| Gwladys Fouche |
OSLO (Reuters) – In an unfashionable part of Oslo, head chef Esben Holmboe Bang’s minimalist creations are stirring up food culture in a country where, a generation ago, the height of fine dining was boiled cod and potatoes.
At Maaemo, a restaurant squeezed between the city’s bus terminal and railway station, Bang uses exclusively local ingredients to rustle up the likes of langoustines with spruce, mackerel with wild garlic and butter ice cream with brown butter caramel. Maaemo – old Finnish for All That Lives – received two Michelin stars 15 months after opening in 2010, in its first mention, and ranks 79th in the top 100 of the world’s best restaurants, according to Restaurant Magazine.
It is a standard-bearer for a quiet revolution in Norway, a poor country turned rich partly thanks to its oil wealth where, in the 1970s, Italian restaurants used to serve pizza with a side order of potatoes to reassure diners that, if they didn’t like the main dish, they would still have something to eat.
Bang, a 32-year-old Dane sporting a large tattoo of the ravens of the Norse deity Odin on his left arm, spoke to Reuters at his restaurant while staff prepped for the evening sitting.
Q: What are you trying to achieve with Maaemo?
A: We wanted very much to open a Norwegian restaurant that reflects where we are and in doing so create a more progressive cuisine compared to the other restaurants that were there when we opened. They used Norwegian produce but it was always cooked in a French way and mixed with French ingredients.
We wanted something that was more in a “Dogma” situation (a stripped-down style with strict rules pioneered – in cinematographic terms – by Danish director Lars von Trier). To be very creative, one needs to set limits. Without limitations, I cannot function.
Q: What were the limitations?
A: Only Norwegian produce. No imports whatsoever. In Norway, it is quite difficult because of the climate and there is a long tradition of using imported produce. We also wanted everything to be organic, biodynamic or wild. It was very, very difficult in the beginning to find suppliers because no one had done this before.
I would tell a farmer, “I would really like to use some of your produce in the restaurant”, and he would not quite understand because he could sell large amounts of vegetables to the big companies and I wanted to buy directly from him.
Also there was no infrastructure in place to make deliveries to the restaurant, so we had to get it ourselves. It was very time consuming. I would not say it is easier now, but we have made it more accessible. And now we have made a name, people contact us to offer their produce.
Q: What about the diners?
A: People were quite sceptical at the beginning. We were not a typical restaurant. I don’t use a lot of meat or protein and that was a big hurdle because some people want a large piece of meat on their plates. It is funny. Often in Norway, it takes a little bit of international recognition before they start to recognise something themselves.
Q: Do you think the food culture in Norway is changing?
A: The restaurants that are opening now, they seem to do something more personal. They try to not think too much about what it is that people want. They focus more on what it is they want to do. I hope that somehow we were part of that. In Norway, no one has done this before. We just did it, and we are learning by doing and we learn as we go. To me it is very exciting, you are not stuck in a box.
Q: Why the emphasis on organic, wild and biodynamic food?
A: I don’t want to use vegetables that have been poisoned, sprayed with pesticides. It is a natural choice. The biodynamic is taking it one step further than the organic: it is so much better because the people who grow that way have a passion for what they do.
Q: What was it like to receive two Michelin stars in such a short time?
A: It was insane. It still has not quite sunk in. I was maybe hoping for one star. When I saw two, I thought it was a typo.