For Swedish-born chef Fredrik Berselius, a two or three hour drive north of NYC offers a landscape that’s similar to that of his homeland. Whether it be sorrel, bronze fennel and yarrow (which grow at North Brooklyn Farms) or birch bark, garlic mustard, pineapple weed and watercress (which sprout in the Catskills), there are a lot of the same produce and plants too. In fact, plenty of the dishes Berselius grew up eating call for ingredients that grow naturally here. It makes sense then, that the new Scandinavian cuisine Berselius serves at Aska (his Williamsburg restaurant) is ultra-authentic, despite being located miles and miles from the motherland.
The Michelin Star-awarded restaurant—and its 12-course tasting menu—offers up Nordic-inspired experiences, crafted by chefs (doubling as servers) who focus on high-quality, local, seasonal produce. “The flavor profile at Aska is primarily based on my growing up in Sweden, but the menu—in many ways—is a New York-driven menu. I look at similarities between New York and where I came from: in the landscape, in the vegetables, in the products that we use in the restaurant. When I create a menu, many of the courses somehow reflect back on memories of growing up in Sweden, but the ingredients are primarily from here,” Berselius tells us. “Scandinavian food, at its core, is about promoting local, natural and seasonal produce including foraged and wild ingredients. I like to incorporate many ingredients that I grew up with in Sweden that I also found to be cultivated in the Northeast.”
To best understand the subsequent dishes and his influences is to bear witness to the harvest—when Berselius is outside of his kitchen and in the woods north of NYC.
“When opening Aska, the idea was to look at New York, its surroundings and explore it through Scandinavian eyes and food,” he explains. “I wanted to cook in a way that I liked to eat and experience food and to cater to other people in the industry and people with a genuine interest in gastronomy and dining. I wanted to cook and serve food in a way that focused on the essentials, meaning the quality of the ingredient, how it was sourced and how it was prepared.”
Berselius is often first to the season’s harvest. Since the foundation of Scandinavian cuisine is based on necessity and maintaining sustenance through long, cold winters, Berselius forages and preserves a number of ingredients when they’re at their best and serves them months later—salted, pickled or fermented.
“I was an active kid and I loved being outside spending time in nature, experiencing the changing seasons each bringing something different with them,” he says. “In the winter, I loved to snowboard and remember being my happiest out on a snowy hillside in the middle of nature with friends. In the warmer months, I would spend a lot of time at my grandfather’s summer house and he would teach me about wild plants and foraging for herbs and berries in the forests,” he reminisces.
In New York, the desire to forage evolved from a need to expand our pantry and find a connection back to nature
“In New York, the desire to forage evolved from a need to expand our pantry and find a connection back to nature, which I had missed. I have spent countless hours driving around various areas in upstate New York and you learn to recognize natural indicators in the wild that tell you that certain plants will be growing in that area,” he says.
Because of Berselius’ fondness of fresh ingredients and his knack for finding them, Aska’s menu changes often. It coattails the current season—using the ripest, freshest and most delectable ingredients just as they appear in greenmarkets (and sometimes even before). It is all a multi-sensory treat, from the dark decor to the sapid flavors of fermented sweet and savory compotes. “It’s never only about the food,” Berselius emphasizes. “It’s about creating an experience where food is the focal point, but everything around it impacts that experience.”
Images courtesy of Aska