We Chat With: Chef Marcus Jernmark of Aquavit

"I have a brand new kitchen, a wonderful kitchen team and a small restaurant, so I'm very spoiled; I don't have many problems."

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

I honestly can't imagine what Aquavit looks like during service—it's set on a strip of 55th Street home to working lunches and after-hours cocktails for those in suits and skirts that is not a part of my daily life. But sitting mid-morning with Chef Marcus Jernmark the quiet, the cool dining room induces an immediate sense of calm.

Then I dig into a bite of perfectly rendered lamb, fois gras, morels and browned butter and all is indulgence and mind-blowing freshness. The plate is both complicated and simple, both modern in technique and rooted in tradition. Both international and local, and all on one plate.

How is it done and what does it mean? We had a chat to find out.

Nordic cuisine is highly respected in culinary circles now, but describing it can be somewhat challenging for casual NYC eaters. Can you break down for us what the roots of Nordic cuisine are? It's built upon the climate where we live and how we have had to sort of manage our diets. That's why you see a lot of preserved and pickled foods; it's how we get from season to season without just eating potatoes in the winter. So what can you can expect on the plate is fresh and preserved products in combinations that lead to intense flavors. I think purity is a good way to put it, and what we strive for in our cuisine—trying to showcase purity through food.

Was food something you always wanted to do? It didn't really so much start with food for me. It was more about being in an environment with older chefs—the bad-talking and the kind of stressful, physical environment was attractive to me. But I did my first internship with my best friend and we were kind of fighting and making jokes in the kitchen, so they moved us apart and put me into the front of house. I think the whole decision of deciding if I wanted to be a chef was probably when I decided to go back to school to get my secondary education. I wanted to learn the foundations of what I was doing. So at that point I kind of created the mindset that I wanted to work with people and food.

So it was about people and food? Yep, absolutely. I am much more involved with people and try to share a culinary mindset rather than being hands-on all the time. I only have two hands, and if I want to do everything myself in this restaurant we're only going to have one or two dishes on the menu.

Fast forward a bit to Aquavit: do you see any parallel to the success of Nordic cuisine in NYC with our current local, farm-to-table trends? I think it's more of a conscious farm-to-table trend that has been going on for many years, and the Nordic food manifesto sort of supports that movement. What's around us here is what people are zooming in on—the hype of using something that you can locally source and have a relationship with.

How does that affect your menu? Is there a dish that you'd want to make to represent your cuisine that you can't because you can't get the ingredients locally here? There's no such thing. We have everything here, almost. In fact the whole climate is fairly similar as far as the agriculture goes. I wouldn't say it's easy, but it's very accessible to get locally sourced food today.

So what challenges did come up in the beginning? In the beginning it was very stressful. The prior chef left with ten days notice. I had been working in the company for one month—my first restaurant experience in America—so I had a bunch of people in that kitchen who already literally hated me. My main thought for the first six months was to just keep things going. I brought things back to basics. We broke down what was important to our cuisine—what we couldn't live without. From there we developed a lot, but that was my only focus to begin with.

Once you started drafting new goals, was there something you realized you could do here as a chef that you couldn't prior? I can almost do whatever I want and that's the biggest privilege. We're trying to change the menu as much as we can and we're trying to push flavors. That's our focus—always our focus. The first priority is quality of ingredients, the second is how we can push the flavors, and the third is how we're going to put it together in a way that's visual and textural. I have a brand new kitchen and a wonderful kitchen team and a small restaurant, so I'm very spoiled; I don't have many problems.

What are you playing with now? What's coming up? There's a Swedish gentlemen at Valhalla Farms who has twenty lambs, and he just slaughtered four that came down last week. That's something special for me. I took a break from them because I went through a traumatic experience with the health department in 2010 when they made me pour bleach over 150 lbs of lamb that I slaughtered myself...

Why?! I made prosciutto and there was a misunderstanding in the whole procedure of the actual inspection: they got transferred from the proper temperature to an improper temperature by a panicking manager. I opened up the room and there they were on Marcus Samuelsson's old clothing rack hanging—beautifully—and it ended up in a disaster. So I took a break from it. But we're back in business and that's something very special. It's a very, very special product. People say they do free-range lamb and it's 100% grass-fed, but after I tasted this lamb, I think everyone else in the whole world is lying, because I've never tasted something like this. It's something completely different.

What's your time like outside of the kitchen? To be honest with you, I've been working here for three years, but I decided only a few weeks ago that I wanted to start a life again. It sounds unlikely because there are not many chefs who have a life, but you kind of have to do what any other regular person does—go to the gym, find an apartment...

Is there something on the top of your list? I've worked for three years in this restaurant and I've had one sous chef most of this whole time. And I'm a control freak, obviously like many other chefs, and I didn't really set up the relationship with him that was perfectly balanced. So I will strive to set up an organization for myself where it is a better situation for everyone in the kitchen. I think as a sous chef it's very important that the chef can take a night off because, otherwise, how important is that person going to feel? It's a tough industry and it never ends. It sounds very general but it is very general—it's about having time with friends to go out to dinner on a Wednesday night... even if it's ten at night.