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Emma Bengtsson on being a Michelin-starred female chef and her creations at The GREAT Food Festival

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Emma Bengtsson on being a Michelin-starred female chef and her creations at The GREAT Food Festival
Part 3 of 3: Cream of the crop

The wait is finally over — The GREAT Food Festival (TGFF) opens its doors to public today, and will display a smorgasbord of the world's best food over the next few days at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS), the single dining destination in Singapore with the most number of Michelin stars.

If you need one reason to head down, it's the slew of chefs that are expected to fire up their delectable food on our shores. Celebrity chefs such as Cat Cora, Ben Spalding, Scott Webster, and Emma Bengtsson will be at the Star Chef Arena tantalising our tastebuds with complex creations and a myriad of textures and flavours. With over 50 dishes available for your picking, our only advice is to come ready to feast like a king.

In the last of our three-part interview series with TGFF, we speak to the talented Chef Emma Bengtsson ahead of the festival to discover what it's like being female in male dominated industry, her first foray into the culinary world, and the food she'll be putting up. Chef Bengtsson heads up the two Michelin star restaurant, Aquavit, in New York City — making her only the second female chef in America to run a two-star kitchen.

tgff, rws, emma bengtsson

 You're only one of two female Michelin-starred chefs in America. How does that feel?
I feel very honoured to be amongst such a talented group of women. That said, I don't really see myself as being a female chef; I just view myself as a chef. I do realise though that there are not that many women at the level I am at, and I don't think it's necessarily because it's tougher for women, but it's an industry that's very challenging in general.

What's the hardest part about being a woman in the food industry?
I'm very lucky to have an extremely supportive owner, front of house team (also run by a woman), and kitchen staff that make my job easy. For me, as with all chefs I think, both male and female, is the time commitment and being away from home, and having to juggle work life balance. However, it's worth the sacrifice because I love what I do.

"For me, as with all chefs I think, both male and female, is the time commitment and being away from home, and having to juggle work life balance. However, it's worth the sacrifice because I love what I do."

You grew up in Sweden and now live in New York City. Has growing up in Sweden played a big part in your cooking today, and how so?
My childhood in Sweden continues to play a pivotal role in my cooking. Whenever I look to create a dish for Aquavit, I always look to have it rooted in something traditional — such as adding new techniques to familiar flavours that are very common back home in Sweden. My favourite dishes are always the ones that are tied to a memory; for example, my new take on the pâté I had for breakfast growing up was a dish we had on the menu for a while.

I also enjoy working with products I'm familiar with — I'm most comfortable with Swedish produce and condiments that I had growing up. Finding ingredients in New York City that are local yet familiar, and adding a different element of flavour because they are from America not Sweden, intrigues me. Moreover, getting to work with local purveyors who have immense care for their product and learning about their process is exciting.

At what age and from whom did you learn to cook from? What was the first dish you ever made?
I started cooking around the age of five with my grandmother and mother. Both of them taught me how to cook, and it was my grandmother's passion for cooking that planted the seed for my interest in cooking. I cooked at home with my family throughout my childhood and one of the first dishes I was allowed to make by myself were rye pancakes, which I would make lots of and save the leftovers to eat with ice cream and berries. When I was 15, I really started to learn to cook professionally when I enrolled in Stockholm's Hotel and Restaurant School.

scallop, michelin star, emma bengtsson

Is this your first time to Singapore? What are you looking forward to on our sunny island?
It has been over 10 years since I was last in Singapore, and I think the food scene has grown a lot in that time. I'm very excited to come back and see just how it has evolved. I hope to be able to explore the city and markets, to be able to try new flavours, and get inspired by Singapore's vibrant food culture.

What are you most excited about when it comes to TGFF?
I'm grateful to be a part of the first edition of TGFF, and I look forward to be able to cook amongst the other great chefs attending, whom I normally might not get the chance to meet. What's especially exciting about this festival is the array of chefs represented from around the globe. To be able to represent Sweden is wonderful, and I hope to be able to be introduced to new takes on cuisines as well.

What can we look forward to at the Star Chef Arena and what makes this segment so special?
For guests, what I think makes this segment special is again, the array of talent and cuisines represented from throughout the globe. I hope guests will walk away with a new impression and understanding of Swedish cuisine.

"What's especially exciting about this festival is the array of chefs represented from around the globe. To be able to represent Sweden is wonderful, and I hope to be able to be introduced to new takes on cuisines as well."

You're putting up dishes such as seared scallops, crispy pork neck, and poached eggs and asparagus at TGFF. Why these three dishes and what do these flavours mean to you?
I chose these three dishes because I felt that each represent common flavour profiles that you would find in Sweden. Scallops — and seafood in general — is a key part of Nordic cuisine and it's a very pure and clean dish. Similar to the scallop dish, the poached egg dish is also very pure in taste. I also wanted to make a vegetarian dish, and eggs and asparagus are a typical flavour combination though I looked to transform these classic flavours by playing with texture with both the silkiness of the egg and lemon foam, as well as the crispness of the asparagus. As for the crispy pork neck and cabbage combination, root vegetables like cabbage and kale are very popular and combining them with a roast or pork is my take on a traditional combination.

emma bengtsson, rws, tgff

Who's your inspiration in the culinary scene?
There are so many chefs that I admire. From when I was just starting out, I had a truly impactful experience when I had the chance to eat Rene Redzepi's flower pot dish at Noma — since then, I've continued to pay attention to his work. Grant Achatz is also someone I follow closely, as is Dominique Crenn, who continues to be a role model for all chefs and has had such a great evolution throughout her career.

Interested in meeting all the celebrity chefs at the Star Chef Arena? Get an Experience Pack, which includes $35 credit for Star Chef Arena, and $10 credit for Rollin' Sweet Times. Signature dishes start at $10.

The GREAT Food Festival is on from 21 to 24 September at Resorts World Sentosa. Read our previous interviews with Chef Clifford Luu and Chef Han Li Guang.

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