“It’s always been a dream to move to New York City,” Agern’s Executive Chef Gunnar Gislason tells me as I pick juniper berries to top my chicken liver and pear compote on rye bread appetizer. The dish already rests atop a fresh juniper bush in an elegant bowl of glossy stones. When Gislason received a call one day from his friend Claus Meyer, the world-famous restaurateur behind Noma and pioneer of ‘New Nordic Cuisine,’ suggesting they open Agern together, it was an offer Gislason could not refuse. And so, two years ago, Gislason moved his family across the Atlantic from Iceland, leaving behind four restaurants (which he still oversees), to bring Nordic cooking traditions to the United States.
Grand Central Terminal, with its never-ending commuter chaos atop floors that tremble from the barreling trains below, seems like an odd place for a restaurant that pays homage to local farmers, wild ingredients and traditional cooking methods. Yet, one step into Agern–previously a men’s waiting room–and it becomes apparent that its unexpected location in the historic Grand Central Terminal could not be more ideal; it offers a hygge (the latest Danish term for ‘cozy’) refuge from the mania of midtown Manhattan. With an entrance that is easy to miss atop a short flight of stairs, Agern is seemingly Grand Central’s best-kept secret.
The 110-seat space, designed by Meyer’s wife, Christina Meyer Bengtsson, of Heartwork Design, and her partner, Ulrik Nordentoft, exudes a distinctly Scandinavian earthy-meets-modern sensibility with its minimalist palate of blacks, matte greys and caramels complemented with hints of cream and taupe. Mesmerizing wood-panelled walls that curve throughout the restaurant contrast with patterned mosaic tiles, while lofty ceilings are balanced with intimate low-hanging lights that feature brass fixtures, achieving a contemporary, sensual ambience you would not expect to find amidst the monotonous air of the Terminal. The space is anchored by a sophisticated square-shaped bar rooted at its center, behind which immaculately presented dishes are assembled before guests’ eyes.
“Agern” translates to “Acorn” in Danish, which is not only the fruit of Denmark’s national tree, the oak, but acts as a symbol of perseverance and carries historic significance as an essential ingredient in the everyday diet of Scandinavian Vikings. The name could not be a better fit as it is this ‘New Nordic’ philosophy of honoring customary cooking techniques and promoting an ethos of “living off the land” that is at the heart of Agern.
The methods that Gislason brings to the menu, such as foraging, curing, and smoking, are rooted in a culture that has repeatedly, whether it be due to climate or economic instability, been forced to work with what the earth provides. In a major metropolitan hub like New York City, executing this strategy demands strong relationships with producers and suppliers in the New York State region who can deliver both high-quality ingredients and a deep knowledge of how the season affects their products. Most importantly, Agern’s deep relationships with local farmers, fishermen and foragers cultivates an understanding of the lifespan of each ingredient, from inception to consumption, endowing each dish with its own unique story.
On the plate, this ‘New Nordic’ culinary approach manifests itself as a dish that is as layered in flavour as it is in narrative, making each bite that much more meaningful. Centered in a heavy, chilled, muted-cream bowl, specially imported from Iceland, lies a hearty chopped beef. Tarragon, capers and pickled onions give the tartar a kick, while pickled elderberries and a spicebush-seasoned foam keep the mixture invigorating, whilst simultaneously celebrating ingredients native to New York. Another particularly innovative creation is the Skate Wing. Where tender cuts of the roasted fish topped with sea urchin from the east coast and a rich burnt butter sauce would be too monochromatic in texture and delicate in flavor on their own, when paired with a tangy, apple cider vinegar-dressed celeriac salad, are elevated into an intricately complex dish.
Desserts maintain the theme of taking modern twists on essential Nordic dishes, such as the Quince; creamy koji rice pudding made with buttermilk is paired with poached quince puree, and finished with lemon verbena and lemon zest. For Gislason, it seems that fresh local and seasonal ingredients are simply the vehicle through which he introduces North Americans to historic techniques and performs the art of Nordic cooking. Gislason’s ability to promote sustainability through a celebration of the culinary traditions of his home country Iceland, with ingredients from a completely different region, all while keeping dishes current in one of the most competitive food industries in the world, makes him a chef worth celebrating.
We sat down with Gislason to dig deeper into his culinary roots, his passion for ‘New Nordic’ cuisine and his experience upholding this particular approach to cooking at Agern.
What led you to become a chef?
I was not an excellent student, so one day I got a job at a restaurant in my hometown and very quickly fell in love with the atmosphere of the kitchen. Even school became easier when I spent my free time doing something that I had a true passion for.
When did you first fall in love with the New Nordic philosophy of cooking?
It was early 2000. I was working at restaurant VOX in Iceland and we focused on having the primary ingredients from Iceland but other ingredients could come from elsewhere. I very quickly started to push for more Icelandic/Nordic ingredients and loved the challenge of only focusing on the local bounty. In 2009 I opened my own restaurant Dill, and we went as Icelandic as possible on our small and cold island in the north. It was incredibly eye-opening, challenging, and in fact more fun learning to be creative and limit ourselves than by having all the colors in the book to play with, so to speak.
How does your upbringing in Iceland influence your menu choices?
I spent a good amount of time with my grandparents, where I learned a lot about traditions and stories behind Icelandic food and I incorporate those into my cooking. Also, our extreme seasons in Iceland were challenging, but this taught me that one must be prepared, especially for winter!
Why did you decide to leave your successful restaurant Dill in Reykjavik to move to New York City?
Even though I’m not at Dill everyday now, I’m still one of the owners and I try to stay in good contact with the great team that’s now in control there. That’s very important to me. If that was not possible, or if I did not believe in my team there, this move to New York would never had been possible. But as well, it had been a dream for both me and my wife to try to live abroad, so this was the perfect opportunity.
What specific Icelandic cooking traditions do you bring to the Agern kitchen?
I don’t really think I bring one specific thing to the kitchen. I think it’s more so many smaller things. At Agern we try as much as possible to buy local, then we sprinkle those amazing local ingredients with some of our Nordic traditions. “Local kitchen with Nordic roots,” we call it.
Why is preserving and celebrating traditional cooking techniques important to you?
I like that you used the word “preserving.” Preserving is a somewhat traditional cooking technique. For me, preservation is very important as it enables us to use everything we have at any given season. We might get in more than we can use, so we have to preserve whatever we don’t use. Or, we get in a vegetable and we only use a part of it, then we have to preserve the rest for later use. We do not believe in waste, and I think that is an important philosophy to share and preserve. In Iceland, we have some recipes for traditional food that date back to the time of the Vikings. I want my children to grow up having tried these foods. It would be very sad if those traditional tastes were forgotten.
How does the story behind your ingredients; from harvesting on the farm to cooking in the kitchen, get translated onto the plate?
We try to get to know our farmers, hear their stories, and share them with our team and our guests. We invite all our farmers to come and speak with our staff directly about their products. We ask the farmers to share their stories, do tastings, and educate our team about their speciality. I think we share what we learn with our guests very well. The same thing we do with all of Chad’s (Chad Walsh, our sommelier) American wines.
What are some of the challenges of executing a locally-sourced menu in an urban environment like New York City?
Getting the top-quality ingredients from suppliers often relies on who you know. For me, coming from Iceland, it was incredibly hard, not knowing anybody. But I have an amazing sous chef and pastry chef with deep roots in New York City, and with their help, Agern built a nice team of farmers, fishermen, foragers and other suppliers. Everyone we work with is so passionate and great–I am incredibly grateful for these connections.
Besides adapting the menu to reflect the ever-changing seasonal bounty, how do you keep dishes fresh and innovative?
We try to involve our entire kitchen team, Claus and the great team in Great Northern Food Hall. That way you get more comments and more critics, which helps build even greater plates.
What is your favorite restaurant in the world for New Nordic cuisine?
Dragsholm slot, my dear friend Claus Henriksen can do magic like no other. I love going there.
Photography by Anna Haines