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Fred Berselius on Aska, the Critics, and Approachability

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Daniel Krieger

Kinfolk Studios, which sits on the corner of Wythe Avenue and North 11th Street in Williamsburg, has been the unlikely ground on which chef Fredrik Berselius has flourished over the past year. In 2012, the 33-year-old Berselius seemingly came out of nowhere with Frej, a pop-up collaboration with Richard Kuo that, while short-lived, earned as much positive buzz as a bare bones project in a multipurpose art-bar can. It was enough to pave the way for Aska, a similar but more ambitious venture that you might consider an actual restaurant. With the reviews all in, for the most part, Berselius sat down to talk about how things have been going, including being ambivalent about certain positive reviews, figuring out how to manage staff, and his hopes for the restaurant.

You're pretty much out of the big review rush now. How was that process?
It's really strange and crazy, the process. You open up and you have reviewers coming in on day six. I felt like they came too soon, in many ways. I know for a fact that one reviewer came in on the first day of our second week, and it just was strange to me. That first month is when you are trying to work out kinks. You haven't grown into anything yet. Of course, though, when you open, you open, and you have to deal with that.

We were very, very happy with the reviews we got and the fact that people came and were interested in trying, but reading some articles, you feel like some of these people don't know very much about food. It comes off as if they don't do their research.

How do you mean?
You know, people talking about how we don't serve more green foods. Hey, it's the middle of the winter, and we're trying to work with what is around us. The blood chip was the other thing.

Do you still serve it?
Yeah, we still have it [laughs]. It's three grams of food in a meal that is several courses. I really love it, because I grew up eating blood in various forms. They serve blood pudding at school lunches in Sweden — it's something that I remember.

Can you elaborate on what your trouble is with some of the points critics have made?
I'm thrilled that they come in and review us when there are so many restaurants in New York. But sometimes, it just felt like they missed the point. These reviews have such an impact, so they have a responsibility to know what they are talking about.

Sometimes it feels like you can't connect with them. I wanted to base this restaurant around the flavor memories I had growing up and eating in Sweden, but sometimes that doesn't get through. At first we kept the website really clean and simple and didn't explain too much, so we didn't put enough information out there about what goes into what we are doing and why we do it.

Another thing that happened, which I might say is the craziest part of the process, is that we got some reviewers, even from pretty big publications, asking if we would comp their meal in advance.

Who was it? Did you comp them?
I won't say who. Definitely not. I just responded to the e-mail and pointed them in the direction of our reservations system.

Going back to the issue of not explaining your goals too much: can you try to flesh out your concept?
The core concept was to do Scandinavian food, or at least what I ate growing up. I wanted to apply that to an urban environment, since we are in Brooklyn and not on a farm or in the middle of the woods. We are limited in a lot of ways, but we want to be here and work with what we have. People compare us to different restaurants in Scandinavia, but we don't have those same resources. But the longer you are here — I got here in 2000 — the more you want to go back to your roots. It's a natural progression, I think, when you are away. So we adapted to where we were.

We want to cook food with New York ingredients. Sometimes it comes from four hours away, but it definitely doesn't come from California. So if something isn't available, it's not available. We work with what we've got, and it will change a lot as time passes. This time next year, we'll have root vegetables and hearty flavors again, but in the spring, it will be lighter, crisper, more aromatic, and different.

That's why I'm surprised when we get write-ups that say that there's too many root vegetables or there isn't enough green or that it's too monochromatic and dark. Again, the reviews have been great, but when they point out things like that as being slightly negative, it's weird because it's so much a part of what we are about.

I read a few things saying that some dishes were too simple, too stark.
When an ingredient is great, there is no reason to mess with it so much. A lot of times, when you see a plate with two ingredients on it, there's either very little manipulation or a lot of work going into it that yields that simplicity.

Can you give me an example of the latter.
If something has been aged for a long time or there's a fermentation process, it can take weeks and months. We're doing all that stuff. We try to do as much as we can on our own. We're not in the forest, but instead of ordering potatoes, we'll sort through the boxes in the market to get the ones we like. That's why I don't feel like we need to dress it up too much. Also, the fact that it's a longer menu means that you can fit in dishes that are pure and simple like that.

How, then, has this been different than Frej, which seems to have had a similar concept?
The core philosophy is the same, basically, but it's more of a restaurant now. We have more staff and we are able to serve food more days a week. It's great to see people from everywhere — the U.S., Sweden, Denmark, Mexico — cooking here. We bake our own bread, we're trying to improve every day. Before, it was just basically two of us in a kitchen. We have more wine now than we had before. I love the collaboration within our restaurant, and also with Kinfolk, which is a café by day.

And then turns into a pretty great dance party at night, basically.
Yeah, that's what I love about the weekend menu, which is longer. By dessert, on your way out, it's fun and different with the DJs, even though they don't get really loud until after we are closed. That's the whole point: we're trying to give people a good, relaxing time while serving food that we care about.

Like a lot of other young chefs, you're trying to bring what you like about fine dining into the restaurant without having to embrace the things about it you aren't interested in.
Everyone in our kitchen comes more or less from a fine dining restaurant, but that definition or notion has changed so much. I don't really know what it is anymore. It's changed everywhere. We're basically taking those elements from fine dining that we like but trying to make the whole thing approachable. I want people to be comfortable. The whole thing has been a learning process, since it would have been easier to go full-on casual or full-on fine dining. Now we're trying to find the balance in this space which is a coffee shop, a bar, a DJ hall, and a restaurant. But we're embracing it and trying to make it work, although sometimes it's clear that some people can be shocked by it.

Even though most of the press around it really emphasizes the Williamsburg factor?
Some guests still expect the white gloves here. They really do.

What happens in those cases?
I mean, good service is good service. We want to provide that and to have happy waiters. So I think diners end up being sold on it. There are people that come in apprehensive, but they loosen up at the end of the meal. The nice thing is to see those people send their friends here. That makes me really happy.

From my interactions with you, it seems like you can be intense and in your own head a lot. How does that play into the situation here, where you're basically running the show.
Yeah, I can be in my own head a lot. I just expect things from people, because it's common sense or natural when you have a certain amount of training. So I get really annoyed when something is not happening the way I expect it to. I have an amazing team over here now, make no mistake. I am extremely happy about it. I'm still learning to work with different people. You have to really dedicate yourself to that, because some people I feel really connect with me and can almost read my mind, and some can't.

And you get pissed at the ones that can't.
Probably, yes [laughs]. Yeah, I give a lot of hints normally, before I flip out. It's not always the most effective or clear method.

There's so much going on that I sometimes don't think to tell someone how to do something. I'll ask for someone to take care of a napkin or a pick an herb, and I mistakenly assume that people will do it the way I want. But I'm getting better at that, and it helps that our team is great. Shiraz Noor is extremely talented, knowledgeable, and kind. My sous chef Gabriel Melim-Andersson is fantastic. It's just hard to find the balance between taking the wonderful ideas of all these diverse people, which I want to be able to do, and also making it cohesive and not a mess. I want the staff to have ideas and goals and a vision for the restaurant.

In the end, we want to explore different ways of running a restaurant and to change as time goes on. But going back to your first question, the reviewers probably won't be able to see that, because that's the nature of the game.

You were telling me on the way over here that you have a surprising number of no-shows.
No-shows are a restaurant's worst enemy. We are eighteen seats, and there have been nights where twelve people don't show up, or people who have made reservations three times and canceled every time. We really want to be easy-going and not charge people — we don't take credit card numbers during the week — but that is a real challenge. Overall, though, the interest is really great.

What are your plans for the future?
I don't want to come off as bitter, but I'm just being honest about some of my reactions to those reviews. I really just want to keep pushing forward and making people happy. We want to make it better. I love being in Brooklyn and doing this style of cooking here, so I'm excited to see what this place looks like next year.

· All Fredrik Berselius Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Aska Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

aska

90 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211

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