― Marianne Eriksen
We, at Mansa, believe in the power of good food and beverage and love to learn more about the people that make it possible. Whether it be the chefs who conjure exciting dishes to scintillate taste buds or the sommeliers who find the perfect wine every single time, a lot of players in the food industry go into creating the perfect experience for diners. We bring to you Tea Time: an interview series with food culture innovators, where we interview managers, chefs, sommeliers, and restaurateurs of Michelin-star restaurants and 5-star hotels in NYC and took a peek into their lives.
Interview with Marianne Eriksen at Agern
Agern, danish for Acorn, is a Michelin-starred Nordic fine dining restaurant located in Grand Central Terminal. Culinary entrepreneur Claus Meyer, the co-founder of the Copenhagen’s renowned Noma restaurant, introduces Nordic cuisine with locally-sourced ingredients exposed to time-honored techniques and flavor.
Agern is a season-driven restaurant led by the acclaimed chef Gunnar Gíslason who serves cultivated dishes with sharp, defined, and natural flavors.
I sat down with Marianne Eriksen, the General Manager at Agern, to learn about her life growing up surrounded by nature, her transition to NYC, and her management of Agern using the Nordic philosophy.
Here are some highlights from the interview!
A: What was your experience like growing up in a Nordic country? I have an image of you in a beautiful Scandinavian house with a backyard full of fresh vegetables.
M: [laughing] It wasn’t a farm or anything. It was just nature around me, regular houses, and gardens. My dad and I would always dig up fresh vegetables. I’ve been very lucky that I am from a family that has done what their parents have done. Nothing has been pushed on me. I think fresh food has always been that way for me; literally from backyard to table. It was given to me as a blessing in disguise in that way.
A: So, you were naturally introduced to food from backyard to table before the “farm-to-table” scene became popularized.
M: I think that’s how I got introduced to food. In general, the introduction to restaurants is similar in Denmark as it is everywhere in the world. You start off at a young age, and you just get sucked into it in a way. What makes you stay is that you fall in love with the culture of the hospitality industry. Your friends are in it, perhaps your closest friends. You have so many amazing experiences by creating experiences for others, and you grow really really close to the people around you. I’ve never been in another industry, but I have a feeling that the hospitality community is very unique in that it is like a second family.
A: You left the beautiful house with a backyard, your family and your second family to come to New York! When did you come to New York, and how are you navigating the city?
M: I’ve only been here a year and a half. I came after I finished my Bachelors and Masters in Service Management and Strategic Market Creation in Copenhagen. It's very easy to feel very alone in this city. You need to be sure of who you are and what you stand for to stay in it. When you get that foundation established it's an amazing city. Even though it doesn’t have a backyard full of trees, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. It’s definitely been worth it, but it’s also taken me a year and a half to get my footing. When you fight through it, then you realize why people stay. It kind of becomes this egocentric thing where you recognize that your in it, and you're not going to leave. You say to yourself “I'm going to fight through,” and when you’ve been fighting for something that long you keep pushing through.
A: We had a previous interview with Tony Carson, the General Manager from The Modern. One interesting thing he mentioned was that the role of general manager can be different from restaurant to restaurant. How would you describe your role as the General Manager at Agern?
I agree. I think that there are other restaurants where it’s completely different. You can be a restaurant manager in one restaurant and think “I got this”, but then in another restaurant you come into a whole new world and think “I don’t get this!” [laughing]. The location of Agern being inside Grand Central is a very unique challenge. It’s a building that’s amazing and historical. Everyone that enters this building is headed somewhere, so the key is to get them to change habits and make an actually stop in Grand Central for lunch or dinner. It’s a really, really challenging restaurant, I've never tried anything like it, in a good way. In my academic and business perspective, it’s very fun. I’m always thinking “how can you treat this, rebrand that, twist this, finding an identity, create something that drags people in”- which I'm assuming every restaurant does but this is just really different from other restaurants.
A: This is Grand Central-Midtown, which is very different from the downtown area or even Upper West or Upper East. So how do you adjust your strategy and standards to serve your Midtown clientele?
M: This restaurant is completely reverse from everything else I’ve ever tried. The busiest days are Monday and Tuesday. You change your service completely between lunch and dinner which is very interesting. As you were saying we are in Midtown, which is surrounded by so many offices, which means our guests literally have from 12-1 for a lunch break. During lunch the need is speed, and it’s very evident. Then you go into dinner service, and they expect something completely different. It's a more elevated experience for dinner. There’s more talking at the tables, it's more engaging. It’s a mix between a fine dining restaurant scene and an upscale bar scene in here which has been really amazing. 70% of our guests walk-in for dinner, while 95% of guests make a reservation for lunch. Completely flipped.
At lunch, I hear a lot of guests at the tables saying, “I love this place. There are not that many people who know about it.” So I'm also riding that wave a little because I can feel within the last year that our lunch service has really grown by word of mouth with very limited marketing. It’s a balance between wanting more guests and knowing that they come here because they know it’s exclusive.
A: That’s so unique. It’s almost like you have two completely brands that you’re running simultaneously. I also see that there’s another dichotomy: maintaining the tradition around Danish cooking while servicing the American audience. Mansa also has a similar dichotomy as our aged teas are from Asia, yet we are based in NYC. How do you balance these two competing forces?
M: You have the Danish tradition mindset, and you need to mix it into the American environment. You need to compromise and simplify in order to keep the storytelling going. A lot of guests are not educated in Nordic cuisine. I feel that there is a big educational aspect to our restaurant in terms of telling our guests what Nordic elements we implement into our dishes. It's about the quality in the quantity.
I do a lot to keep the identity Nordic in the American environment. I feel the atmosphere here does a lot. The floors are imported from Denmark; they are white oak which is Denmark’s natural tree. The silverware is Danish. We keep the brightness, the openness, the air, and the atmosphere.
Though our guests care about the story, at the end of the day if they don’t like our product, they don't like our product. For me, it's more important that my staff and I know how our restaurant connects to Scandinavia and the Nordic Manifesti. That way they can tell the story. But for our guests, they value different things. They don’t always need to know that our food is based on Nordic traditions. They want an elevated dining experience with great quality food that’s also unique. They don’t necessarily associate our food with Nordic tradition straight away. Guests might not care that our restaurant is Danish, it might be more of a fun fact for them. But for me, it’s very important that I know that. There is a certain pride when I talk about it. The guest may love the food, but they won’t necessarily know it’s amazing because it’s Danish.
A: You made great points. We also see people taste our teas and love the product, but they do not necessarily know the story behind them. We also find tea education a big component of what we do at Mansa. Do you have any other Danish culture or experience that you incorporate at Agern?
M: I always ask myself “what brings the best experience?” I think it's holistic; everything is. The best experience isn’t necessarily going full-on Danish one, but rather one where we follow the rules and the guidelines of the Nordic philosophy. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Scandinavia, but there it’s very much about being open-minded. You must take elements from a lot of different things, and adapt them into your own. You can take it, rethink it and elevate it. That's the holistic experience. If you have the right vision, the right philosophy, and you have some values behind what you are doing, then customers are going to see it in the end.
A: Have you seen the impact of wellness and healthy food trend? Especially because this restaurant seems to already be on the healthier side.
M: I definitely feel there is a trend in healthy food. Healthy can also be meaningful educationally-like what is ‘healthy’ food? There is more knowledge about it now. Denmark is different because it is a very educated country when it comes to food. We grew up with it. We eat lots of vegetables, fresh meat. We balance it out. I definitely feel that the trend is more education than anything.
A: Are there any new exciting movements in the food and hospitality industry that excite you?
M: I think we are seeing more of a need for experiential dining experiences. I’m not completely a fan yet, but I'm getting there. It's closer to a theater experience where you use all your senses. In that way, it’s a play. I’ve always seen the dining experience as the script. Guests are each a character in their roles. They can deviate from their roles to an extent, but the manuscript is written, the story has been told. People are taking that even further now.
A: Lastly, we want to learn more about you! What is your favorite type of tea?
M: I’m a little all over the place these days. Recently I have begun becoming fond of green tea, which is really weird because I used to hate it. But again it’s all about quality. Tea has really been growing on me in the last few years. Have you heard about the Danish word hygge? It’s a way we describe an atmosphere. You know when it’s really cold outside and you walk into a room with a fireplace with your blanket and your tea. In English, you might say it’s cozy or warm. We say that would be really hygge. It describes the whole atmosphere, the whole scene. It has multiple levels. And that’s the word I was looking for when I was thinking about tea.
A: If you like green tea, you would like our Jade Pu’er collection, especially the Wild Lao Raw Pu’er. What’s interesting about pu’er is that it starts out as green tea, but as it ages over time the flavor deviates from the green tea flavor profile. Similar to wine, as it ages it becomes more smooth and full-bodied and less tannic. It’s also amazing how much synergy there is between tea and food. Last month, we did a cheese and aged tea pairing and our guests were really wowed by it.
M: Wow, I’ve never thought of pairing tea with food. Now, I should try some!
A: What about your favorite food or dish?
H: I’m so not traditional Danish there. My favorite dish is my mom’s spaghetti bolognese. It’s the home cooking, and it’s hygge. My mom found out at an early age that I loved it so she always made it for special occasions. My emotional connection to the dish is based on my childhood, stories, and memories.
A: It’s hard to beat mom’s home-cooked meal! What about your favorite beverage?
H: I’m a white wine drinker, so a dry Riesling probably.
A: Would you have that with your spaghetti bolognese [laughing]?
H: No, not a good pairing at all [laughing].
A: Favorite Book?
H: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. It’s based on a true story about a girl who moves to New York. I actually read it before I moved to New York. She describes the restaurant business in such an authentic way. Everyone in the restaurant industry knows exactly the things she describes. It made me realize that what I had to go through was normal.
A: Favorite hobby or activity?
H: I do kickboxing three times a week, and I’m a runner. I think it’s because of the frustration [laughing]. I started when I came here, and it’s really helped me. Especially as a general manager, it’s a good way to get the stress out of your system while having fun. I moved into a world that wasn't mine. I walked into a place where there are rules and guidelines. Suddenly, I am one of the actors, not the one who wrote the manuscript.
Aside from that I just love learning. I keep on going to school and keep taking online courses. I’m a complete nerd in that way. I just love learning. I just feel that it is so important to learn from everything you do; From the conversations you have from the people you meet, from the experiences you go through, just learn from them and never be too proud to say I’ve learned enough. This is what I’ve realized in the last year and a half: you will always learn. You can have conversations with people that will really challenge your preconceptions. You decide how you're going to take it. You can learn from it, or you can be defensive. I choose to learn from them.
A: There’s definitely no end to this journey of learning, and we learned so much from you, from the Danish traditions, to the two extremes of Agern’s lunch and dinner crowds, to this new word “hygge”. Thank you so much for your time today, and let us know how you enjoy our Jade Pu’er collection!