Aska is truly one of the most unique restaurants in the country. Located near the edge of the Williamsburg Bridge in a restored warehouse building from the 1860s, Aska is the two Michelin-starred Brooklyn restaurant run by chef Fredrik Berselius. Offering a distinctive dining experience, Aska's (Swedish for 'ashes') procession of courses is prepared in an open kitchen and served to guests in an intimate—yet somehow spacious—dining room of only ten tables.
'When I was opening Aska,' says chef Fredrik Berselius, 'the idea was to look at New York and its surroundings, then explore it through Scandinavian eyes and food… The food I serve aims to take the guest on a journey of Scandinavian flavours, memories, feelings, and techniques with an emphasis on ingredients from the Northeastern US. Each course is designed to be a process of discovery.' And we can attest—it is an exploration worth taking.
Q: Could you tell us how a Swedish-born young chef comes to settle in New York state?
FB: The first time I visited as a teenager, I immediately fell in love with the city. I was captivated by the energy and culture, and I knew I had to find my way back here to stay. When I did return, I was offered a kitchen position in a restaurant while I was applying for schools, and was suddenly drawn into the world of gastronomy.
New York City has some of the best restaurants in the world, and the state itself also has a natural abundance that I think is highly underrated. If you go two or three hours beyond New York City, you can find yourself in wild and pristine nature. It is the combination of all these elements that, for me, makes New York such a special place to live and work.
How would you describe the Scandinavian relationship to food? Is this intrinsic to the way that you approach your work?
The Scandinavian relationship to food prizes natural and seasonal cooking, including an inherent love for wild ingredients -- most Swedes grow up spending a fair amount of time in nature and learn about wild and foraged foods early on. For Aska, using wild plants and foraged ingredients is part of our identity as a restaurant and an integral part of telling our story.
The majority of dishes on our menu have an element of something wild and foraged – this could be a fresh vegetable or herb or an aspect of the dish created using foraged ingredients such as oil, vinegar or sauce. In warmer months, we grow a lot of the greens and herbs that we use at the restaurant on a small plot at a farm two minutes away. We source most of our other ingredients from farms that are primarily in the Catskills area of upstate New York, where pristine nature and farmland are abundant.
Preservation techniques and incorporating fermented ingredients have also long been a tradition in Scandinavian food culture. The very long, cold winters meant that fresh produce was not available year-round and therefore preparations like pickling, marinating, smoking and salting were created out of necessity. Here at Aska, we utilize ingredients when they are at their prime and treat them in ways so they can be eaten year-round.
Being a chef and working in the food industry can be very rewarding but also stressful. What inspires you and brings you joy in your work?
Nature and the changing seasons are a huge inspiration in my everyday life, and also in cooking. When I am in nature or merely thinking about it, it always makes me reconnect with where I grew up—I try to bring those flavours and that feeling into the restaurant.
Why do you think your food has captured the public's imagination?
What we offer at Aska is unlike any other dining experience in New York City, and I think people notice that. I believe the city is home to some of the most adventurous and sophisticated diners in the world—I love having the opportunity to introduce new flavours and ingredients to them, whilst also offering familiar tastes that may strike a special memory or tell a story.
I am always trying to consider the whole experience and put myself in the guests' shoes. Hospitality is critical to me, and it's never only about the food—it is the focal point, but everything around it impacts that experience too. All of the chefs at the restaurant serve and explain each dish to the guests, so the same person who prepared that dessert of birch ice cream is also the one serving it. It makes it a much more personal experience, for us as a team and for the experience of our guests.
How does having two Michelin stars change things?
It is a recognition that we are very proud of and honoured to have achieved. We're an ambitious restaurant, and also a risk-taking one, so being recognized in this way means so much. Of course though, with more recognition comes higher expectations and higher pressure.
What does the future look like for Fredrik Berselius?
I feel a constant need to improve and evolve every day. Stagnation is never an option. I want to continue building on what we already have here at Aska. We are always searching for ways we can grow and evolve, personally, and as a restaurant as a whole. In New York, especially there is already a push to be at the forefront, to keep moving forward, so you must keep moving to remain relevant.
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