’s executive chef Marcus Jernmark. The two had the same mentor—albeit, at different stages of life—and Jernmark was in need of a pastry chef. The Swedish culinary scene is a small one; oftentimes, the same resumés get passed around through the same chefs. “Everyone knows each other—we steal cooks from each other.”
Bengtsson moved to the U.S. in 2010 when she was 29, just barely making her emigration goal's age limit. She dove right in at the Scandinavian restaurant in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, working with a one year visa.
For the first two weeks, she commuted to and from the city from New Jersey. (“I don't really know where I was,” she recalls.) She found that the pushy and rough-and-tumble New York City reputation wasn't so—everyone, in fact, was very helpful and “fascinating,” even more so in outer neighborhoods and boroughs. (She still holds this true to this day.)
“It’s a very big change,” she says, comparing the people in New York who “tend to be more open” to those of her native Sweden. She attributes the openness to the amount of immigrants living here.
In 2014, Jernmark resigned from his role, giving Bengtsson the opportunity to rise to the occasion. Though she initially declined, owner Håkan Swahn nudged her to try it out. “I was lucky that [he] had faith in me and he was a pillar of support throughout the transition,” she says. Bengtsson took her delicate approach to pastry and adapted it to savory dishes, leading the restaurant to two Michelin stars in the same year.The fare at Aquavit is very true to Scandinavia—light (and bright) dishes with a focus on fresh ingredients, seafood and traditional methods like pickling and preserving. Currently on the tasting menu is lobster that’s been smoked in hay and served with housemade yogurt, sunflowers, artichokes and tomatoes from the local market.
This is the kind of food that Bengtsson likes to eat. “I mainly eat vegetables and seafood—dishes that are fresh and light, nothing too heavy or fried,” she says. In her cooking, she carries with her the greatest lesson that her grandmother gave her so many years ago: “Respect each ingredient, and always be happy.”
Bengtsson is quick to note that American cuisine—be it in New York or elsewhere—is the product of a variety of cultures, hers included. “[America] is a country based on immigrants—every country in the world is what created the American food scene,” she says. “I think that’s what makes it so great.”
In her spare time, she visits restaurants with a more relaxed and casual vibe; one go-to of hers is Blue Ribbon Brasserie.
Outside of the Big Apple, “It’s definitely a slower pace,” Bengtsson readily states of her travels to the other big America cities, including Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. “You find yourself being very irritated that no one is walking as fast as you are. I can see [that] the lifestyle is more relaxed and not as hectic.”
Currently living in her favorite neighborhood of Harlem, and working with a green card, Bengtsson is planning to start the citizenship process in the coming months. Though she's a tad nervous with the current state of things, she would make the same bold decision to move to the U.S. now as she did nearly a decade ago, sharing that being able to live and work in New York City is truly “something special.”
“I love living here and I can’t see myself being anywhere else. I fulfilled my dream—it happened, and I’m very happy about that.”
Hero image by Alexei Monsour.
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