A Swedish-Inspired Holiday Menu by Fredrik Berselius of Aska
By Thomas Sweeney
Photographed by Hanna Tveite
If there's one country where breaking Christmas traditions seems virtually unthinkable, it may very well be Sweden. There, holiday customs—particularly those relating to food—are taken with utmost seriousness: Saint Lucia Day celebrations, complete with saffron buns, are broadcast on television; presents are opened around a julbord buffet a day early; and the glögg-fueled festivities last till January 13th (Saint Knut’s Day, for the uninitiated). But there is at least one Swede perfectly willing to stray from the sort of yuletide frippery of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. He is Fredrik Berselius, the founder and executive chef of the two-Michelin-star restaurant Aska, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His tasting-menu haven is routinely lauded, and booked to capacity, thanks to its unorthodox approach to Nordic cuisine.
This December, Berselius, in collaboration with The Line, presents an exclusive holiday dinner inspired by an array of sources, primarily his Scandinavian roots and his immediate surroundings in New York. "I wanted to create an experience that celebrated Aska's values and those of The Line, especially when it comes to quality, in everything from the ingredients we use to the design elements involved," he says. "In doing so, I wanted to arrive at something lasting and memorable, which is what the holidays are all about. And while I love cooking traditional Swedish food at this time of year, I also wanted this to be an opportunity to capture some of the flavors—or, rather, the essences of flavors—in traditional Swedish cooking without making any of the cliché or predictable dishes."
Born in Stockholm, and based in New York since 2000, Berselius is a tasting-menu visionary whose unlikely takes on Nordic fare (lamb’s-heart ashes over pickled sunchokes, for example) are steered by regionally farmed or gathered ingredients. "Much of what we use at Aska—the Swedish word for 'ashes'—is foraged," he says, "which is a way to expand our pantry to include herbs, berries, and flavors that are not commonly used in everyday cooking but are important in our quest to search for ways that capture the essence of a certain geographic area or time of year." At the open-kitchen Aska, patrons can expect to be tempted (or even challenged) by dishes such as live scallops, pig's-blood truffles, and chanterelles paired with reindeer lichen sourced from the Western Catskills. "Upstate New York is a huge inspiration for me," Berselius says. "I spend time up there whenever I can, and find a lot of incredible ingredients there. The nature is pristine and the plant life diverse."
Berselius, who studied engineering and architecture prior to training as a chef, worked in such restaurants as Aquavit, Corton, and Seasonal before striking out on his own in 2012. His first effort was a part-time pop-up venture called Frej ("seed" in Swedish). In 2013, he relaunched it as a reservations-only spot named Aska, and by the end of that year it had been declared one of Bon Appétit's 10 Best New Restaurants and earned its first Michelin star. In 2016, Berselius relocated Aska to its current space just steps from the Williamsburg Bridge; the restaurant, which has since earned its second Michelin star, now includes a walk-in cellar bar and, for the warmer months, an outdoor terrace. In the spring of next year, Berselius will release a book through Phaidon titled, simply, Aska. It will recount his path from Stockholm student to New York chef, and include 40 recipes that illustrate his love for dishes that are as photogenic as they are flavorful.
I envisioned these courses being served at a festive holiday party in someone's home, filled with friends and family.Fredrik Berselius
In developing his holiday menu for The Line, Berselius took a decidedly relaxed approach, with conviviality in mind. "I envisioned these courses being served at a festive holiday party in someone's home, filled with friends and family," he explains. "I wanted to share how I think about food for the holidays with a few different festive bites and beverages to accompany them. Christmas is one of my favorite holidays and times of the year, and gives me an opportunity to interpret various traditions in my own way, primarily through food."
With a collection of foraged plants, herbs, and branches setting the stage, the meal begins with a round of white-wine glögg bedecked with orange peel, sliced almonds, and golden raisins (a version of which is served at Aska's cellar bar during the colder months). A stash of winter spices—cinnamon, star anise, bay leaf, clove, cardamom—is kept within close reach. But before the last sip of glögg is downed, out comes a second beverage in a slender glass: aquavit, a neutral but potent grain-distilled spirit. "It's a Swedish-Christmas staple," says Berselius, "often accompanied by singing songs." His rendition is infused with a generous handful of wild-birch twigs instead of the traditional dill or caraway.
In the two dishes that follow, simplicity is the top note. Herring is paired with potato, quail egg, and horseradish, while crispy-edged potato pancakes are dolloped with Carelian caviar, onion, and crème fraîche. "I think most people lean toward the traditional and familiar smorgasbord-style dinner," says Berselius. "I love and appreciate that, too, but it is always fun to try something different." His brand of difference is exemplified in the plate that appears next: a whole roasted ribeye of dry-aged beef ("as opposed to the usual Swedish meatballs"), accented by clusters of winter vegetables like carrots, beets, kohlrabi, and celeriac.
Nature was, for me, the definitive muse.Fredrik Berselius
The holiday menu is rounded out by two parting gifts that reveal Berselius' penchant for visual knockouts: langoustine artfully brushed with preserved black currants, red currants, and sorrel, succeeded by picture-perfect tarts of matjes herring, quail egg, potato, and horseradish. "In these dishes, especially the herring in the shape of a small tart, I aimed to capture the festivity part a bit more than the traditional part, in ways such as serving eye-catching small bites rather than full plates of food," says Berselius. Like his creations for Aska, the menu as a whole was borne of disparate, somewhat elusive sources—just the recipe for sidestepping tradition, or perhaps for creating a new one. "Nature was, for me, the definitive muse," he says, "but inspiration came from everywhere: works of art, my surroundings, memories from Sweden. All of my dishes have different starting points. Some begin with a particular ingredient I want to use, others with a more conceptual idea. Ultimately, the goal is always to create something that tastes delicious but also evokes something more. Something that makes you think."