The facade of Morten Sohlberg’s new restaurant is an untidy shell of plywood. I rattle the makeshift door loose and find him inside looking at blueprints and walking among piles of wood and power tools. Soon, this corner spot on one of the posher blocks of the West Village in New York City will be a restaurant called Blenheim, serving food mostly sourced from his farm in upstate New York. It’s his seventh food-related project in the city (not to mention the farm), after a handful of creperies, restaurants, and a catering business, and something of the crown jewel, where he’ll be gunning for stars from the Michelin Guide and The New York Times. Right now, though, it’s a bit of a mess.
For Sohlberg, 44, a native of Oslo, it’s not just that the food here will be of a higher caliber than his previous restaurants. The entire concept is a step forward. “We’re not just buying from farmers”, he says, showing us around the kitchen. “We are the farmers. That allows us to do something very different. We have the freedom to do more R&D and experimentation. We have the ability to grow crops that farmers can’t because they may not sell the crop, or the crop doesn’t work out. We’re financially sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable.”
SOHO, 9:55 p.m.
It’s almost 10 and we’re hungry. Of all the neighborhoods in New York this one isn’t the ideal destination for quick or affordable bite. We lock up Sohlberg’s restaurant and duck into Corner Bistro, which has one of the best bacon cheeseburgers around, but there’s a line of eight parties waiting for a booth. Around the corner there’s a new restaurant called Wallflower with $14 cocktails and foie gras sandwiches; while none of us look down on the finer things in life, we call an audible and catch a cab up to Koreatown, where Sohlberg likes to eat after working in his restaurants. This piece of midtown Manhattan, centered around the block of 32nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, is rich with culinary options. There’s premium steam table food, weapons-grade kimchi, a faux-French bakery, food and beer and karaoke at all hours.
We end up at Shanghai Mong, a self-proclaimed “Asian bistro” that serves a staggering range of foods around the clock. You can get lemon creme dumplings and you can get beef and broccoli. We order kalbi, a style of marinated grilled beef, lettuce chicken wraps, spicy stir fried tofu and a bowl of spicy pork bibimbap, a signature Korean dish of vegetables, meat and rice served in a hot stone bowl. Sohlberg, who doesn’t drink, orders a sparkling water with mint leaves. It turns out mint leaves are the one thing they don’t have.
“We’re not just buying from farmers… We are the farmers. That allows us to do something very different.
Sohlberg speaks eloquently about farming. He’s talking about flowers and herbs, 25 crops inside a hydroponic greenhouse, seeds, the difference between microgreens, baby plants and plants at six weeks. Amish deer tongue lettuce, red Bordeaux spinach, blue curled Scotch kale, lemon balm and caraway. Something called iceplant. Nettles I’ve heard of, at least. Heritage pigs and Hereford cattle. You’d think that Sohlberg has been farming his whole life, but it turns out Blenheim Hill Farm opened just four years ago, the logical, if extremely challenging, next step in a food-related career that began without similar precedent.
After working first as a designer and then teaching as a design professor in Ecuador — Europeans seem to move around a bit more than us Americans — Sohlberg moved to New York to build an online design school. This was the mid-90s, when the Internet was just a microgreen of its present incarnation, and he built the idea from the ground up.
“I bought a small Macintosh server”, he says. “I programmed the first version of the online education system myself. I was able to set up a credit card engine, and I pretended to be all the various people in the company. And I obviously had to teach as well.”
The business grew quickly, but later, when a conflict with investors left him with a settlement and a 70-page non-compete agreement, his options for a related career were limited.
“I had the choice between being a funeral agent or a florist or a restaurateur”, he says, taking a bite of kalbi. “So I chose restaurateur.” Ultimately, his skills as an entrepreneur were transferrable. “A small bird and a big bird have the same organs”, he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a small restaurant or a 5,000 person company, you still have a set of lungs and a heart and eyes. It’s the same way of running a business.”
Farming, it turned out, was more of an uphill battle. When his first farm manager left to pursue his girlfriend, he found himself running the entire operation. One morning he heard gruesome sounds coming from the barn and found a pig with a prolapse.
“I won’t go into specifics because we’re eating”, he says, “but some of the stuff that’s in their belly comes out. So I put on overalls to protect my skin and cut up the pig and put it back together, sewing it up with a needle and thread. I was completely covered in blood and feces.”
Sohlberg has an easy manner and a quiet confidence, but his eyes are lively and resolute. Hearing him speak casually about sewing up a pig or starting an Internet company, it’s easy to imagine that he’s the kind of guy for whom life is a 45 degree line rising smoothly along the X-axis. One success after another: designer, founder and CEO of an online design school, restaurateur, self-taught farmer. And this is basically the truth. He seems to possess a quality — some of it innate, some learned, some practiced — that allows him to press on in high-stakes situations where the potential for failure is plausible, if not high.
“I think I’m sometimes unhealthily fearless”, he says. “That’s not to say that I wasn’t full of fear from time to time.” But it’s those times when others might get queasy that his even-keeled manner pays off, whether it’s learning how to farm or standing in a half-built restaurant meant to open in a matter of days.
There are still some scraps on the table, but we’ve had enough talk of animal parts for one night and decide to pay the bill and head our separate ways into the night.