Emma Bengtsson, holder of two Michelin stars, toast of the New York dining scene, didn’t always plan on becoming a chef.
She wanted to be a fighter pilot.
“I was actually almost on my way to the military,” she says. “I was often on the shooting range with my dad, and every week it was like camping in the forest and cooking pea soup for the military.”
Cooking won and now she is bringing her style of Scandinavian food—and her kitchen ethos—to London, where an outpost of Manhattan’s Aquavit is scheduled to open later this year.
Aquavit is one of a recent spate of high-end New York City restaurants that have announced plans to open branches in London, such as a Smith & Wollensky steakhouse on the edge of the theater district.
Bengtsson took over as executive chef of the Midtown restaurant in 2014 after working as the executive pastry chef for four years. When the restaurant received its second Michelin star shortly after, she got a lot of attention for becoming only the second woman in the U.S. with two stars, after Dominique Crenn.
Bengtsson didn’t always think of herself as a female chef, though there are relatively few women at the top level in gastronomy.
“It is such a big thing, being a woman, all of a sudden,” she says. “If I can push younger women to believe in themselves and to strive and evolve in the kitchen, I don’t mind being labeled as a woman chef at all if that can help them.”
She says the macho kitchen culture can be a turn-off.
“The way a kitchen works, the mentality, the harshness, I tend to think of as like going back to kindergarten: pulling your ponytail and calling you names,” she says. “I have a lot of women who do apply for jobs with me because they don’t want to take it.”
That’s why she makes sure her workplace is different. “My kitchen is very quiet,” she says. “No one is allowed to swear and no one screams. We all treat each other like a family.”
She won’t be cooking regularly in London, where her dishes such as salmon, radish, smoked mayonnaise, cucumber; and blueberry corn, goat cheese, yogurt, ice cream will be executed by Head Chef Henrik Ritzen, formerly of Dover Street Arts Club and La Petite Maison.
Aquavit is scheduled to open in November at St. James’s Market, 1 Carlton Street, London, SW1Y 4QQ; http://www.aquavitrestaurants.com/.