When Swedish chef Fredrik Berselius opened Aska in late 2012, he earned critical acclaim for his pig-blood crackers, hand-foraged oysters, and experimental Scandinavian cooking. It was something of a shock when, less than two years later, Berselius abruptly closed his restaurant to, in his words, “avoid stagnation and to keep challenging himself in the kitchen,” with plans to reopen in a new space in the near future. As it turns out, it has taken a little longer than Berselius anticipated, and a seemingly endless series of delays have proved just how challenging this process truly is in New York. (Now, though, Berselius anticipates that Aska 2.0 will finally open in its new Williamsburg home, at 47 South 5th Street, within the next few weeks — but he’s still waiting on a liquor license.) Here, he explains the financial and emotional toll:
It’s been over two years since you’ve worked in a restaurant. How have you spent your time away from professional cooking?
I didn’t plan for it to take this long. It was a constant chase to find the right location — that was really the biggest difficulty. When we closed down the first Aska, I already had a location in mind, but it wasn’t 100 percent set in stone. I spent the first months — probably six months after the restaurant closed — just negotiating that lease. But in the end, in the very, very, very end, almost on signature day, it didn’t work out.
Yeah. Obviously, in my mind, I thought it was going to work out, and you slowly start building a restaurant. You know, everything from an actual ingredient pantry to putting a team back together, or keeping my preexisting team. It was a full-time job just to negotiate that lease and to plan for it, and when it doesn’t work out, you have to start from scratch because every space is different, each landlord is different, each lease.
Did you always plan on staying in Williamsburg?
I wanted to stay in Brooklyn. I looked at places in Manhattan, but I still couldn’t find anything that fit the atmosphere that I wanted to create. I wanted, ideally, a building where there was a backbone with a bit of history. I wanted access to an outdoor space, and I wanted a place that I could see being the home for the next 10 to 15 years, so finding a lease that wasn’t 5 years, or 7 to 10, is hard.
How long is this lease?
It’s 10 plus 5, so essentially 15 years. And I ideally wanted a space that was sort of blank. We found this space that’s in a building from the 1860s. It used to be a factory of some sort, and, even better, it was someone’s home before I signed off. That makes it even more special to me. It’s basically like taking over someone’s home and creating our own home.
When did you finally find it?
I found this place online, actually, just by randomly Googling rentals. That was in November of 2014. We signed the lease January or February of 2015.
The build-out took quite a while then.
It took a few months to negotiate the lease, and then we signed it and started doing demo. Then we hit some bumps in the road, and we had to take a break and wait for our permits. After we got our permits, we started doing construction—
Can you describe the bumps?
There was a relatively small brick structure in the basement that actually had a few hundred pounds of steel inside of it. All of a sudden, a one-day job turned into at least a two-week job, maybe longer. We had to rethink how we could get that structure down, and how we could get the steel out.
That must have significantly cut into your capital.
Every decision you make is time versus capital. So much is out of your control, and you also have to act on your feet. You have to make quick decisions all the time about how to move forward. But, again, when you go into a space that is old and there is no real record of what’s been there before, you’re going to end up with these kinds of situations. With this space, in the end, we basically had to take it all apart and put it back together. The new building codes are more and more complex and detailed every year, and keeping up with building codes takes time. Where you think you would have many options for your layout, your options get narrowed down quite substantially. And not narrowed down in a way that would make it easier for you. You end up tweaking and tweaking … I had a budget to work with, and you do what you can to make that happen. You can, to a degree, account for hidden costs and and unforeseen circumstances. But you can’t account for someone accidentally screwing up your architectural plans, and then getting locked down for four months where you’re not allowed to do any construction.
Emotionally, how do you weather that? See the light at the end of the tunnel?
Honestly, I don’t know. You have to constantly just keep pushing. You have to take one thing at a time and see the end goal, just keep that in mind what it is you’re working towards. People have said it to me that opening any kind of business in New York is difficult. Opening a restaurant, I knew it was going to be difficult, and it is difficult. But it’s like … unbelievably difficult. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s almost ridiculous. Christina Knowlton, my director of development, helped tremendously.
Even now, you’re almost at the finish line, and you’re still facing delays.
I told myself, and I told other people, that I would not fall into the traps or the delays that normally occur when you open a restaurant because I’ve seen it, we’ve all seen it. Delays of six months or a year. But it has helped us be prepared for when we actually open. Restaurants in general, on a day-to-day basis, are being forced to deal with constant change: It’s raining one day and people want to cancel a reservation, a delivery is not showing, someone is sick, or something breaks. You know, there are constant variables, but at least we are learning to problem-solve on a regular basis.
It would seem, then, that the hardest part is behind you, but running a restaurant — especially one this ambitious — is no joke.
That’s the other thing! You’re chasing this light at the end of the tunnel, and you know that when you get there and you open, it’s just another tunnel. So you’re chasing this one peak and you get to it, and then you are basically starting from scratch again. It’s different but the same.
But you’ll get into the flow of cooking. Do you miss the actual physical act?
Yes. The past two years, I’ve had to pull myself out of the restaurant environment. I’ve spent a lot of time cooking at home, actually — making breakfast and then lunch for my wife to bring to work — and then jetting off to my meetings. That’s something you never have time to do when you’re running a restaurant.
How will the food compare to what you served at the original Aska?
The whole idea is to create an environment where we can start fresh, but also allow ourselves to continue to grow and find better purveyors, build better relationships with the people we get our ingredients from, and just to be able to cook in a somewhat more controlled environment where we can experiment.
Your (optional) tasting menu is going to cost $215, which is pricey. But I think you’re actually opening at a time when New Yorkers are embracing fine-dining once again.
I think so, too.
Last year, it felt like every chef was opening their version of a burger joint.
It’s not easy to open any business in New York. And we didn’t do this because it was easy. Some of my best colleagues get burnt out. I guess they end up asking themselves why the hell we do this. And of course there are some great burger and pizza places that have come from these chefs, but it’s not the same. I still feel like there’s this abundance of great ingredients here, and there’s this amazing staff, even though they’re hard to find. Restaurants can be different. They should feel alive.
Critics widely celebrated the first iteration of Aska. Does that heighten the pressure? How does it impact the choices you’re making?
It does, but you want to not even think about it. We spent so much time finding our ingredients and working with them, and all we want to do is present a delicious ingredient that somehow means something to us, and present a dish that triggers some of your flavor memories.
Why’d you ultimately decide to stick with the name Aska?
Because every other name that I liked was taken.
It’s a good name.
The name meant a lot to me, and it represented something that conveys the lowest levels. On one hand, I wanted a total clean slate and a fresh start. But on the other hand, we are still building on something that I felt we could not finish. I was not done with Aska when it closed, so I wanted to give it a second chance, just to see if we could keep pushing.