How busy is Aquavit chef Marcus Jernmark these days? So busy that we caught him between “the rush between lunch and dinner,” as he puts it.
Indeed, Nordic food has exploded all over the city in recent years. Jernmark’s passion isn’t hard to explain: He grew up in Sweden and upon arriving in New York, became the executive chef at the Swedish Consulate in New York. In 2009, he joined Aquavit as a sous chef, working his way up to partner. Under Jernmark’s direction, Aquavit has earned a Michelin star. We spoke with the very handsome Jernmark about his time in and out of the kitchen.
What are the hallmarks of Scandinavian cuisine?
It’s about the ingredients and the technique, and when it comes to every ingredient, it’s about fair sourcing. Working with seasonal products [is] obviously very important. A lot of people have recognized Nordic food through the foraged food movement, but there’s also kinds of other culture going on in Nordic countries. Then when it comes to the techniques, [we are using] modern culinary ideas and mindsets and looking at our old traditional way of cooking food. Instead of very progressive and new, new, new, we’re thinking that old is the new new, and trying to develop that in a modern way.
I think that has made our cuisine very interesting and recognized. I'm doing something very specific here at Aquavit and there’s a lot of restaurants that are very specific, but the average person in Sweden wouldn’t necessarily agree with me to that extent because they might still think that, well, Swedish cuisine is a lot of gravlax. It’s just [like how you hear] American cuisine is a lot of burgers. But if you would ask a chef at Atera, you wouldn’t say American food is about burgers, you would say that American food is about our surroundings. But I think that that’s what the Nordic movement gave to the world — an idea of the true authentic product, and [how] to discover that and redevelop that.
When did you notice Scandinavian food was getting a lot of attention?
I noticed that before I started. I was in Scandinavia in 2003-2004, working in Sweden, when all the communities started to write the New Nordic Food Manifesto. We broke down and explained what Nordic food is to the world. Sweden has nine million people, and that’s the biggest country in the Nordic countries. In the world we’re really small, but all together we’re 20 million-something, so what we said was that we have the same culinary heritage, we have the culinary background, if we could just create the same story and the same message then we’re gonna be recognized as a world cuisine.
And the first one that recognized us was not a Nordic chef, it was Chef Rene Redzepi when he was top of the world cuisine at El Bulli in Spain. He recognized that and went out and predicted and said that Nordic cuisine was gonna be the next big cuisine. Now he is the founder/head chef at Noma [another famous Nordic restaurant] in Copenhagen. So when I started there was already a big, big movement. I think we will see an even greater trend next year, and then it will start to trickle down slowly. And the hype will start to fade, and it’s when the hype starts to fade that the quality is gonna probably progress even more because then people are gonna start focusing on the quality again and not the trend.
At Aquavit, you took the reins from another famous Marcus, Marcus Samuelsson. Did he give you any advice before passing the baton?
We never really met at that point — we met later on. When I joined Aquavit it was approximately a 22-year-old restaurant, so a lot of those things were developed with and under Marcus’ era. So for me the most important [thing] when I came in to the company was to emphasize all the good things and make those even better, and remove all the things that have been kinda just sticking around, because that always happens in design — sometimes you have to change things.
But my intention was not to just change and make things mine, my intention was to kind of zoom in on the great things that have been done and to bring those up to date and I’ve done it with a couple of dishes that were developed under his time. We played around with a tremendous amount of techniques that they used to do that we’ve tweaked and worked on. I really don’t think that it’s being done by just scrutinizing everything and say we didn’t do this better — it’s really about analyzing to see what’s great and what can we do better.
What are you excited about on your menu these days?
I’m excited about the spring. It’s been taking a little bit longer than I expected this year. I felt exactly the same with the fall — it took forever before I started getting the proper fall ingredients into the kitchen. If I had to pinpoint something that I’m more excited about than anything else, what would that be? We are grilling lettuces now in the spring, gem lettuce. That’s really, really beautiful. We have a lot of golden tile fish and watercress in house now that we’re working with; veal, we have a spring lamb, white asparagus — it’s definitely a big spring, it’s one of the best sellers. We serve that with smoked trout roe and smoked beets.
How do you like to unwind?
We have Sunday closed and it’s really beautiful to have that. I think that’s kinda like my day where I try to take it easy. I have my daughter in town so I’m taking her to the zoo and hanging out with her. It doesn’t matter how stressed things are and how much you have on your mind — once you have the responsibility of a 2-and-a-half-year-old, you don’t think about anything else. (Laughs)
Do you cook for her?
No, not really. I cook Swedish pancakes. She loves that.