Morse: How do you define your cuisine today?
food is based on building blocks that I constantly work hard to polish.
My building blocks start with the traditional Swedish [ingredients and
techniques]. I've developed the other [building blocks] here as a chef
throughout the years. As a Scandinavian-American, very often you have
to ask yourself what are you? What is your cuisine about? This forces
you to then line up these blocks. For Scandinavian cuisine, fish and seafood
are big. Sweden is a peninsula surrounded by a lot of water. We have a
lot of lakes and bodies of water to take our fish and seafood from. We
have a big hunting tradition and we have a lot of woods - so game is another
essential. Pickling and preserving techniques are fundamental as well.
This is the one thing that I think every culture really has. Koreans have
kimchee, Germans have their sauerkraut, Peruvians have ceviche. It's something
that a lot of different cultures have. These are the hardcore Scandinavian
building blocks that I incorporate into my cooking.
Aside from ingredients and technique, what are the other 'building blocks'
of your cuisine?
I always think about texture…different types of textures of food. For
example if you have a melon, I think about melon granité, melon foam,
hot melon soup, cold melon soup, melon ice cream, melon sorbet…one ingredient
gives you six different types of textures which will then drive the flavors.
Another big building block is aesthetic. One thing that I think Scandinavia
and Sweden are known for, more so than their food, is their minimalist
design. We have a lot of similarities with Japanese culture. The aesthetic
for me is key. All these 5 building blocks: aesthetic, texture, fish and
seafood, pickling and preserving and game combined drive the flavor. This
is a little bit different than classical French cooking. It's very much
technique-based. Technique comes from somewhere else for me. Produce comes
from somewhere else…they are not as important. If I have the best foie
gras in the world, I work with its texture before I think of technique
Do you serve straight-up Scandinavian food? How do you entice people who
are less familiar?
The types of food people know are French, Japanese, Chinese, maybe Indian,
and Mexican… People will never ever say, 'Today I want to eat strictly
Swedish.' My job is to globalize my cooking. There are fish and game in
many different parts of the world. For example, if I cure tuna I am using
a very classical Swedish thought process, but I am using a tuna rather
than a salmon. My key is to integrate that with global ingredients. My
audience is mixed. A very high percentage of the people who come to my
restaurant are American, so I have to work with this.
Is herring something you serve here? What are some of the typical Swedish
attractions on your menu?
We have two levels at Aquavit. Upstairs you can get a more classical approach
to Swedish cuisine - your straight-up meatballs, herring and gravlax.
Downstairs we also serve herring and gravlax, but even a classical thing
such as herring has an Asian appeal for me. It's the only dish that I
eat the same way I eat sushi. Sushi - tuna, salmon - you compare different
types of fish and different types of pickling ingredients. Herring is
the same thing. Very often, you eat 3 or 4 different types of herring.
On the dining room menu, you have a lot of sweet and savory combinations
as well as unexpected ingredients…in a typical savory dish I found plum
and papaya and in a dessert I saw pepper and goat cheese…
You build harmony when you eat, but you can also build harmony by having
a wake up call, by total shock. A fennel panna cotta makes a person, no
matter who it is, surprised…or curry and chocolate. You don't force [combinations].
You make it so it makes sense. Fennel is part of the citrus family, and
so it makes sense; it's a subtlety. You can make a sweet curry with coconut
milk and brown sugar and it makes sense. It's not about making food 'cool
food,' it's about making harmony and flavors that make sense together.
I never look at a dish and say 'this dish should be served for only a
main course or appetizer.' I look at everything as an option.
Do you tend to pair Aquavit with your food and/or use it as a cooking
Any alcohol is really good for food. You can make great sorbets, vinaigrettes;
you can cure your meat with it. You can use it many different ways.
Does your Ethiopian background have a roll in your creativity? Or, is
this less prominent today?
When you look the way I look there's nothing less prominent. I look 100%
Ethiopian…It's not like I'm half mixed. I love the experiences I've had,
my different backgrounds. It is who I am and I can't change it, but I
think it's fantastic. You can't get exposed to too many things. My Ethiopian
heritage is something that I continue to learn about. I am a student of
Ethiopian culture everyday…I go to Ethiopian restaurants, I've been to
Ethiopia, I took Gourmet magazine with me and we did a big story
about Ethiopian culture that will come out in October. I know more about
Sweden. It (my heritage) is something that I'm very proud of and I think
about it almost everyday.
What are staple ingredients in your kitchen?
It's not ingredients, it's a brush. It's something I've had forever, since
I was a kid. I paint on plates, for example. Anything is a vehicle for
me to serve food on. I use tiles or glass bricks. I don't buy the most
expensive china, I design my own and I use stuff [that exists] in everyday
culture and I put it in my restaurant. I think we're going to move into
a time when cuisine is personalized. It's not so much he's French so he's
got to cook French food. It doesn't work that way anymore. Look at Jean-Georges;
his food is a reflection of where he's been in his life. Vong is a reflection
of that and he now cooks in America and for me it's the same.
Swedes are known for their glass blowing…do you incorporate this into
All of [the glass sculptures in the dining room] are from Costa Boda.
Very cheap. (Laughs).
How do you choose to explore new techniques in your cuisine, like foams?
There is no real difference between what all of the top thousand chefs
have done. Truly. You go via France, or you train with a French chef at
a 3- or 2-star restaurant, work your ass off, get kicked around and then
go back to your home country or city. Why do you go to France? You go
there to get the techniques. After you've done that for 10 or 15 years,
you need to have a revolution within yourself. Anybody will evolve that
way no matter what they do. I can make anything in a cookbook from A to
Z, but now I'm more interested in what happens if I [mix and match], and
that's what drives me. I get cooks in here who come to me because they
want to be part of a unique experience.
How do you find most of your cooks?
They come to me. The New York market is very tough right now, but I've
been on the scene for a while and I have a network of great friends. All
the great chefs in New York are both colleagues and friends [and we all]
work together. It goes both ways; Rocco DiSpirito and I work well together…Floyd
Cardoz and I work well together. We send [cooks] back and forth. Anybody
who has gone through the great chefs such as Daniel or Jean-Georges, of
course that's a plus on your résumé. I try to push people and after a
year and a half with the guy, that guy's got to go.
Daniel says that he requires a year and a half from his cooks for him
to be willing to recommend them to other chefs.
We all have a philosophy in that we want a year out of the guy or a year
and a half. Unless you're going to put the person into management, it's
better [to have fresh attitudes]. This is a profession where you're under
a lot of scrutiny. It doesn't matter what you did yesterday, if you mess
up today, most likely you will be removed from your position. There are
not a lot of jobs where you make one mistake and the next night you're
gone. It doesn't mean that you get fired, but maybe you're removed. People
don't want to get embarrassed - it's worse than being fired.
A kitchen is a very competitive place. What kind of cooks tends to survive
I hire talented people whether they're all women or all men…I never try
to force it. I never say, 'We need to have more guys.' You get reviewed
based on what you serve and if it takes an all-Swedish team or an all-women
team or an all-men team, it makes no difference to me.
How is your restaurant in Minneapolis going?
I'm really excited about what we've been able to accomplish there. In
Minneapolis we have a great chef program where we do a tasting menu together
with all the local talent and great chefs of America. Rocco DiSpirito
was out, Floyd Cardoz is coming in the fall, Deborah Madison is coming
in August. In New York, we have everybody here. We get spoiled. Most parts
of the country don't have that talent. I am happy to be able to put a
stamp on the community in Minneapolis. Now people have a great reason
to love food and there are other great restaurants there too, but we are
What other projects do you have coming up?
We're opening a café in the fall on 37th and Park in the Scandinavian
House, the culture center for all of the Scandinavian countries. I'm going
to run their café and we'll also have banquet facilities. Most private
parties I have to turn down now. We don't have the space to do it. I am
very excited to work with the Scandinavian countries. There're going to
be a lot of art shows and music. To be a part of that whole thing - it's
going to be great. Secondly, it gives us new opportunities.
Who are your mentors? You're pretty young, 30?
No, 29. My grandmother is the one who really taught me how to cook. That's
my number one. In terms of mentors, I had the opportunity to work with
Georges Blanc, which is 3-star Michelin in France. I had a great working
relationship with Charlie Trotter. He really embraced me and helped me
in many ways. I have the utmost respect for Daniel and Jean-Georges, what
they've done and how they remain consistent. Daniel represents high quality
and is truly professional. Every time you meet him he says, 'If there's
anything you need…' He doesn't just say it, he really means it. I've been
in situations when I've needed these great people and they've hooked me
up. Jean-Georges, the same thing. Thomas Keller has done a lot for American
You speak a couple of languages. Which ones?
I speak Swedish, English, a little bit of German. I can understand Dutch
and French but I don't practice it here. I don't speak Spanish, but I'd
really love to.
Of your experiences cooking abroad, which have been most influential?
The greatest experience is to be in New York. I feel like it's one of
the few places in the world where you have a competitive market 52 weeks
out of the year. I have some great cooks, and friends, and chefs in Sweden
that are technically just as good as anybody in New York, but they close
their restaurant in July, half of August, New Year's, Christmas, Easter.
A New York chef never has that opportunity. New York chefs pay top rents
- we have to stay open. Even if you compare us to the 3-star Michelin
in France, they have 5 or 8 months of operation a year, closed two days
a week. That doesn't happen, that doesn't exist in New York. You have
so many tiers of true talent in New York. You can take a guy like the
one at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, Wylie, he's a fabulous chef with just a
small restaurant, Anita Lou on 13 Barrow Street, Diane Forley…these are
small, little restaurants. And then you go to the club scene. Think about
the food you get at Bond St and Moomba. It's a club and the food is great!
You have to go to more than 150 good restaurants for the quality to go
really down. I don't even think Paris has that.
What are your favorite tools and equipment besides your brush?
It's very rare that you have an oven that is even - no matter what brand,
no matter what you do, rarely. I mean even heat…and also that gives to
flexibility so that you can do anything from steaming to cooking a pizza
in one oven.
Isn't there one out called the Accellis by Maytag?
From GE to Viking, they know how to put it together, but you go to any
kitchen anywhere and it's an issue…
You have a line of products. Where can we get them?
At ABC Carpets and Chelsea Baskets at the Chelsea Market in New York.
Swedes have a lot of pride in their culture. Your involvement in the cultural
center shows an appreciation of your cuisine as art.
The culture center asked us to do the restaurant for the Scandinavian
House. If you do quality work it will always come back in a positive way,
and you can see this in other chefs. For example Daniel, all of his partnerships
are with solid people. You get a newsletter, a postcard or a dish in the
restaurant, you can line up all of his stuff and it's all quality and
that is often what I talk to about with my staff. Everything we do at
Aquavit - product line, food, service, flowers - is on the same level
of quality. I am really impressed with how people can dress-down but still
do quality, like Mercer Kitchen, and it's still fun. I ultimately want
to work toward doing different things of my own style. There are a lot
of things that I have to give that other chefs don't have and vice versa.
I use [Daniel and Jean-Georges] as examples.
Do you work with any cooking schools?
I work with all the schools…CIA, Peter Kump, French Culinary Institute.
When I say work, I mean that I don't like to have a relationship where
they send me students. I go to the schools and I do seminars and cook
for them. It goes both ways. I'm working a lot with a charity organization
called C-CAP. It works out really well. I am a very hands-on chef and
want to provide incentive for them. I can't just say, 'I'm on the cell
phone, see you.' It's not just about how I cook, it's about how I carry
myself and my relationships.