A Conversation With… Fredrik Berselius
For Fredrik Berselius, a rising star on New York City’s fine-dining scene, opening his visionary, two-Michelin-starred Brooklyn restaurant, Aska, was a tortuous quest years in the making. Here, the Swedish chef talks about how he integrates his love of design, architecture, and the wilderness around his Masonville, NY, property (where he sources many ingredients) to create his striking, multi-sensory tasting menus.
Michael Mundy: Fredrik, your work is so comprehensive. It’s beautiful to look at. It must smell amazing. The touch must be incredible, and then the taste. What led you to this path? Or let’s start more simply. What brought you into food?
Fredrik Berselius: I don’t know when I first became interested in food, but as a kid, I liked trying different flavors—even when I was very young. I remember I fell in love with Japanese cooking at a very young age.
MM: How old were you?
FB: Six years old. There was one Japanese grocery store in Stockholm. I had one of my first friends—a Swedish boy. He grew up in Japan and then moved to Sweden. They had a rice cooker at home, and every day he or his older brother would come home from school and grab some rice from the rice cooker. I was fascinated by this different culture. Them eating seaweed fascinated me. So I would make my mom take me to this Japanese store where we would buy Japanese rice and seaweed. I’d never been to a Japanese restaurant, so I didn’t really know how to use it. I knew you rolled rice in it. I would fill it with all kinds of weird stuff.
MM: You started early.
FB: I didn’t think much of it. There were foods that I didn’t like, and there were foods that I liked. My mom was a good home cook. We would always have dinner at 6 o’clock at the table. In the summer, we would pick berries and mushrooms and serve it if we had a bountiful year. If a neighbor had lots of apples that year, they would bring over a basket of apples and my mom would preserve them. We always had preserves kicking around in the cellar or in the drawers. There were times in school when I didn’t like the school lunch, and I would run off the school premises, run home and make something to eat, and run back. I was maybe 10 years old. I also remember always going for long walks in the woods. All these little things just planted seeds in my mind. I didn’t know anything about the restaurant industry. I never imagined to ever want to be a chef.
MM: So what ultimately led you here?
FB: My sister worked in the hospitality industry. She went to study hotel management, and on the weekends she would work in kitchens or serve and prep food. I would go see her once in a while—she’s a few years older. That gave me a glimpse into the hospitality world. I would hear about chefs and famous chefs—sort of all the drama in the kitchen. I never really grew up eating in restaurants, but eventually, I did take a kitchen job because of my sister… I was also studying economics in high school, and after high school, I took a six-month break, worked a little as a bike messenger in Stockholm, and a few evenings a week I would study interior design.
FB: On a very basic level—the fundamentals. One of our first assignments was to design a chair.
MM: That pushed you into thinking about design.
FB: Yeah, I mean, I always liked design. My grandfather was a big inspiration to me, a sort of role model who also liked nature. He was the first one to tell me a little bit about nature here and there—what you could eat or not, and how to navigate through the woods. He was also very handy. He built our summer house and was good at basic woodwork. All these little things made me interested in design. How things feel in your hand. How a doorknob feels. How a chair feels when you sit in it. The texture of something. The sound of the texture of something. So then I started graphic design. I thought maybe I wanted to be an architect, so I went back to school and did a bit of that.
MM: You just sort of absorbed everything.
FB: I’ve always been this way. Before I even knew how to really cook, I wanted to write my own recipes rather than looking at other people’s recipes… When I wanted to play music, I didn’t want to play someone else’s music. Cooking had all these elements of being creative. So when I decided to give it a shot, I sort of took a step back from all the things I thought I liked or wanted to study… I just tried to find the best restaurants that I could work in New York to learn as much as possible. I knew early on that I wanted to open my own restaurant because I wanted to create my own little universe.
MM: So for you, it was more than just the food.
FB: Yes, but I didn’t know that either. I knew I wanted to open restaurants and serve food a certain way.
MM: And what was that certain way?
FB: It’s a dying format, but that’s how we’re serving food today. We serve in multiple courses to tell a story with food. It’s a more nuanced idea of the whole picture of an idea. Instead of serving one course where you eat the same thing for half an hour and then you’re done, you serve all these different courses to give you a bigger picture of an idea of cooking, or an idea of food and eating. [When I opened] Aska (the first version), [it] was open for a year and a half… We were very limited with our space and the people we worked with, and I wanted something more. I wanted to keep pushing it, to elevate what we were doing. So we closed down. It took two and a half years in total before we finally found the space where we are currently. I love the space. It’s an old building from the 1860s. It was the first time where everything in my mind has all come together: the food, the servers, the style of food, the style of servers, the furniture, the lighting, the music, everything.
MM: What brought you to where you are now, where you could take a plate and fill it with something so beautiful?
FB: I wanted the food to tell a story. I wanted to keep my relationship with where I’m from and where I live and to sort of find similarities and pull them to create the type of food that we’re serving. It’s all connected, where we are in Brooklyn and the inspiration we find up here.
MM: What are you saying about upstate with your food? What are you trying to convey?
FB: To respect nature and all these sorts of flavors and scents that you get in nature and moments in nature, like sitting here now looking at that field. If you inhale deeply, you can smell that sweet grass. So how can you serve that? Can you serve this moment? Can you serve that field? To get that feeling on a plate, it’s not that easy.
MM: But that’s what you’re going for.
FB: We pick a lot of ingredients from around here. I want the guests in the restaurant to be able to step away from that New York life and showcase a bit of this and tell them a little about the world outside of Manhattan or Brooklyn and try and capture these moments somehow with food. That’s the goal. But then I think with restaurants, there is so much more, too. That’s where everything else comes in: design, furniture, how something feels.
FB: Economics [laughs], yeah, but how something feels in your hand, how something feels in your head or your mood.
MM: Your mood is sort of like a moment of creation. Tell me what it’s like when you put a plate together. What’s going through your mind? How are you seeing things, and what are you hoping for?
FB: Sometimes it can be touching something or eating something and you’re like, “Whoa.” For example, that tree, there is this resin among the branches that we collected last year, and we are using it on desserts now. That resin smells so delicious in my mind, but it also smells like—you know, it’s funny, it also smells like my grandfather, like hanging out around his summer house. And so it really brings me somewhere, and then I want to use it to transport someone else somewhere.
MM: Food can often be sort of like time travel, and it sounds like you’re trying to pull people back and forth between where they are at the moment and where they may have been at one time in their lives.
FB: Very much so, but I try to not be too in your face about it. But it’s interesting, our guests have sort of a relationship with certain ingredients that they didn’t know of.
MM: It sounds like they come back to a very personal level, because you’re drawing on your memories and your experiences with food, and people often have a similar experience.
FB: Right, I think it is a very personal thing. I’m very fortunate that I have people whom I’ve worked with for a very long time. We know how the other thinks. It is a super-personal restaurant, and that’s why it’s also so small. We don’t tend tables and only seat guests once an evening. I often see many of the guests help to serve the food.
MM: How long does a meal take?
FB: Normally three and a half hours. But it doesn’t feel like it. I remember having guests coming in and being worried. We had to change the meal for these guests, because they told us there was no chance they would stay for so long, and then they still ended up sitting there for two hours after the meal was done.
MM: Your work affects people on so many levels, from the visual, the smell, the taste, the touch. It’s such a complete experience. We actually ingest it and we take it with us, so it becomes a part of us physically. This may be a silly question, but why do you do this?
FB: I think that, at the end of the day, what we do is still serve guests. It’s hospitality. People come to the restaurant to have a good time or a nice evening out. And I feel like you can’t just do one thing: only serve good food, or only serve nice wine, or only have good service. They all have to go together. The hardest thing, of course, is consistency. To do the same thing every single day that we’re open.
MM: Is that possible for someone like you? Doesn’t your food change from day to day?
FB: That is the hardest part. We still want to set a bar for everything that we do. We’re supposed to do the same thing every day, and guests expect that we do the same thing every day. So yeah, that’s the hardest for me.
MM: It sounds like you keep things constantly fresh by following the seasons, following the cycle of nature, so things have got to be constantly changing for you.
FB: So that’s the thing, the menu doesn’t change entirely. It evolves like neurons change. And they change in the season. There might be elements that change in dishes, and there might be entire dishes that change. So of course, in February, this place is just dead. There’s nothing growing. So there are not many fresh ingredients in February.
MM: Is that where the preserves come in?
FB: That’s where a lot of the preserves come in. So the hardest thing is to think of what you want to serve in six months. In the winter, we search for other flavors. Like how do you serve a cold winter on a plate without it being a pile of snow? Things smell different in the winter, in the spring, in the summer. Can you capture those scents?
MM: So you’re really focused on what is going on in nature and bringing that to the restaurant.
FB: Right, we do. But then, of course, we preserve a lot of things. Everything—in different ways. Some of them we even excel. Like they take on more flavor, they change, they become super-interesting. You go into a sort of wine territory, where flavors develop and then they can really hit different sensors in your brain.
MM: I have to ask you one last question because I’m personally just dying to know this. I read about a dish you did that was sprinkled with the ash of lamb’s heart. How the hell does somebody get to that point?
FB: [Laughs] So I love coming up here. I was blown away by how, after hitting that two-and-a-half-hour mark from the city, you start seeing all those rolling hills and you start seeing the way the sun starts going down there and it blows up. I remember you can see those lambs, sheep, upon the hills. That was always in the back of my head. We had lamb hearts that we had cured and dried, and we had all of these bedstraws. So we ended up toasting the lamb heart and covering it in this grass from the bedstraw and burning all of it so it became this black powder. It picked up this interesting flavor that was both grassy and lamby. It was sort of like, “How can we capture these hills, this bedstraw in the sunset, the lamb, and the fiery moment?” We set it on fire.