Håkan Swahn
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Håkan Swahn

Bryan Miller / May 2012

Food Arts presents the May 2012 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Håkan Swahn, the impassioned culinary ambassador for his native Sweden, who, for more than 25 years, has showcased his country at his acclaimed New York City restaurant Aquavit. Swahn has carried the flag nearly alone in the United States in demonstrating that Swedish cuisine—and by extension that of Scandinavia—is far more than meatballs, gravlax, and the eye-opening liquor for which his restaurant is named.

After graduating from the Stockholm School of Economics, Swahn took a job at the Swedish Trade Commission’s food division in New York City. The last Scandinavian restaurant in Manhattan, Copenhagen, had a remarkable run from 1946 to 1983. Into the void stepped Swahn, then 28, who left the trade commission to launch Smorgasbord, which organized Swedish food events around the United States. The restaurant came about through his association with the late Tore Wretman, who at the time was the Paul Bocuse of Sweden. Wretman said he would lend his support if Swahn could come up with the funding.

Swahn dove into the project that became Aquavit, which opened in 1987 in an intriguing rectangular space beneath an eight-story atrium with a two-story tile waterfall on one side and the glass-fronted interior of an office tower on another. In 2005, the restaurant moved to new—and horizontal—quarters on the ground floor of a skyscraper on East 55th Street. And while it may seem common today, Swahn’s idea of having two distinct dining rooms—one casual, the other more formal—was ahead of its time.

All went well until 1995, when the third chef since opening died of a drug overdose. Swahn was urged by his team to appoint a 24 year old novice on the staff who had never run a big kitchen. Or any kitchen, he recalls, describing one of the scariest moves of his career. But he went along, promoting the Ethiopian born, Swedish raised Marcus Samuelsson. His undeniable talent and winning personality boosted Aquavit’s stature and garnered an avalanche of publicity. Over time, Samuelsson migrated toward a more global style of cooking and helped Swahn open an Aquavit in Minneapolis, one of the few American cities with a sizable Swedish population. Though highly lauded, it lasted but six years.

Samuelsson eventually moved on. Swahn, in turn, found another young Swede, Marcus Jernmark, who has returned Aqua­vit to contemporary Scandinavian cuisine, which now—to Swahn’s delight—has ascended the global culinary stage. Considering all of Swahn’s success, an obvious question remains: where are all the other Swedish restaurants in the United States? “I’ve always found it strange,” he says, shaking his head, “that Sweden has sports stars all over the place, famous designers and artists, but nothing has happened. I’m waiting.”