It’s a Wednesday afternoon when I meet Aska chef Fredrik Berselius at the Union Square Greenmarket. It’s the kind of winter day where the sun hangs weak and silver overhead and the sky is so low that the branches of the park’s trees scratch at it, trying to let in some light. The air is wet and heavy and when I look around and look up, everything I see is black and gray and white. We are hunting for food.
All Photos Rory Gunderson
The concept of eating both seasonally and locally has been around for awhile now but has lately been distilled into that purist of locavore trends, foraging. But there is little to forage amid the cracks of a New York sidewalk, so Berselius makes do with frequent trips to his favorite Greenmarket vendors to find the best of what our local farms have to offer. Berselius knows exactly where to begin searching. Weaving his way through tables laden with radishes and beets, carrots and sunchokes, he selects what looks good with the intuitive ease of a musician figuring out the notes of a song. Berselius moves through the market seemingly unhurried, but this is somewhat deceptive, because the choices he’s making are deliberate and his focus is direct. He is composing the night’s menu for Aska while he selects perfectly nubby potatoes from the people at Mountain Sweet Berry Farm. It is improvisation at the highest level.
As we head back to Brooklyn, back to Aska, Berselius tells me that, “Every day is its own day. You start from scratch each time. You can have a good day or a bad day, but every plate of food you put out, it’s gone.” In that sense, cooking is like any kind of performance, all of the work and effort and energy that Berselius and his talented crew exert no longer belong to the artist once they are released to the world. And the success of the work is always contingent on the perception of the audience. At Aska, the stage is an open kitchen where you can see Berselius plating perfect herring and pearl-like potatoes before sending it all out to the people gathered in the 18-seat dining room, perched under a mural of a descending bird-of-prey. Both the public and critical reception for Aska has been overwhelmingly warm and positive. A dinner reservation is highly coveted and hard to come by, but there is usually room to sit at the long bar, so anyone can come in from Wythe Avenue and linger over a Warm Swedish Punsch and some Scandinavian bar food.
Although any performance requires a certain amount of order—a rhythm that diminishes the potential for mistakes—true artists know that greatness is achieved through malleability and spontaneity. Berselius told me, “There’s so many things to it. The creative part. The actual physical work. There’s a lot of emotion. I spend every day thinking about food and ingredients. There’s consistency and then moving forward. You have to keep moving forward. Some days things don’t work the way you want them to. If you get to the point where you’re happy with what you’re doing... well, that never happens really. But maybe that’s just life, you know?”
This balance of pragmatism and emotion, of order and improvisation, is what makes the most complex performances seem simple and pure. Berselius says, “Everyone eats food. It’s a simple way of looking at it. It’s something we do every day. But you have to challenge yourself every day to look at things and look at food differently. I feel what we’re doing here is that we’ve created an environment where we can do whatever we want. Not only on behalf of the guests, but at the same time for ourselves.” And so at Aska, where things are pared down to an elemental beauty, like the blacks and whites and grays of a winter’s day, perfection appears in the simple things, transcendence in a slip of silvery-herring skin.•