An extraordinary transformation takes place three nights a week in the back of the Kinfolk Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when chefs Fredrik Berselius and Richard Kuo turn the amber-hued space into Frej or a few fleeting magical hours. By all accounts, their pop-up restaurant is a resounding success, generating packed tables and impressive accolades. A recent glowing review in the New York Times praised the chefs’ tasting menu, saying it rivals any of the city’s more celebrated restaurants for a rock bottom price of $45. Their contemporary Nordic-inspired menu changes depending upon the seasons and has included such dishes as mutton heart with beets and smoked cheese; beef cooked in hay with rutabaga and apple cider; and smoked brook trout and egg yolk with chickweed and rye bread. Berselius, 33, sat down with me to discuss why he and Kuo, 31, who met at Drew Nieporent’s award-winning restaurant Corton in Tribeca, decided to cut out the middleman investors and building owners — to focus on bonding with guests and eliminate the boring bits.
What motivated you to open a untraditional restaurant like Frej?
We planned to open a “regular restaurant” where we would push the concept [of a non-traditional fine dining restaurant] and make a space that was interesting and very kitchen driven, yet affordable enough to introduce a younger crowd to this kind of dining. When our investor pulled out of the project, everything we had planned collapsed and we didn’t know what to do. Our options were to either take another year or two to try to find a new investor, or go back and work for someone else. Neither option appealed to us.
We decided to try to find a space to co-exist with. Normally when a place needs a chef they have their own idea of what food to serve. But we came to [Kinfolk Gallery] with our own concept and name already formulated. We work in a space owned by someone else, but at the end of the day we are a separate entity, completely in charge of what we do.
What do you hope the dining experience will be like for Frej’s guests?
We want it to be a fun and relaxed experience. The kitchen helps serve food and the servers help wash dishes. Everybody is trained to do everything. If a guest is interested in what they’re eating, they can ask the chef directly about it. If we want to ask the guest something we can do that, too. We cut out the middlemen. And because we only have 25 or so guests each night, each one of them is very important to us. They are here for a few hours, so if we can’t bond with them, the meal will be extremely long and boring. We want to provide a welcoming space; intimate yet warm and fun, where the connection to the kitchen is emphasized without needing to have an open kitchen.
Would you consider Frej a fine dining restaurant?
There are similarities with fine dining in the sense that we serve a tasting menu and we work long hours, but we really want to strip away the dry, stiff, boring bits. We want to be open and accommodating to our guests and not pretend like we are doing them a favor. We still polish our silverware and glassware but that’s pretty much it.
We had a plan and it was important that we could have our creative freedom and cook the way we cook. We wanted to build a kitchen larger than the dining room and serve things we think not only diners but other cooks and people in the industry might enjoy eating. It’s important to find an investor who is the right match. We have not found that person yet.
How do you conceptualize a dish?
A dish can grow from an idea based on a childhood memory or a certain feeling, but can also be inspired by a place, like the smell of nature or a barn or a road trip. Sometimes a dish is based on the ingredient you have to work with. For example, if you buy a whole animal you have to figure out what to do with all the different parts. There are so many factors involved in any given dish or menu and things are always changing. At the beginning of each season you have a fair idea of what you have to work with and the planning starts there. Until spring you basically have over-wintering root vegetables and in springtime, more greens and shoots and flowers, and then more fruits and vegetables in the summer.
What do you find most gratifying about your work?
It’s amazing to learn something new about food every day. I grew up [in Sweden] with a lot of home cooking and walking around in the woods picking mushrooms and berries. But in spite of this early appreciation for food, my respect for it grows on a daily basis. I think it’s important to cook and eat with all your senses, but also to have knowledge of what you eat and where the food comes from. Food and restaurants will keep moving forward; hopefully from the underground up.
Photo: Frej chefs Fredrik Berselius and Richard Kuo. Credit: Caroline Lefevre