If you’ve ever had the privilege of eating at Aska in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, you know the honed in attention to detail of chef/owner Fredrik Berselius’s Nordic-meets-New York City cuisine. Like stepping through a portal into the mind of the chef à la Being John Malkovich, you are now privy to the careful thought and preparation that goes into every dish of his seasonal multi-course tasting menu. It makes you contemplate nature, or maybe even your soul.
Mr. Berselius’s 240-page tome is a collection of 85 recipes all hailing from the second version of his two-Michelin-starred restaurant. “There may be one that carried over from the first Aska,” he says. Furthermore, it’s a flipbook of personal essays—some of them deeply so—as well as beautiful photography.
Berselius says the book is an extension of what he and his team do in the dining room. “There are these moments [both] inside and outside of the restaurant where I find myself in a place where I want to capture it,” he says. “I find [them] magical and compelling—I wanted to write a cookbook because I wanted to paint a picture of what we do at Aska.”
The process began several years ago when Berselius was reinventing his Aska wheel. He spoke with various publishers, stating he didn’t want to make a traditional cookbook with the basic recipe format. He landed at Phaidon. “I told them how I wanted to write the book, talking about everything that I think about when it comes to Aska and my life, and tell my story of coming to New York from Sweden,” he says. At the restaurant—his home—there’s a very holistic approach to the very personal dining experience.
Though all of this looks fine on paper—and the glossy book is indeed beautiful—creating a cookbook from scratch is no easy feat. (Especially when you’re in the midst of reconceptualizing a high-end restaurant.) “At first I thought it was a great time to start writing a book because I had time on my hands,” he admits. Then having nights and weekends off, Berselius assumed he would be able to to write while contractors were busy painting or plumbing the new space. But you know what they say about what happens when you assume. “It was like all or nothing,” he says. “You can’t be in that mindset if you’re not in it. So time went on and I wrote a couple of pages here and there—I told the publishers I would do it eventually. I just couldn’t start the book until the restaurant was open.”
Once Aska re-opened in the summer of 2016, Berselius started shooting with photographers two weeks later and started delving into both text and recipes. As duty calls, he found himself jumping back and forth between working on improving Aska’s menu, and writing his book on Sundays and Mondays when the restaurant was closed. (All the while shelving one of his favorite pastimes: cycling.) “I started searching,” he says. “I categorized the book in different sections, talking about the space, the menu, the people I work with, Sweden, upstate New York, New York City, Brooklyn, design. Basically everything that’s important to me—all of the stories that we don’t have time to tell our guests when they’re coming in for dinner.” Berselius notes that every recipe at Aska has a backstory, an idea behind it. “There’s a thought process. I felt the need to try to capture it—opening Aska the second time, the way that I wanted it to be originally. It was very important to me and I wanted to ‘time stamp’ it, in a sense.”
“Sometimes when I’m out in nature I hit these euphoric moments,” he continues. “I question or ask myself, 'how can we serve this feeling?' Like you’re in the middle of a flowering field somewhere upstate and there’s a blue sky and everything is perfect, or you’re at the beach and you hear the waves and you smell the sea—how can you put that on a plate?” That very thought process is reflected in every dish at Aska, and thus every recipe in the book.
The personal essays in the new cookbook range from the simplicity of the peace and tranquility of being alone at Aska in the morning hours—“it’s a very special feeling”—to recounting childhood memories with his grandfather in Sweden. “He was [such an] important part of my life in both how I approached life and in my way of cooking.”
All of this was finally wrapped up last December. Berselius notes that it’s a book for both guests who have been to the restaurant and people who simply have an interest in it, providing a source of inspiration. “Hopefully it can inspire someone who is searching for their own path and setting on their own journey.”
Aska officially drops on May 29; Berselius is currently off on a whirlwind European tour, celebrating the launch in Stockholm, London and Amsterdam, before returning back to New York.
Will he do it again? “There was definitely a time in the middle of it all where I said I would never do another book, but now that it’s done, I think I would—but it would be different. Who knows? There’s a chance that this could be my only cookbook.”
Hero image courtesy of Gentl and Hyers.