Faces of East Midtown

Like so many places across the country, the past several months have been challenging and unpredictable for our community. That’s why we wanted to do something special to spotlight the amazing people that make up our unique district.  

Faces Of East Midtown is photo and interview series aimed at celebrating the humanity of our neighborhood and providing a real, raw and honest look at the faces behind the locally-owned businesses that have gone through unimaginable changes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 

Emma Bengtsson


Executive Chef
Aquavit
65 East 55th Street

September 15, 2020
Photography by Ron Jautz, Jautz Photography

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East Midtown Partnership: Tell us about your business or place of work. When did you originally open or start and what was your vision?

Emma Bengtsson: Well, I wasn’t here when Aquavit opened 30 years ago but I did come on board in 2010 as the pastry chef. Since then I have transitioned to lead the kitchen as the Executive Chef.  Aquavit is a Scandinavian restaurant in New York where we focus on seasonality and Nordic flavors. Throughout the years my vision for Aquavit has changed. When I first came here, I thought I was only going to be here for one year because that was my visa status but I started making Aquavit my home and made the pastry department what I thought a Nordic restaurant should be. In 2014 when I took over as Executive Chef, the vision shifted to Aquavit overall. Regardless of my position, my vision has always been to do everything as best as I can and to move flavors in the restaurant forward.

EMP: Give us an overview of what things have been like for you and your staff during the Covid-19 lockdown.

EB: In the beginning of the shutdown everything was very surreal. Like many people, it’s the first time in my life that I have ever experienced anything like this. I never in my wildest dreams thought a city like New York would completely shut down. That took me off guard. The hardest part of the Covid lockdown has been the lack of guidance. There is no one to look to -- there’s lots of uncertainty and it’s hard to know if the restaurant will even be standing after this. It's all very stressful to me. When it comes to our staff, unemployment benefits only cover so much. Those who are working in this industry are true workers and give this business all we can. To go from working 80 hours a week to doing nothing takes a mental toll on people. It’s not just the financial part, it's also keeping yourself up and going. We tried to bring back as many people as we could, especially our staff who are on visa and were unable to claim any unemployment benefits.

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EMP: When did you reopen, and how did/does it feel to reopen your doors to the district?

EB: We reopened in May for takeout and delivery and it felt amazing to be back in the kitchen again and cooking for our regulars and fellow New Yorkers. But it also felt sad to not have the vibrant energy in the restaurant that so many of us feed off of. 

EMP: After being shuttered for months, several more businesses are slowly starting to reopen in the district. What does that mean to you?

EB: It's great that businesses are beginning to reopen. That brings more people in the neighborhood which hopefully means more business for us. People who are around and working need to eat and this gives me hope that the economy is coming back and that it's time for us to start living our lives again.

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EMP: What's one thing you've either learned, grown to appreciate or adjusted in your business practices moving forward as a result of the pandemic?

EB: I’ve learned to see the positive sides of being able to offer takeout and delivery. It's not something we have done at Aquavit before and I was able to learn how to cook for takeout and delivery and appreciate how well Scandinavian food can be adapted for this style of cooking. 

EMP: What is your hope for the future of your industry in the city in the coming months?

EB: My hope is that people will feel safe and that we in the restaurant community know how to handle indoor dining and that they are putting their faith and trust in us. There is a safe way of actually doing indoor dining. I hope people around the world are taking their own precautions and putting the responsibility on themselves to make sure this continues -- we don’t want to see this scale back or be halted because of noncompliance. 

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EMP: Any other thoughts you want people to know as they venture out into the neighborhood?

EB: I feel like sometimes Midtown and Midtown East may be underrepresented. There are so many neighborhoods in the city with high foot traffic but no one really talks about Midtown East. It’s so much more than just office buildings. There are beautiful restaurants and shops here. It's a vibrant neighborhood and for those shopping on Fifth Avenue, Aquavit is just a few steps away and perfect to take a break and have a nice meal or a drink.