With a Michelin star for his restaurant Aska, nominated as a semifinalist for the James Beard award and for People’s Best Chef in 2014, Fredrik Berselius is known for his creative restlessness. His cooking is novel, vibrant and relevant, keeping the Scandinavian heritage alive. In the kitchen, Berselius expresses himself through an unvarnished translation of memories and seasonal ingredients, challenging himself by avoiding stagnation.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself: where did you grow up and how was it like?
“I grew up just outside Stockholm in a suburb called Sollentuna with my parents and my older sister. It was a nice place to grow up – we spent a lot of time outdoors as most Swedish families do.”
How did you become so interested in food, and especially in cooking?
“Partly because my mother was a great cook at home and I didn’t like the food served in the school canteen. But it was my sister who introduced me into the world of restaurants. She lived in London while studying hospitality and I often visited her while I was a teenager. Many of her friends were chefs, including her boyfriend at the time, and I heard a lot of stories about their experiences working in some of the best London kitchens. They all seemed incredibly passionate about it. So it was in London when a small seed was planted. First I spent my time in a professional kitchen in London and moved to several places, after finally moving to New York.”
You live in New York since 2000. What made you decide to move to this dynamic city?
“I had friends who moved to New York so I came to visit them a few times and fell in love with the city, its diversity and energy. I knew I had to make my way back there and eventually call it my new home.”
In 2012 you started the ‘pop-up’ restaurant Frej with Richard Kuo in Kinfolk Studios Brooklyn. After that, Aska. What was the idea behind both restaurants?
“The idea was to look at New York, its surroundings and explore it through Scandinavian eyes and food, while challenging ourselves to use what’s available to us in the surrounding landscape. At the time Frej opened there were barely any restaurants recognizable as Scandinavian or Swedish in New York, so there was also a gap that we wanted to fill. Following Frej, Aska was sort of a natural progression from that, something I ultimately aspired to do.”
Noma in Denmark is again voted best restaurant in the world. How has this influenced your concept for Scandinavian cuisine in New York?
“René Redzepi and his team at Noma have an extraordinary impact on the world of gastronomy and put Scandinavia on the global map. They also remind chefs to pay attention to their landscape and heritage, while at the same time push gastronomy forward. Noma’s recognition as the best restaurant in the world, and all the other accolades they received over the years showed that restaurants can reach that level of success using ingredients other than caviar, truffles and foie gras, which have been the status quo in the world of fine dining for so long. Noma spurred an interest in Scandinavian cuisine around the world, so it definitely opened a lot of doors for us with Aska.”
The Michelin Star for Aska is one of the best recommendations a chef can receive. Is it difficult to keep the same level?
“The challenge never ends but it’s also what keeps us motivated to do what we do every day. The Michelin Star was a huge accomplishment for the team and only pushed us more to keep trying to get better at what we do.”
How do you keep challenging yourself in the kitchen?
“By asking ourselves every day if what we do is up to our own standards. Are we doing the best we can? We also limit ourselves to which ingredients we use and where we get them. We work with what is seasonal even in the dead of winter when most ingredients are scarce. The challenge is what keeps us learning and experimenting with new ideas and pushing ourselves creatively.”
You want to share an experience. What do you expect people to encounter through your work?
“We put a tremendous amount of love and care into what we do every day at the restaurant and of course we want that to come through to our guests. We want to create a special experience for them, to enjoy a delicious meal and to hopefully walk away with a good memory of that brief moment in time.”
“Food is a personal thing, it often brings back memories”, you once said in an interview. What is your nicest memory of food?
“There are so many! At restaurant Aska we used to bake a lot of bread and the smell always brings me back to the days I would come home from school with my mom baking fresh bread in the kitchen. Or even just the act of picking mushrooms and berries brings me back to my childhood. It always makes me nostalgic in the best possible way.”
“You’ve got to take risks. Without risk, nothing is exciting.”Ever took a risk that didn’t turn out?
“Yes, of course. We learn a lot from pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones and that’s how we grow to become better at what we do. The challenge is to see the opportunity even in failure, learn from it and move forward.”
Starting your own restaurant is working 24/7. How does this reflect your personal (married) life?
“I’m lucky to have a supportive wife, but I wish we could see each other more. Probably one of the most difficult parts of being in this industry is finding that balance between your private life and work, and that’s what I’m constantly working towards.”
Consumers are getting more interested in the processing, making and tasting of food. Do you see things changing in the food industry? What’s the main development that you discover nowadays?
“In general people are becoming more ecologically aware and specifically how that connects to food, which couldn’t be a better thing. The consumer is doing their own research about food and where it comes from, how it’s processed so they are no longer blindly consuming what’s in front of them. People are now asking questions, which also means chefs have a much larger role in understanding these things too. I think there’s a huge increase in knowledge and awareness, which will only grow. Another interesting movement is the revival of traditional techniques like curing, smoking, pickling and fermenting ingredients, a lot of which we do at Aska.”
Tempted by all kinds of tastes and ingredients you must have some guilty pleasures ….
“Licorice and chocolate…!”
If you’re not cooking yourself, who do you trust to serve a proper meal (at home)?
“My wife, who is an excellent cook.”
What inspires you to wake up in the morning?
“I especially love getting outdoors in the spring and summer, to see what is growing in nature and to visit the local markets to see what’s available. Right now we’re planning the next phase of Aska, so it’s on my mind from the moment I wake up. “
In an interview you once said: “I do like fashion. If you don’t care at all about what you wear, why would you care about anything else?” What is your relationship with fashion?
“I appreciate fashion as both an art form and as a craft. In New York it’s everywhere around you and I have friends in the industry who are some of the most creative, interesting people I know. Clothes are something you wear on your body every day, and like cooking, can be a medium for expressing yourself. “
What places do you visit in New York when you go out for dinner?
“There is so much great Japanese food in this city and one place I love going to is Kyo Ya. Roberta’s is always fun, I like to bring friends from out of town there. Also evening picnics in Central Park during the summer are special to me.”
If you can host a special table with inspiring people worldwide (dead or alive): who would you invite and what will be on the menu?
“Jim Morrison, my grandfather, the Dalai Lama, Michel Bras, Albert Einstein, John Lennon, Crazy Horse……I would bake bread, bring some cheese and bottles of wine and go to a big park on a summer evening!”
You’re still young with a big future ahead. What are you goals for the next few years?
“Right now all my energy is focused on getting Aska back up and running and better than ever. “
I interviewed Fredrik Berselius in 2014 for Marie-Stella-Maris. Courtesy of images Fredrik himself.