New York’s Aska restaurant’s eponymous cookbook is an examination of the rarified realm of Michelin star cooking. Nikki Birrell chats to chef and owner, Fredrik Berselius, about the impetus behind his experiential cuisine.
It’s an elite culinary world, that of the Michelin-starred restaurant. If you’re lucky enough to have ever eaten at one, you’ll know it’s a type of dining that takes food beyond delicious, to an experience – one of artistry, creativity, skill.
Swedish chef Fredrik Berselius has given us a rare insight into this exclusive domain with the release of his cookbook, named after his two-starred New York City restaurant, Aska. The book itself is a journey through how you would dine if you were to visit, as well one through his thought processes and places of meaning to him.
While you could attempt some of the recipes therein, it is perhaps more about creative stimulation, than re-creation. “I wanted it to be more than just a cookbook, I wanted it to be inspiration to anyone, especially cooking from a philosophical point of view,” he says. “For someone who wants to cook at home but wants to explore a different approach to ingredients. [It’s about] how you find your own inspiration.”
For Fredrik, the seed of the idea for a career in cooking germinated while working kitchen jobs in London, landed through his sister who was studying hospitality there. He soon realised, “Cooking involves every aspect of creativity, working with your hands, with your mind, with your senses, memories.”
Memories are a dominant theme in Fredrik’s cuisine. After visiting New York and falling in love with it, he pursued cheffing there with gusto – and discovered that it helped to keep him connected with his roots. While he cites growing up with home cooking – spending time in the woods, picking mushrooms and berries, making preserves and everything being made from scratch – as influential, it’s not the dishes themselves that have informed his own, but rather the memories of them and of Sweden and Scandinavia.
And while he loves New York City itself, Fredrik was delighted to discover the riches of upstate New York, the Catskills Mountains to be precise, where he now has a home. “There”, he says in the book, “about three hours north of the city, the environment reminds me so much of the Sweden I grew up with. I see some of the same wild ingredients growing there. Many often make their way back to the restaurant and onto the menu.”
What this “memory” fare translates to are dishes such as Lamb Heart Burnt in Bedstraw – “smoky lamb and fermented sweet grass, reminiscent of the scent of dried hay lingering in the air near a barn on a beautiful farm”; Cured Breast of Pigeon; and Gooseberry and Deer Snack Served on a Bone (thinly sliced raw deer served on its bone, dressed with a drop of oil from grilled birch and served with red seaweed and unripe juniper berries).
Yes, these are mind-bending in their complexity and creativity. But Fredrik is adamant people should not be intimidated by it. “The last thing I want is for [guests at Aska] to feel like they don’t belong in my dining room – so I just try to break that barrier, if there is one. I try to make them as comfortable as if they were in someone’s home.”
Which isn’t to say he’s not aware of the elitism surrounding this kind of fine dining. There is a place for it, he says. “I think a certain level of pretentiousness is good, if pretension means caring about the details. But it still has to tie in to a bigger picture of what you’re doing. You have to do everything in the best possible way you can.” He reiterates, however, “I don’t think fine dining should have anything to do with feeling intimidated, I know that can happen. But I think that idea is outdated.”
There’s no escaping, though, that eating at somewhere like Aska isn’t your usual meal out – it’s an experience, a time to revel in a type of gastronomy that should linger long in the memory, for more than just its taste. The Aska book is about sharing in that otherworldly experience, in some way, from home.
We do take comfort in discovering, however, when asked about his own home and what is always in his fridge, that Fredrik can be as down to earth as the rest of us. “Good butter, strawberry jam and a good cheddar cheese. I always eat strawberry jam on my bread for breakfast.”