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Aquavit’s Emma Bengtsson On The Long Game Of Fine Dining In The Pandemic

Adapting a legendary upscale restaurant to suit a wider range of diners.

Hailing originally from Sweden, Emma Bengtsson is executive chef of Aquavit, one of New York’s legendary fine-dining restaurants and recipient of two Michelin stars.

We were one of the last restaurants in New York to close before the pandemic. I had friends who were like, “Okay, we’re done, we’re closing up.” And I was like, “Oh my God, are we supposed to do this as well?” Then we got the memo that we didn’t have a choice anymore. Every restaurant had to shut down.

We were packing everything up, and I was like, “It’s two weeks. Maximum four weeks. Don’t throw everything out. It will be there when we get back.” Then after two weeks, we were like, “Okay, this is not happening.” Some of us had to get back into the restaurant to figure out what to do with all the food. Since everyone was laid off, we figured, let’s just pack everything up, let people come back and get their paychecks, and get all the food that they can take with them home. We didn’t really have enough in the house to be involved in charities and things like that, because there’s always a minimum to donate. So we were like, let’s just take care of each other. So everyone packed up their turbot and their steaks and just grabbed as much as they could to to survive.

After that, it’s been quite surreal. Every week you get your hopes up—we’re moving forward, now we’re not moving forward. It’s been a roller coaster. The hardest part is just not knowing. Like a lot of people in the restaurant industry, we’re planners. Before we closed, I was planning for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not knowing what’s going on, it’s really hard.

Emma Bengtsson. Photo: Courtesy Aquavit.

I knew takeout wouldn’t really bring in revenue, but it would be a head start. That was what I was thinking—if we’re up and running and have something going on, and people know that we still exist, that will give us a better outcome when we actually open up for real. I could also hire some people back. I have a lot of work-visa people here who were not able to collect unemployment. So we started bringing them back to give them some kind of relief.

We were rewriting menus, figuring out what actually works in a box and not on a plate. It was difficult because I didn’t want to be that restaurant that just takes the food it used to cook and puts it in a box, because a lot of that food doesn’t travel very well. So it was a lot of thinking like, okay, we don’t want to do too much fish, because it’s not going to come out very good once it reaches someone’s house. We don’t want to do a lot of fried food, because that doesn’t really come out very good either. The challenge was how do we keep the standard up as much as possible, while still not having a food cost that runs away, and tons of produce in the house?

We’ve been learning more and more. We’ve never been a takeout restaurant. Before, it was just regulars who more or less demanded to get our food to go. It’s never been on our radar to do it. I don’t consider it horrible though. I’ve had a feeling for the last couple years that we’re moving towards a society where not everyone wants to go out, and they want to have not just the typical takeout options. They actually want to have a little bit more of a fine-dining feel, but still eat at home. I think the pandemic just sped everything up.

We were having a little bit of technical difficulty with outdoor dining because we have a public plaza outside of our restaurant, so it took a little longer for us to get permission to set up. Now I feel that we’re very lucky to have an outdoor plaza, because we don’t have to seat anyone in the middle of the street or on the sidewalk. We’ve been managing to set up around 35 or 40 seats out there.

Photo: Courtesy Aquavit.

We never had outdoor dining before. You eat differently when you sit outside compared to when you sit inside. We started looking at what we want to eat when we sit outside. We were playing around with different ideas that maybe we wouldn’t have done in the old indoor dining scene. It was quite fun, actually, to be able to explore different ingredients and different options. We created some different salads and cold soups—platters and things that might not have been on the scene in the dining room. We figured that on a hot summer day, people might not want to eat hot food.

The high-end, fine-dining restaurants are having a harder time surviving. Last year, when we did our renovation, we started making our lounge and bar area much bigger so we could accommodate the kind of food and dining where you order everything off the menu, and you share it. It’s not tweezer food. As a restaurant, if you’re as large as we are, you have to approach every person and every person’s dining experience in order to survive in the future.

I think indoor dining definitely has to come back. I’m very scared for all restaurants if it doesn’t, because it’s getting colder, and there’s only so long that New Yorkers want to sit outside. It’s not Sweden, where we bulk up in the middle of December and refuse to go inside. We’re very lucky to have this massive restaurant, because 25 percent capacity for us is still a decent amount of people that we can seat. We have four different dining areas. Our capacity is 167 or something like that, so we can still do a fair amount with 25 percent. It’s not enough, but we can start there and show there are responsible restaurants who can handle it safely. Hopefully they’ll let us move up to 50 percent and beyond.

People want to get back to eating out. Looking at other Michelin-starred restaurants throughout the world, 80 percent are open and operating. It’s just mostly those in New York and the US that are still impacted. I believe fine dining is going to come back strong, and it’s not going anywhere. But I do see an uptick in what I call the dining just below fine dining, where you can enjoy quality food, and you can afford to do it a couple of days a week, or you can slink in without having a reservation. I see that coming up even more. Instead of going backwards, the restaurant scene is going to go more forward than ever. We just have to give it a little bit of time.