Dining Out 4 minutes 22 July 2019

Eating Off Duty with Fredrik Berselius

We explore where and what celebrated chefs eat outside their kitchens.

Originally from Stockholm, Sweden, Fredrik Berselius has spent most of his culinary career in New York City. He lived right by the forest as a child, which is where he developed a strong connection to nature—and that connection is now reflected throughout his menus.

"In the summer, we would pick berries and mushrooms and other wild edibles like most Swedes do," says Berselius. "If a neighbor had lots of apples during a particularly bountiful year, they would always share them with us and we'd enjoy them and preserve everything else. We always had preserves stored at any given time throughout the year. It's very Swedish." 

His mother was an excellent cook; Berselius says they always had dinner at home and rarely went out to eat at restaurants. For as much as cooking was a part of his childhood, Berselius thought he would become a professional snowboarder.

"I was [snowboarding] competitively. I didn't know a thing about the restaurant industry and never imagined I might one day become a chef, as much as I loved and appreciated good food."

It was through his sister Michaela that he had his first real glimpse into the industry. When Berselius was a teenager, she moved to London during the late '90s to study hospitality. She had several friends who worked with Alain Ducasse and Pierre Koffmann. Berselius's time spent in London visiting his sister opened his eyes to restaurant life. "I would listen to stories about cooking at [a high] level and all the pressure and excitement that came with it. It was like putting on a performance every night. I found it fascinating and it planted a seed."

He took on several kitchen jobs in London while applying to Central Saint Martins in the early 2000s to study art; when he didn't get into school, he "fell into cooking." For a bit of change, curiosity and to experience something different from Sweden, Berselius decided to move to New York City. He taught himself how to cook and went to the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City where he studied nutrition. Berselius then started working his way through New York City restaurants like the now closed Italian restaurant Falai as chef de cuisine as well as MICHELIN-starred restaurants like Seasonal (closed), Aquavit and Per Se.

Berselius opened his first and now shuttered Frej in 2012, a pop-up in Williamsburg, with partner Richard Kuo. It was his take on affordable Scandinavian tasting menu during a time when money was tight.

Following Frej, Berselius opened Aska, Swedish for "ashes," in its original location in 2012, where he was recognized for bridging the culinary heritage of his upbringing with the immediate environs of his Brooklyn address. He has a small plot at a farm a few minutes away from the restaurant, where in the warmer months they grow much of the greens and herbs used at the restaurant on a daily basis. Most of their ingredients are sourced from other farms primarily in the Catskills area, Maine and other parts of the Northeast. Bladderwrack, or sea oak, is one of Aska's signature dishes, and is served with an emulsion of blue mussels and seasoned with a powder made from blue mussels cooked in vinegar, then dried.

"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'm from—in the landscape, in the vegetables, in all 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 yet the ingredients are primarily from [New York]," says Berselius.

Within less than a year, Aska earned its first MICHELIN star.

Berselius decided to temporarily close the restaurant in 2014 to move to a bigger location near the edge of the Williamsburg Bridge. Aska reopened in the summer of 2016, and within only a few months was awarded two MICHELIN stars. Berselius's first cookbook, Aska, was released with Phaidon in the spring of 2018.

While he aims to build upon Aska, "We are always searching for ways we can grow and evolve, as a team 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."

Bladderwrack, or sea oak, is one of Aska's signature dishes. (Photo by Gentl & Hyers.)
Bladderwrack, or sea oak, is one of Aska's signature dishes. (Photo by Gentl & Hyers.)

What was the last thing you ate?
I just had a small fika, which is Swedish for what is basically a mid-day coffee with a small snack that is usually sweet. I had a double espresso along with pastries brought home from a recent trip to Japan—madeleines from Joël Robuchon's bakery in Tokyo, Le Pain de Joël Robuchon, and some crispy, buttery cookies purchased in Kyoto.

It's your day off. What do you have for breakfast and where?
On my day off, I love having breakfast at home. Lately, it's been either homemade sourdough with a boiled egg or Swedish style pancakes made with oat milk and served with organic raspberries, blueberries, banana, walnuts and maple syrup. Swedish pancakes are smaller and generally thinner than American pancakes, but not as thin as a crepe, and are usually served with a sweet topping.

Controversial question: Do you believe in brunch?
I do enjoy a good brunch on occasion. This past Sunday, I took the ferry from South Williamsburg to Greenpoint to spend some time in the neighborhood and stopped in for brunch at Oxomoco, where I had the tlayuda (crispy tortilla topped with chorizo) and horchata (a rice and coconut beverage). I would do that again.

What is your 2:00 a.m. go-to food?
I rarely ever order takeout or delivery because I love to cook for myself, even if it's late. But when I do, it is either from Sunday in Brooklyn or Birds of a Feather in Williamsburg, two places in the neighborhood that are always good. I always like to try something new from Sunday in Brooklyn. From Birds of a Feather, poached wontons, kung pao chicken and purple rice.

What is your local coffee shop and what do you order?
Jane Motorcycles in Williamsburg, around the corner from Aska. Always a double espresso.

Where do you go when you travel to your favorite city?
When in Stockholm, I always love to stop by two-MICHELIN-starred Oaxen Krog, a beautiful restaurant located in Djurgården, a small island that is walking distance from the center of the city. I always order their delicious rye kavring bread because of its sweet flavor and the fact that it is always freshly baked.

What is the "laziest" meal you put together for yourself this past week?
A blueberry and banana protein drink mid-day.

What is your favorite snack food?
Salted potato chips with a glass of chilled wine. It's the best way to enjoy a summer afternoon in upstate New York. It's simple and effortless when all you want to do is be outside spending quality time with people you love and dinner is not far off.

What is your guilty pleasure?
Salty, sweet licorice candy. Because I am Swedish and that is what we eat all the time. But I don't feel very guilty about it.

Photo of Fredrik Berselius by Charlie Bennet.

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