Meet New York City’s most decorated female chef

August 15, 2015, 2:20 PM UTC
Courtesy of Emma Bengtsson

Most chefs go in hot pursuit of high-profile jobs and accolades. But for Emma Bengtsson, 33, the executive chef of Aquavit in New York City, fame happened by chance. Within six months of taking over the kitchen of the upscale Swedish eatery last year, the restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars—making her only the second female chef in the United States to hold that honor.

The gig, however, isn’t one she sought. Bengtsson had moved to Manhattan from Sweden in 2010 to head up the restaurant’s pastry department, but when executive chef Marcus Jernmark quit, owner Håkan Swahn offered her the position. Though she had worked in well regarded kitchens in Sweden, including as a line cook at the two Michelin-starred Edsbacka Krog, her success at Aquavit has catapulted Bengtsson to another level of prestige.

She’s part of a rarefied group. As of now, just two other women in the country—Dominque Creen of Atelier Creen and Suzette Greshman of Acquerello’s (who earned her star after Bengtsson), both in San Francisco—hold two-star distinction, compared to 15 men. No female chef in an American restaurant has three stars, and globally there are only six three-star women, versus 112 men.

Bengtsson talked to Fortune about why she initially turned down the Aquavit job, why she thinks there are such few women running the show at fine-dining establishments, and what she’s passionate about—besides food, of course.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: How did you first get into cooking?

Emma Bengtsson: I grew up in the town of Falkenberg on Sweden’s west coast, cooking with my grandmother practically every day. I knew from when I was very young that I wanted to make it my career. I pursued it professionally by enrolling in Stockholm’s Hotel and Restaurant School.

At first, you turned down the offer to be Aquavit’s executive chef. Why?

I said no because of the enormous responsibility involved. After a few weeks filling in, however, I decided that, yes, I was ready for it and accepted. The transition was much easier from pastries because in Sweden, restaurant kitchens are usually divided between cold and hot, and cold covers both savory appetizers and dessert. So the sweet-savory distinction is not as big there as it is here.

What changes did you make when you took on the job?

I wanted to make the cooking style my own and had a new menu in place in two months. My idea was to incorporate in dishes and ingredients I loved eating growing up in Sweden but do it in a more refined way. One example is the liver pate we have coated in a pickled cucumber gel and served with toasted brioche. It’s inspired by the sandwich I ate everyday when I a child—liver pate on rye bread topped with pickled cucumbers.

How would you describe your cooking aesthetic?

I always start with a central idea, whether it’s a color, a protein, a vegetable, a cooking technique or a memory—even sometimes a non-food catalyst. I once noticed a beautiful purple dress in the window of a Madison Avenue boutique I liked the shape of it and the shade of purple. That inspired a black currant and meringue dessert. The meringue was inspired by the flow of the dress.

You’re an executive chef, and suddenly you’re a two Michelin-starred executive chef. How does it feel?

I’m deeply grateful for the recognition but the truth is, this profession is too hard to be motivated by fame. You need to be committed to your work, show up to every service and maintain the respect of your colleagues. The notoriety you get from that is a surprising afterthought.

Diners in New York City have no dearth of places to pick from when they want a great meal out. Why should they choose Aquavit?

We have a commitment to not just Swedish food but also beverages like aquavit, vodka that’s infused with different fruits and spices like elderflower or strawberries. Everything from the breads to the gravlax and the aquavits are made in house. Coming here is a way to immerse yourself in a pure Swedish culinary experience.

Compared to men, there are still so few women in high-profile cooking jobs like yours. Why do you think that is?

In my experience, most female chefs—including myself—might not be as aggressive to advance even when they have the skills to do so. Also, the career point when many women would be accepting executive chef positions often coincides with when they might also want to start a family. Obviously, it’s hard to work 80 hours a week in a restaurant—or any job for that matter—while raising a family, so many of the most talented female chefs opt for less demanding positions.

Do you think that Europe is ahead of the game when it comes to giving female chefs props?

From what I’ve observed, many female chefs in Europe start their training at a younger age than their American counterparts. I started culinary school at 15. Here in the U.S., it’s often high school, college, then culinary school in many cases. Over there, it’s often straight to culinary school, and I think that gives females a leg up in getting ahead in their careers faster.

Have you had professional challenges because of your gender?

It’s a very touchy subject, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it, but I have had bad experiences. I will say that the kitchen is an interactive environment, and you get close with people’s personalities more than you would in a traditional office.

How involved are you in the business side of Aquavit, and do you feel the pressure to help generate profit for the restaurant?

I make many financial decisions regarding maintaining food costs and staffing, and I think that’s an often overlooked aspect of the job. It’s one thing to be able to cook good food; it’s another to be able to do so while maintaining the fiscal integrity of the restaurant. One of the many incentives I have to keep costs aligned is that it allows me to buy more kitchen toys. Right now I’m coveting another sous vide machine. I have a small one but would love a bigger which is a few thousand dollars.

What do you do for fun?

I’m an avid bachata dancer and do it on my one day off—it’s kind of like salsa from the Dominican Republic. When I hear the music I instinctively start to dance, and that sets me free.

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