Back in February, a pair of young cooks — Richard Kuo and Fredrik Berselius — quietly opened a three-day-a-week restaurant in a Williamsburg gallery. They called it Frej, offered a $45 tasting, and did most of the work themselves. There was beef cooked in hay on the menu, and you could call the food Scandinavian or New Nordic. All of that remains the same two months later, except for the fact that recent press and word of mouth have made it so that the place is booked solid until June. In the following interview, the first they've ever done, the chefs talk about how the project came together, why they don't care about making money, and why their restaurant actually makes sense in New York.
How'd you guys meet? Richard Kuo: We met at Corton when they opened in 2008. I had just left wd-50 and got a phone call from Corton saying that they had gotten my resumé. I went to hang out for a day, and the job I was going to fill was Fredrik's. We didn't know each other from before.
What was the job? Fredrik Berselius: Fish cooker. Yeah, I had the pleasure of training Richard for a few days [laughs]. That's how we met. We kept in touch and worked together at Seasonal, which we ran for a bit. RK: Before that, actually, he was cooking out in the Hamptons and doing a really great job. He doesn't give himself enough credit. FB: After Seasonal, we spent some time trying to figure things out. At one point, we spoke about wanting to do something local, cooking the food that we wanted to cook and for the people that we wanted to cook for. We wanted to do something affordable and modern, something that chefs and industry people could enjoy.
When did the Frej idea come about? Did you want to do a pop-up? FB: It started around the time that I was leaving Seasonal, more than a year ago. I don't want to call it a pop-up, but sure! It doesn't have an end date. We wanted to open a full restaurant. We planned for that, but it eventually fell through with investors during the location search. The people that were supposed to back it didn't, which happened in December of last year. So we figured it out pretty quickly.
Did the gallery find you or did you find them? FB: No, I reached out to them. I went in there on a cold day in January for a coffee and ended up looking at the space and thinking it was interesting. The kitchen is super small! We wanted to be close to the dining room so we could serve the food.
Let's talk about the notion of the affordable tasting menu, which isn't a common thing in New York. Seems like bringing that to the city is one of your main goals. FB: We've been talking about this for years! We've tried to have former bosses introduce this kind of menu. It's fun. You're trying a lot of things. You're not just getting an appetizer or main.
Or a tasting menu that's $150. FB: Exactly. So we're skipping the caviar and foie gras but serving interesting, affordable food. That's the way we like to eat. You look at what's going on in Copenhagen, you look at what's going on in Paris, and it makes sense. RK: And when you're cooking for industry people, you want to give them as much of a taste of the restaurant as you possibly can.
What does that mean? RK: When you're a cook working 120 hours a week and make no money, you still want to go out and try things and learn as much as you can. FB: You can't afford to Per Se. So this is what we want to sort of give back. Fifty bucks for a great dinner, and we'll take care of you.
You open three days a week, there are less than twenty seats in there, you're serving about five courses, and it's $45. Doesn't sound like you guys are making bank. FB: I know. It's kind of crazy. We wanted to be open more days a week.
Are you going to add more days? FB: It could change. RK: I just think it's so easy for places to charge $200 for a tasting menu. They do it because they can, not necessarily because they should.
But some places have really high food costs. RK: There is that element, too, and I'll acknowledge that. It's not the best way to put it, but we want to do the next best thing. We make a serious effort to use every part of the animal and to make sure we're spending money in the right way. FB: Everything is us. Our friends took the photos on the walls, another friend framed them and printed them, and we connected with a lady upstate who makes our plates. Everything is our little project, and we try to work without middle men or whatever. We even serve most of the food ourselves, which is actually nice, since it brings you closer to your customers. If you have to look at a customer in the eyes, you'll probably push yourselves in the kitchen. We also wash the dishes!
Beyond the question of flavor, New Nordic food seems to be so much about place. Do you think it's fair to call what you do New Nordic, and furthermore, does that food makes sense in this city? FB: I think that's a very fair question. I think northern New York and Vermont and places like that in the northeast are very, very similar to Sweden, where I come from. So, if I cook locally and cook in a way inspired by my childhood memories and the flavors I've known my whole life, the food will end up being like that. We're happy that Scandinavia has gotten that recognition. In a way, it's fair to call it that. But you could also call it New York food if you wanted to.
Explain that. FB: The farmers that we use, the vegetables that we use. It's all from here. Flavor is definitely Scandinivia, though. This is us. We've been in New York a long, long time, but as with many chefs, we are rooted somewhere else. That's New York.
Do you edit out your modernist training? RK: We try to edit it out. We have very different thought processes. Fred is a naturalist and lets things sort of run, while I focus on quantifying things. Wylie Dufresne had a big influence on me. But it works out, because neither of us want to do that food at the restaurant. We're not going to do something that doesn't make sense. FB: We try to take a step back and cook with our hearts. You can alter textures naturally, without putting in modified starches or anything like that, for instance. That's what we look for — the more natural way. A lot of cooking in New York a few years ago was so modified. I think that was due to the fact that the products weren't as good as they are now. RK: We don't think ill of those techniques. I just don't think it's us. At least not right now.
I got to interview Wylie Dufresne a few months back, and he talked about the lack of restaurants in New York that take risks... FB: It has to do with a lot of things. It has to do with rent, with money, with people taking you down for doing something that isn't the safest.
Do you think what you're doing will catch on? FB: You never know in New York. You don't see a lot of places doing that on the small-scale. So many cooks that we've worked with either move back to Europe or go to bigger restaurants. We wonder where all these talented guys go. RK: But working here is really satisfying. You have to do so much to just gain a few inches, so it feels great. We're here because we love it.
Where do you take this? FB: We need our own space. It's a ramen spot, a gallery, a DJ venue right now. Yesterday my shoes were thrown out. We want control. We need to be able to come in without having to look for misplaced. The cooking doesn't take that big of a hit from it. We work eighteen hours a day when the restaurant is open, and then we have to break it down at the end so it looks like a club.RK: It just takes a lot more work and coming early and staying late. We can be there for as long as we need to be. There is no end date, as I said. At this point, we're still pretty sane and on point. Raising prices isn't really necessary right now. As long as we can pay the rent and feed ourselves and do what we want to do, we're happy.
· All Coverage of Frej [~ENY~]