Text by Rebecca Seal Photos⁄Christopher Tonnesen
What do you like on your porridge? A spoonful of sugar, perhaps? Some cream and honey? Maple syrup? In the unlikely event that your answer is plum vinegar and a topping of grated reindeer heart, you’d be in luck at Oslo’s Maaemo.
The newly anointed three-Michelin-starred restaurant’s take on rømmegraut (porridge), made with the sourest of sour cream and a tangle of dried deer, is on the list for the tasting menu the night we visit. An unusual riff on a speciality of Norway’s far-northernmost reaches, it’s the kind of palate-testing, traditional-with-a-twist dish that the tiny, 30-seat eaterie has become known for in the past six years.
It’s also, seemingly, the kind of dish that wins recognition from Michelin’s judges. In 2012, just 14 months after opening, Maaemo and its chef, Esben Holmboe Bang, picked up two stars. In February, they became the first Norwegian restaurant – and one of only two in the Nordic region – to receive a third.
To put this in context, even René Redzepi, the godfather of New Nordic Cuisine, has never held three stars, and his Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, opened way back in 2003. Instead, the stars have come to rest in a wind-blown, concrete office block in an unfashionable corner of Oslo, where we find ourselves on a rainy Wednesday morning. We’re here to spend the day with Bang, in a bid to find out how his establishment has become fêted above so many others. Even he seems surprised.
“Michelin called and said, ‘Tomorrow you’re going to be awarded your third star,’” the Danish chef recalls. “It’s like a blackout from there on – this dreamlike, strange time. Whenever something happens that changes you so significantly, whether in your personal or professional life, it takes time to acknowledge.”
At 33, Bang is unusually young for a head chef, stars or no. Over six feet tall, he’s also an imposing figure with muscular tattooed arms and meaty hands. It’s an incongruous sight to witness him crouching over his diminutive dishes with tweezers and pipettes. These picturesque, perfect mouthfuls are served in 20-dish tasting menus, delivered in theatrical succession over three-and-a-half hours. Each is a tiny microcosm, containing a story about how it is tied to Norway’s cultural history, and the land or water it came from, which diners can hear, if they want to.
“I wanted to open a restaurant that was new in Norway,” he says. “Something that placed a lot of emphasis on Norwegian nature and agriculture.” Far from rejecting the simple cooking of the country’s past, he wanted to celebrate and elevate it. “We have 135 guests a week, and we have to serve them the Norwegian soil,” he says, using a phrase he comes back to again and again to describe his determination to embrace the real food culture of the country.
A good example is his quail’s egg, cooked in bone marrow and served with fenalår (salted mutton). The mutton is a typical dish from the west of the country, and a reference to Norway’s impoverished past. Before oil wealth arrived, salting, smoking and preserving were ways to survive the long and brutal winters here.
Now Bang uses those same methods to ensure he only serves Norwegian ingredients. Rather than relying on middlemen to supply him, the chef spends all year seeking out produce from fishermen and foragers; in late winter he helps the farmers who supply him directly plan exactly what to grow. In the summer, when not cooking, he is busy preserving. This way, he never has to use imported or out-of-season food.
“We have to prepare in summer, because there is no stuff in the Norwegian soil for the majority of the year.” He grins. “It’s always chaos and it’s always a struggle. There’s so much you want to preserve, that you kind of get lost.” The work is unpredictable. “We are constantly testing and if a pickle or ferment is sketchy, we have to get rid of it. Which is completely heartbreaking. But we learn. It’s part of life.”
He works as he talks; slicing up tiny spheres of cucumber, ready to be vacuum-treated, osmotically refilled with cucumber juice and cooked in an experimental combination of squid and butter infused with chicken skin. It’s surprising that a restaurant that idolises rustic cooking traditions should use such high-tech methods. Likewise, the restaurant’s sharp edges and sleek looks don’t immediately call to mind the forests, fields and fjords that inspire everything that happens here. Stainless steel counters in a glassed-in room look over train tracks and a concrete footbridge. The most natural element is the rain, which hammers against the kitchen’s panoramic windows as a dozen young chefs diligently pick the leaves from chervil stems or blow-torch vegetables.
Bang is at the centre of it all. Like a lot of the best chefs, he has a kind of priestliness – acting as both a still, fiercely single-minded centre point to the bustle of the kitchen, and as a zealous advocate for the way he wants to cook. If not necessarily ambivalent to the recent star, he does give the slight impression that all this fuss rather gets in the way of his singular passion to be a chef.
“All we want to do is come in in the morning, cook some food and serve it to people,” he says. “That’s what it’s about – the connection, that interesting weird area where you think something and I think something. We touch people.” He sees “food as a conversation starter, as a social study, as something that binds us together as human beings and as a society”.
Being at the helm of a restaurant with only 30 covers that charges NOK2,300 for dinner may not sound revolutionary, but Bang certainly is. Even 40 years ago, Norwegian cuisine looked like that of any other relatively poor agricultural country: limited. » During the wealthier 1980s, shoppers embraced frozen pizza and chefs looked overseas for ideas. By the time Maaemo opened, fine dining meant French cookery and no one was interested in discovering what Norway itself could produce.
It sounds New Nordic, but he isn’t a fan of the label. Now 12 years old, the trend is, he feels, on the wane, and he isn’t sorry. “We’re at the point where we can be this kind of restaurant without it being a hype thing.” The term is becoming slowly meaningless. Its demise is a sign of how far Nordic food has come. It is easy but unhelpful to put Bang, who is so deeply rooted in Norwegian food ways, in the same group as, say, Magnus Nilsson, who, similarly, cooks wild foods at Fäviken in Sweden. They share an approach (local, seasonal) but aren’t influenced by the same traditions, so the results are deliciously different.
To achieve so much at his age requires a level of dogged determination that most of us can’t imagine: Bang broke his leg very, very badly a couple of months ago, yet was back in the kitchen within weeks despite the pain (and happily scrambled down a forest slope for our photographer). Writing a Maaemo cookbook has also found its way into his schedule.
It’s hardly a shock that he isn’t choosing this as a moment to relax. “We are a restaurant with a lot of energy and a lot of new dishes and products we want to show,” he explains. “We want to get under the DNA of the Norwegian landscape even further. Michelin gives you an accolade based on something that you’ve done and continue to do consistently. We’re going to keep doing that, but at the same time, we’re going to evolve. And that has nothing to do with Michelin stars. And everything.”
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