Morten Sohlberg is a modern day renaissance man. With a list of credentials that includes founding a college for design, growing a successful restaurant group, becoming a self-taught farmer, and frequently guest lecturing on the principles of the advancement of sustainable and responsible agriculture.
Bringing his prolific design background to his current role as Restaurateur/Farmer of Blenheim, the restaurant and the farm, Morten is not only the mastermind behind the design of the restaurant, but is also a skilled carpenter who hand-builds much of the dining room furniture. This emboldened, do-it-yourself approach led Morten and his wife Min Ye to purchase Blenheim Hill Farm in the Catskill Mountains, becoming self-taught farmers in the process.
How did you get into the Culinary industry?
I became a restauranteur as a result of some strange circumstances. My background was originally in Design. I studied in Florence and worked in Milan, Italy. I founded Sessions.edu, which is the largest college of design in the world. After selling my stake in Sessions in 2003, I had to comply with a harsh non-compete agreement preventing me from doing the things I knew best. Among the new career choice available to me was, florist, funeral agent, and restauranteur etc. As a Norwegian, I always had a passion for pure food, new nordic cuisine, so I decided to try that out, in spite of having no experience or education in the restaurant business.
Tell us about Blenheim/Smorgas Chef. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the restaurants?
The inspiration for Smorgas came from my heritage, and my childhood home in Norway, I was always in the kitchen watching my dad cook. I was also frightened when he asked me to run down into the basement of our house to get ingredients, because I would have to pass the whole carcass of a skinned moose hanging from the ceiling. My dad would break down the animal and we would have moose meat the whole winter.
As I was building the restaurant group, I became increasingly frustrated with the limited access to good meats and sustainable ingredients, so I decided to start farming. Luckily I had barely set foot on a farm before, and had no idea of how to do it. Had I known, I would not go forward with it. It is very tough and it takes some a lifetime to learn the trade, especially if the focus is organic and sustainable farming. We read hundreds of books, visited local farms, and hired local farm hands with experience, and after 5 years, Blenheim hill farm is fully operational. Heritage pigs, Hereford beef cattle, Icelandic lamb, guinea hens, chickens and bees, as well as hundreds of crops now thrive on our 150-acre farm in the Catskills. The restaurant Blenheim in the west Village in NYC was conceived to feature the farm's finer and more unusual products.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Blenheim/Smorgas Chef's success?
After we opened our first restaurant in the Wall Street area of Manhattan, we had a very low budget and could not do any real advertising. I made a deal with the owners of the small newspaper stands that is dotting the financial District. For $5 I was allowed to insert my flyers and menus into every copy of the Times and the Journal that he had for sale each morning. Later I created partnering arrangements with smaller local newspapers: dining credits against ad space. Now we have a pretty complex engine of marketing, social media, and PR, with our own inhouse staff, we still do not do any paid advertising.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
I like to think that we are more often setting the trends than spotting them. I started an accredited online education company, when in 1996 when most had not even heard of Yahoo and Google and Facebook didn't even exist. We started farming for our restaurant before it became commonplace and trendy. With over 23,000 restaurants in this city, it is critical to set yourself apart. Committing to sustainable cuisine, is not only trendy, it's the right thing to do. I have 3 little boys and I am very concerned about what they eat.
I'll have to go with Ghandi; "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
Blenheim/Smorgas Chef's Motto?
Extraordinary customer experience is the most important measure of our success.
Your greatest success as Proprietor/Chef of Blenheim/Smorgas Chef? Most difficult moment - how did you overcome and what did you learn?
The restaurant business is one of the most complex industries in the world. It can be a logistical, regulatory, and managerial nightmare. My greatest sense of success was to be able to build one restaurant after another, when nearly 90 percent of all new restaurants around us fail. I learned soon that everyday in the restaurant business brings on a new set of seemingly unsolvable challenges. Only when you leave emotions (stress, anger, frustration) out of it, they become quite solvable.
Your advice to an aspiring restauranteur?
Success in the restaurant business comes in equal parts from the heart, and the head. The concept, the cuisine, the theme, the decor all have to come from the heart. Customers can tell if you "don't mean it". The other half of the success comes from the head - a very well thought out plan. Which includes conservative numbers and expectations, a great location for the concept, a great team. You can take a huge leap of faith with the concept and cuisine etc, and take risks and be ambitious with that, but not with the planning and execution. You need to know that you have the right location, the right funding, the right team, etc. If it doesn't make sense on paper, it never will in real life. You are entering a business where "great" is not good enough. Only "extraordinary" is.
Describe the ideal experience at Blenheim/Smorgas Chef.
I loosely group guests into 3 categories: 1) those who thought their experience at a restaurant was not good and do not hesitate to tell others about how bad it was; 2) those who thought the experience was "good" but not good enough to share their experience with friends; and 3) those who had an extraordinary experience at the restaurant - so much so that they feel compelled to talk to others about it. You can only succeed in this business if a vast majority of the guests are in the latter group. And any experience is relative to expectations -- the customers have to feel that they received more on every level than what they thought they would.
Most popular dishes and your favorites?
I love any dish where a majority of the ingredients just came from our farm. We do source from other farms, especially out of season, and food is still wonderful. It is when the product comes from our farm and we grew it ourselves, and raised the livestock, that I get especially excited.
How do you motivate your employees?
In the tens of hours I spend in meetings with my managers and staff each week, I try to give as many compliments on their performance as I give criticism. Even though it's so much easier for most people to criticize and complain than it is to praise. I try not to offer all the solutions, but try to have my staff come up with ideas for how they can improve or do things better. If you genuinely care about your staff and their roles within the company, and you enable them to be successful at the roles they are assigned, they will feel more motivated. Many staff spend more time at work than at home, so if you as a leader can make them want to be at work more than at home, they will be happier and more productive.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
For drink I would go with water. I could not possibly choose one food item that would be the only thing I eat. I love diversity in my food.
What literature is on your bed stand?
I enjoy 100 years of solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and can read a little at a time.
Role model - business and personal?
Steve Jobs-Mahatma Ghandi
My passion is interchangeable with what I do for a living, my passion is farming and food!
Favorite travel destination?
I've been to almost every corner of the planet. Dozens of countries. But right now with the coldest winter in memory, my favorite destination is Dominican Republic, the fruits, cocoa, avocados grown by the local people are to die for. I forget the beach quickly but not the avocado.
What's next for Blenheim/Smorgas Chef?
Even as we are perfecting our current 6 restaurants and the farm, we are constantly exploring new and fun areas in food, either a new concept or expansion of one of the current ones. I'm always on the lookout for a new venture and with many avenues open. I can pick and choose the direction based on when and where a good opportunity presents itself. We are currently exploring a new location for our fast-casual concept Crepes Du Nord; I would place my focus on that for a while.
Before “farm to table” became the culinary paragon in the U.S., Morten had fully embraced its principles. In his native Norway, one eats and cooks with ingredients from nearby farms because only then can the essence of those foods be harnessed in a mindful and creative way. This philosophy, intrinsic to Nordic cuisine, has driven the menus at his New York restaurants since opening in 2003.
“At its most basic level, Scandinavian cuisine finds beauty in simplicity, and there is no better way to enjoy the pure and true flavor of something than if it was grown locally and responsibly,” he says. “That’s why we began farming and continue to focus so much on bringing in products to our restaurants that respect the land.”
With wife Min Ye, Morten owns and operates the successful Smörgås Chef Restaurant Group, which consists of two Smörgås Chef locations, three Crêpes du Nord locations, a catering business, as well as the newly opened Blenheim restaurant. Introduced in spring 2014, the newest restaurant takes the place of the former West Village Smorgas Chef, with a menu that departs from Scandinavian cuisine to feature a broader range of culinary influences and offerings. Min and Morten also own and operate Blenheim Hill Farm, a 150-acre historic farm in the Catskill Mountains that exclusively provides livestock and produce for the couple’s restaurants. Morten’s ingenuity and experience in the culinary world has garnered him not only practical experience but also given him the opportunity to appear as a frequent speaker and lecturer in the United States and abroad on the subjects of hospitality, cuisine, business, and the advancement of sustainable and responsible agriculture. In 2012, Morten spoke at the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce “Farm to Fork” Royal Dinner Gala in New York, as well as at GoGreen New York, a conference on sustainability for business owners.
Morten also co-founded Sessions.edu with Min, the world’s largest online college of design with 10,000 students in 140 countries; he served as the CEO for five years and the chairman for seven. He has also served on Distance Education and Training Council’s Committee for Government & Public Relations in Washington, D.C., and the New School’s University Advisory Board. He currently participates on the board of the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce. He holds degrees from the Nesbru Skole in Oslo, the Istituto per L’Arte in Florence, and has pursued entrepreneurial and business studies at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University. Morten lives with Min and their three boys and split their time between Manhattan and the Catskill Mountains at the farm.