Dining

Smorgaschool

What we learned at the farmers' market from Aquavit chef Emma Bengtsson
Emma Bengtsson
Aquavit's Emma Bengtsson shops at the Union Square Greenmarket | Photos: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table

Emma Bengtsson has purple streaks running through her blonde hair, dances a Latin-based style called bachata and oversees a kitchen staff of almost twenty. As the executive chef of Aquavit, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant (stars she retained in the 2016 announcement this week), not only does she have time to dance, but she also runs to the farmers' market at least three times a week. Even on Wednesdays, which are her "small" days. The trick? Other than not sleeping much, she plans her menu with enough flexibility to accommodate last-minute tweaks.

Born and raised in Sweden, Bengtsson trained at the Stockholm Hotel and Restaurant School, where, she says, she learned everything. Since then, she's cooked on a boat in Australia, at Michelin-ranked Edsbacka Krog, and whipped up desserts at Operakällaren before accepting the pastry job at Aquavit in 2010.

What surprised Bengtsson when she arrived to New York was the single focus of the restaurants here: The bread guy serves bread, and the water guy pours the water. In Sweden, roles are shared, she says. Despite the pressure of Michelin eyeballs and Midtown suits, the even-keeled chef likes to read cookbooks, like Paul Liebrandt's To the Bone, instead of The New York Times food section.

What else does she dig? Here are five things she taught us at the Union Square farmers' market:

The chef with tiny tomatoes and edible flowers

① Infused oils: These flavored oils may sound a bit passé, but they're an easy way to add flavor to your meals. But put down the olive oil. Bengtsson says to use canola, so the flavor of the oil doesn't overpower what you're infusing. Recently the chef infused hers with foraged pine buds for a straight-from-the-forest-floor taste, which she drizzles over house-made yogurt, king crab, tiny red cherry tomatoes and chervil.

② Shiitake mushrooms: Bengtsson generally picks out medium-size mushrooms rather than small ones, which are too labor intensive, or big ones, which go mushy. She checks their undersides and makes sure the gills are clean and there are no worms. What about the stems? She uses those, too. She cuts the very tips off and pan-sears them with butter, thyme and a little garlic. Eat them quick, though; that's when they taste best.

③ Potted herbs: In the fall, Bengtsson buys sorrel—a perennial herb—in pots and creates a little garden behind the service station. She says it drives her cooks crazy, but whenever she needs a few sprigs for a salad, it's ready to go. You can buy pots of sorrel at most farmers' markets.

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④ Edible flowers: The biggest expense of the day were several clamshells of edible flowers. Bengtsson hands them over to Aquavit's pastry crew to create dishes like her Bird's Nest––a goat cheese parfait that is transformed into tiny quail egg slices with sea buckthorn yolk in the middle. That goes in a honeycomb nest with yogurt snow and edible flowers, and blueberries are sprinkled about. For dirt, the inventive Swede uses brownie crumbs and halvah. Sounds easy, right?

⑤ Chestnuts: Here's another great thing about fall, roasted nuts. When Bengtsson spied fresh chestnuts at the market, she decided to add them to her crème brûlée dessert that already included powdered chestnuts. As a surprise for her guests, the chef roasts the whole nuts over the fire (the same place she grills her proteins) and serves them in a bowl tableside for the diners to crack open. Now isn't that sweet? A chef who doesn't mind us playing with our food.

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