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A Young Chef Who Appreciates Tradition at Aquavit

 

There's a new Executive Chef at Aquavit, and his name is Marcus. Not to be confused with Marcus Samuelsson who ran the kitchen of the famed Scandinavian restaurant in Manhattan for some years but has now turned his attention to his native Ethiopian and other African cuisines. No, we are speaking of Marcus Jernmark. He is handsome, 28-years old, born and raised in Sweden, and possessed of a mission: “to bring back the forgotten cuisine."

We met Marcus in Aquavit’s main dining room, part of the expansive setup at the Park Avenue Tower on East 55th Street which also includes the casual Bistro, a bar furnished with  boomerang-type black leather chairs, and several private rooms all of which share the minimalist Scandinavian aesthetic. Having had our first of what would be several Aquavits -- the potato-distilled Danish spirit with the taste of caraway that is served straight or in any number of flavored infusions from cranberry to horseradish – we had settled into a state of serenity in surroundings defined by Scandinavian design. It was then that Marcus approached our table accompanied by a sampler defined by Scandinavian staples: gravlox carpaccio with traditional mustard sauce, salmon tartar with a little apple gel and sturgeon caviar, and cold smoked salmon with oyster and parsley emulsion. For a pair of smoked fish lovers from way back, this was a harbinger of Nirvana. There was also a little oyster with pickled rhubarb, apple salsa and paddlefish caviar which, we were told, is brinier than sturgeon caviar and so enhances the body of the oyster rather than overpowering it.

“I can see you're enjoying the bread,” the young chef noted as we reached for a second, or was it a third (?) slice of the crusty Danish rye embedded with sunflower seeds. “I am baking my own breads here every day. My plan is to fill the bread basket with the home-made breads Scandinavia is so famous for, to do my own smoking, curing, salting, sausage-stuffing, making my own paté, my own lamb prosciutto. I'm interested in the traditions."

Remarkable, we thought. In a culinary environment dominated by endless quests for the new, Marcus Jernmark looks to the old. “By going back to our roots, we are doing something crazy in New York City,” he admitted. “But why should I re-do the traditions? Swedish herring is so ethnic. Why should I go out of the box to make something different with herring?”

At that moment, pristine white plates bearing Matjes herring appeared. With sour cream, of course, chopped red onion, roasted yellow beets, and tiny boiled potatoes in a brown butter sauce and topped with a quail egg.  There followed hot smoked brook trout which came with smoked mussels, micro-celery, and ramps – a green onion with beautiful leaves and the taste of something between garlic and chives.  And pan-seared arctic char with Little Neck clams and clam emulsion; also salted hazelnuts which added a nice crunchy texture, and seared  purple cauliflower and red watercress which added a spring-like sensibility well suited for this evening in May. Herring, trout, arctic char -- typically Scandinavian, appealingly presented, every one of them delectable. “I only work with fish that you can find in Scandinavia,” Marcus said. “I stay within our waters.”

But steak, lamb, pork, even venison are also part of the Aquavit offering. And sweetbreads. Braised and then fried to a state of crispiness on the outside, they literally melted in the mouth with  the tartness of crumbled goat cheese and the sweetness of baby carrots adding to the pleasure.

Admittedly our infatuation with the foods of Northern Europe stems from somewhere deep in our DNA. But appreciation of Scandinavian cuisine defies geographic and ethnic boundaries. In its annual ranking of the World's Best Restaurants, it was Noma of Copenhagan that placed first, setting a high bar for the young chef who began his professional life in the United States over five ago years working at the Swedish Consulate in New York. That was where Aquavit’s owner Hakan Swahn discovered him. “Last year when we heard the Consulate was closing, we scouted Marcus,” he told us. “At the time he wasn’t sure what he was going to do.”

Chef Marcus Jernmark - click to enlarge
Chef Marcus Jernmark

Aquavit owner: Hakan Swahn - click to enlarge
Aquavit owner: Hakan Swahn

But any trace of uncertainty has apparently evaporated, and in its place is a sense of direction. “I want to tell the story of Scandinavian food,” Marcus affirms, “to translate what is going on in Scandinavia in this restaurant.

"I don't see that as being very complex," he adds. "Food doesn't have to be so complicated. The purveyors tell you what's coming on the market, and you put them together. Many of my ingredients are from North America; there's no reason to import products that can be found here. I get New Brunswick oysters, Pete and Gerry's organic blue eggs from New Hampshire (ed. note: we've since checked them out-- they are exceptional!), herring from Canada except the Matjes which are from the Baltic region because they are the fattest, the best we can get. I have my own lamb purveyor, a Swede actually, who has a little lamb farm in New Jersey.  I don’t  have to go to Sweden to get my cheese; I can find artisanal Swedish cheese, Danish blue cheese, local and organic. I have a cheese maker from the Hudson Valley who makes caraway cheese from raw milk. I am not quite there yet, but I am working towards having a nice selection of cheeses."

He is far enough along, however, to serve the caraway cheese which is something like an aged, salty Parmesan. With cloudberry and raisin chutney, it was excellent as was the sinfully rich caramel banana mousse which concluded a dinner we will not easily forget.

"I want my guests to know this is Marcus, the new chef," he told us as a kind of farewell. "And what he wants to do is realize a contemporary view by going back to basics. At the same time, I'm in New York. I live across the street from Aquavit. My wife will be having a baby soon. This job is great, and I am at home in my own cuisine!"

Aquavit
65 East 55 Street
New York, NY 10022

Phone: 212-307-7311

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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