The three star restaurant Maaemo is chef Esben Holmboe Bang’s successful interpretation of Norwegian food traditions.
Entering the world’s northernmost three star Michelin restaurant starts with an awkwardly corner-placed entrance door, sort of an oblique-shaped hors d’oeuvre that sets the tone. The experience continues into an intimate, all glass-dressed local with only eight tables. The close neighbours Oslo central station and the hip Grønland area are now forgotten, and you are part of a fairy tale. The all-wooden furniture is as low-key as it gets, flanked by black and white photographs as the only decoration.
In the even tinier kitchen, just above our heads, 20 and more standard menu dishes are prepared for guests who have waited three months to get a table. Now, Chef Esben Holmboe Bang fuses down the spiral staircase, with an appearance that is the total opposite of what most of us expect from a guy who in 2016 managed to be listed “trois étoiles” in the Michelin guide: hair style of a boy who just came home from playing in the woods all day, an open, mild facial expression, eager to tell what has happened to him lately.
How Norwegian is Maaemo?
“Maaemo is my showcase, it’s my interpretation of Norway as a country. As a foreigner, I can allow myself to bang on the national drum. Norway feels different in that you are surrounded by wooden houses, some with grass on the roof and occasionally a grazing goat. Coming from another country, these interpretations could easily have become a weakness, but it turned out good in the end.”
What does Norway smell of?
“To me, the smell of Norway is fire, smoke, salt and drama. There is a useful pain and nerve in the history of the Norwegian people that affects the food in a good way.”
Are the ingredients mistreated?
“No, to me the local cooking methods have been far more interesting than the rather sweet and mild cuisine I grew up with in Denmark.”
Which international cuisine is parallel to the traditional Norwegian ones?
“Kimchi, the famous traditional Korean dish, consisting of vegetables stored underground during summer, for then to be used in cooking during winter when there are no fresh local ingredients. The fermentation process gives fantastic taste to a great variety of vegetables and meat.”
Esben often highlights his personal, early memories of food experiences as a base for experimenting with a new take on classic ingredients.
Are memories the same as inspiration?
“No, memories are more important to me. I am not the type to wander around searching for inspiration to come out of the blue. I’m running a restaurant, not an interior magazine. To me, the process of creating a dish starts with a memory, like my grandmother’s way of serving strawberries with milk and sugar. I remember it flowing down my cheeks and scratching around my mouth. How delicious!”
How do you make others feel the same taste as you did when you were a kid?
“My challenge lies in how to convey the instant feeling of this memory, to restaurant customers. So we started testing and ended up with a grilled strawberry dish with the illusion of the smell of the last embers in a grill that is about to extinguish.”
Energic music comes from the kitchen area. In this workplace, music is obviously permitted. Who is making the play list?
“Well, there are actually 18 different nationalities in the kitchen. I see no reason for me to dictate the music, my employees would become fed up. I like to keep a flat structure.”
It’s known you have a soft spot for Norwegian black metal?
“In reality, I listen to various music styles. I’m not stuck within one category. As a teenager back in Denmark, me and a group of friends developed a deep interest for Norwegian black metal. Mostly because we were attracted to its extremity and dark side, but also because it sounded refreshingly different and exotic. Today, my choice of music is more a question of mood than music.”
Does your musical taste have any influence of your cooking?
“Well, I guess it would be meaningless to seek a direct comparison. However, I enjoy the dark and unpolished within various fields, also when it comes to ingredients and cooking.”
What is the most ground breaking traditional Norwegian dish?
“To me, the most radical is ‘Sheep’s head’ (smalahove), basically a face on your plate that you are supposed to pluck in. I myself look at this particular dish as a natural part of an animal that has been used in cooking for a very, very long time. There are several other odd specialities like rakfisk that seem less shocking once you finish off the meal with a strong drink.”
Do you prepare food in nature?
“When I have time off with my kids, we make a campfire where we grill quality sausages, of which you find increasingly more of in Norway. Open air cooking is a truly beautiful experience.”
What about marshmallows?
“Yes, sometimes I let the children grill some over the open fire for dessert.”
As a chef who likes to go out in nature to collect ingredients, how do you feel about hiking in mountainous areas?
“So far, I’ve only been on a few hiking trips. My experience however, is that it’s quite easy to get around, and that the equipment doesn’t have to be neither comprehensive nor expensive. With that being said, I feel that Norwegian parents bring their kids to kindergarten dressed as if they are to climb Mount Everest.”
Where did you go hiking?
“In Jotunheimen, and we got some spectacular photos to prove it. We were a small group of friends, all of us wearing the random outfits we had on when we got out of the car. Soon, all we could see were rocks, and the temperature dropped sooner than we expected. It was a truly beautiful and deliberating experience just to be there in normal clothes; however, I advice everyone else to wear the right gear when hiking.”
Has there been time to travel elsewhere in Norway?
“Yes. We have a family cottage in Hvaler, where I am still struck by the breath-taking rocky landscape, remarkably grinded down by the waves. I have also taken my family to the Hardangerfjord and Ulvik. I fall in love with new places all the time.”
Do you find time for a summer bath in the Oslo fjord?
“Yes, we are a normal family like everyone else. The islands in the Oslo fjord are easily accessible by the traditional ferry line within few minutes. The Maaemo way of doing things also makes sense with regards to other stuff. The nearness to nature, combined with awakening of the food scene and other offers, makes Oslo a truly great city to live in.”
While you’re at it: Any favourite museum nearby?
“I find Folkemuseet especially beautiful with its huge outdoor collection of historic, wooden houses. There is even a stave church that fascinates me because of its unusual tactility.”
Have you ever been lost in Oslo?
“Yes, several times because I love long city walks in parts of Oslo not familiar to me. Remembering the names of places have never been my strongest suit, and it comes to show even in this rather transparent capital. Last time I got lost, I had to call my wife.”
How is Norway for food lovers travelling outside of Oslo?
“My experience is that there are a lot of opportunities to eat well. In Bergen I even helped the local chef Christoffer Haatuft, at his restaurant Lysverket, to successfully arrange a spontaneous food event.”
How strict do you have to be with your employees, in order to run a three star restaurant?
“Not strict at all. Simply because I have employed at least two sous-chefs to do the job, so I can stroll around and be rather nice.”
By the way, should one eat with their hands or with cutlery?
“To me, eating with your hands has something poetic and beautiful to it.”
Even at a three star restaurant like Maaemo?
“Oh yes, it happens that we serve food without cutlery. It adds to the intimacy.”
Any ultimate advice for food lovers visiting Norway?
“Avoid tourist traps. Do some research and you will eat fantastically, even at modest prices for lunch. If you want to experience art, you wouldn’t go to any random museum, and I believe the same rule applies for restaurants.”