A Man For All Seasons

Morten Sohlberg

a man for all seasons

  • Words Jacqueline Raposo
  • Interview Tyler Wetherall
  • Photographs Morten Sohlberg
A Man For All Seasons

A Man For
All Seasons

Morten Sohlberg has always been an entrepreneurial spirit with an impish creative streak.

Growing up in Norway, the repetition and lack of imagination in his studies to become a chef pushed him towards a curiosity for graphic design. At the Istituto per L’Arte in Florence, a life focused around the invention of visual ideas inspired a move to the United States, where he built up and sold an online design collage, sessions.edu. With his wife and partner, Min Ye, he dove into opening the Scandinavian restaurants Smörgås Chef, Crepes du Nord, and Blenheim, as well as Blenheim Hill Farm in the Catskill mountains—without prior experience in either the restaurant or farming fields. Bold moves.

“Since I was very young, I was missing a little of that fear factor most people walk around with,” Sohlberg shares. Being intrinsically risk-averse, it’s the desire to expand from the confines of his current work life—wherever and whatever it may be at the time—that keeps him on a constant path of exploration and growth, both as a business owner and artist.

 

IT STARTS WITH INTEGRITY

“I couldn’t possibly perform something I don’t believe in,
or that I don’t have a personal
approach to. That’s why I’ve ended up doing the kinds of things I am doing.”

Early on, Sohlberg recognized what kind of work didn’t resonate with him. The first chef school he attended was “shallow and limited”, compared to the more dedicated approach he’d take with food later in life. While he can sell the things he believes in — an idea he stands behind, or a meal at his restaurant — he finds the idea of selling a produce he doesn’t believe in “horrific.”

But to survive, integrity can be found in the most repetitive of tasks. He earned a living cleaning classrooms after school, working quickly, making decent money, and saving for his future.

Focusing on jobs for sustenance and recognizing those which would not serve him well was key. And then finding a way to move from one to sustaining himself by the other.

FOLLOW YOUR GUT

“It’s difficult to explain how that feeling comes about, how that inner voice concurs with you. We all have that inner voice. We communicate with ourselves. As long as we stay true to ourselves and our
objective is true, you can’t go wrong. I think that’s the most important lesson.”

Sohlberg’s background in design planted a seed of appreciation for beauty and form. His childhood in Norway, where foraging and fishing are a part of daily life, set in him a respect for fresh ingredients and whole, healthy foods. Together, these histories inspired the opening of his restaurants. A further desire for better-tasting, sustainable ingredients led to starting the farm. The strength of those connections is vital to the entrepreneurial path. Only when the stakes are so personally grounded will they be physically and continually acted upon. 

TAKE A REAL RISK

“When you define risk for
yourself think about it this way: If there’s no risk for harm,
is it a risk worth taking? As long as no harm is caused to anyone you care for, even if you lose everything you own,
that should be the threshold for how much risk you should be willing to take.”

Renovating the farm took a 1.5 million dollar investment. Anyone who has ever been served a bill at the end of a meal in Manhattan can imagine the expense of owning not only one, but six restaurants there. But rewards don’t come without major risk, and future growth is not possible without the hundreds of risks large and small that come before them. “Even if you’re left with not a penny, or an apartment, and you have no place to live,” he says. That’s how much he invests in his ideas. 

HAVE A COUNTERPOINT

“A lot of people have good ideas, jump into them, and fail.
If there isn’t enough resistance in the beginning to make you question things, you risk and fail with it. It’s important to have someone who makes you jump through hoops.”

Before he bought the farm, Sohlberg had done his due diligence largely in thanks to his wife and partner, Min Ye. While he floods their world with “hundreds of ideas a day”, eager to jump feet first, she provides him with a “check and balance.” For a period, she refused to even consider the idea of moving upstate and starting the farm, forcing Sohlberg to work through every business facet and angle to convince her beforehand. “That process helped us succeed,” he recognizes. “We were a good team from the beginning.”

EMBRACE THE UNKNOWN

“Don’t fear something you don’t know–that’s essential in all
entrepreneurs. It’s precisely because I knew little enough about all the different industries I’ve entered into that I’ve been able to do so. Most people with knowledge of how impossible these industries are would never begin to think about going into them. I wouldn’t have either.”

When Sohlberg finally bought Blenheim Hill Farm, advisers and other farmers quickly doomed him to failure. “But I’m not easily swayed,” he says.

He learned quickly. After first attempting (and failing) to drive their Audi onto a neighboring farm, they bought a Toyota truck. He immersed himself in online tutorials, books, and YouTube videos, and aligned himself with those who could teach him first-hand. “You have to realize that you can only grow if you’re bringing people on who are better than you at the things you’re doing,” he warns. And then you have to do the work, even when it’s no longer fun.

ADJUST, ADAPT, AND GROW

“It is difficult. And for some,
it’s probably impossible. But if you stick at it long enough, eventually you learn it.”

Sohlberg’s mother is a veterinarian, so he wasn’t unfamiliar with the realities of animal health. As his childhood in Norway included fishing and foraging, slaughtering and eating animals wasn’t entirely foreign, either. But the physical realities of farming still came upon him in waves as he intimately learned firsthand the part he would play in the life and death cycles of his livestock.

Witnessing lambs, piglets, and baby chickens being born are “really uplifting and mind-bogglingly satisfying experiences,” he shares. But those same animals being slaughtered for meat, or getting injured, was a hard adjustment. Out of necessity and sympathy, he’s had to get out his shotgun and kill his own animals. While he has a veterinarian on call, if an animal needs penicillin, he pulls out his syringes and surgery kit. These were learned skills; the practical realities of farm life he rose up to in order to succeed.

Living your passion means facing the darker hardships they may require. It means not expecting the world it lives within to adjust to your sensitivities, but adjusting your mettle instead. No matter what the situation requires of you, “if it’s four in the morning on a Sunday,” Sohlberg says, “you have to do it.”

THE REWARD IS REAL HAPPINESS

“It is always about happiness. It’s about lifestyle. About how much time we really have here. We ought to be doing something that makes us happy, every day. Being able to combine the things you love to do as work with the things that you love to do outside of work is a really wonderful thing that one can set oneself up for.”

Sohlberg and Ye grow greens, herbs, seasonal vegetables, and Scandinavian specialties in their fields and hydroponic greenhouse. They forage for wild plants, bottle honey from their hives, and butcher meat from their Icelandic sheep, cows, Guinea hens, and chickens. A few times a week, he then drives whatever is ready for use down to their New York restaurants, 150 miles away. It’s a rigorous schedule, one that plays into the integrity of their farm-to-table ethos and their city-mouse-country-house lifestyle. It’s also one that makes Sohlberg happy.

“I could probably have done a million things that would make me very rich, very quickly,” he says. “But then being very rich is not something that I’m interested in; at least, not as it relates to happiness. You may remain poor, you may make mistakes, and you may have some trouble along the way. But you will be happier.”

His happiness is having his businesses, and his wife, and his family, all in one place. His greatest joy is pulling vegetables from the ground not for his restaurants, but for their family table. That makes the path, the risk, the work, and the success… worth it.

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