Interview: Esben Holmboe, Maaemo

Esben Holmboe Bang is the chef and co-owner of the ground-breaking three Michelin-starred restaurant, Maaemo, located in Oslo, Norway. He was born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark but has lived in Norway with his family for the past eleven years.

How would you describe Norwegian cuisine?

This is tricky. I feel like Norwegian cuisine is something that’s changed a lot and hasn't really found its way, yet. What I can do is talk about my idea of Norwegian cuisine, and what it used to be. Norway used to be a very poor country; it was occupied by Denmark, then Sweden, and then Denmark and Sweden again. Obviously, since the Kings and Queens were situated in the capital cities, all of the money went there, so, the cooking that was done here was really spartan; it was about getting cheap produce to last longer. In addition to that, the harsh winters made it that much more difficult. I would say Norwegian cuisine reflects a harsh upbringing; it’s a lot of salting, drying and preserving of food - not very extravagant. In Denmark, during Christmas you eat whole roasted ducks, different kinds of potatoes and gravy; along with a wide variety of produce. In contrast, in Norway you eat salted side of sheep with boiled potatoes and the fat - that’s it. So, even though the countries are so close, there’s a massive difference.

Tell us about the Norwegian pantry; what are the major ingredients?

Due to the geography of the place and the vast coastline, there’s an abundance of fish.

A large quantity is salted and then put into barrels, so that the natural juices of the fish will preserve it. It’s quite smelly and pungent, but it’s very good. Another method is salting it by the shore; they’ll take the fish and hang it, so that the salt of the coast will preserve it. It becomes bone dry, so you have to put it in water before you can use it. Then you have the bounty of the land; berries, mushrooms and a wide variety of magnificent herbs. All of these things can be preserved.

What’s the concept around your restaurant, Maaemo?

My idea of Maaemo is to create a cuisine that reflects the tradition of Norway. It’s a rich style of cooking, with a clear reference to the history of poverty in Norway, using the ingredients from those times. It’s important that the culture is not forgotten.

So, it’s not simply the past, but instead, a vision to the future?

In order to move forward, you must have a connection to the past. It sounds cliche, but if we just focus on creating some kind of hyper-modern cuisine, there is no soul, no substance. To be a successful restaurant, today, you have to communicate something; you have to have a voice and you have to connect to those stories of the past.

You mentioned Norway’s history as a poor country, but of course, we’re all aware that since the 70’s and the discovery of Norway’s oil resources, that situation has changed entirely. At Maaemo, you are, without doubt, in the most modern part of Oslo and probably, of Norway. How has this huge cultural shift changed the way that people of Norway perceive their own cuisine, today?

After Norway struck oil, the economy boomed; unfortunately, many of the old traditions were quickly forgotten. However, I think there’s a push from the people to return to the old ways. I think that the “newly-rich” wave has washed over the Norwegian people and, now, we’re seeing a shift back towards these traditions. So, even though Norway is now a very rich country, they’re still serving the same salted lamb at Christmas.

You pointed out to me this fascinating idea of the juxtaposition between the very modern design of your restaurant and the nature that surrounds it. How and why did you choose this particular location for Maaemo?

The restaurant is located in the most modern part of Oslo and there are multiple reasons for opening here. The initial reason, was that I wanted the restaurant to be in a new part of Oslo. I didn’t want to be in an area where there was already a tradition of a certain type of restaurant; I wanted to be on new ground. Secondly, is the proximity to the docks, where our fish come in, and to the forests, where we forage for herbs and berries. The accessibility to all this produce makes it a perfect location. I also admire the juxtaposition of having ‘old Norway’ on the plate, whilst being surrounded by this new, modern environment.

You mentioned previously that, in the warmer seasons, your staff go and forage in the nearby fjord ge. What’s the inspiration behind this process?

As a restaurant that desires to have nature shine through on the plate, you have to look to nature for your produce. In the spring and summertime, we have two people completely committed to foraging. They go into the forest and pick herbs, berries and mushrooms - whatever is in season - they go out into the fjords, the extensive archipelagos, which each have these unique microclimates, where you find all kinds of ingredients that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.

How did you, personally, end up here, in Norway?

After becoming a chef in Denmark and working my way around, I met a woman and we fell in love. She brought me to Oslo and now we’re married with kids and I have my restaurant here. I quickly fell in love with the place; it was, for me, the dramatic nature of the country. Where Denmark can be quite flat, Norway has some of the most stunning scenery that I’ve ever seen and the produce here is amazing.

More amazing than Denmark’s?

It’s different - of course, a lot of things are amazing in Denmark but the fish and shellfish here, in particular, are incredible.

What would you say are Norway’s greatest culinary assets?

The greatest culinary assets here are the traditions of fermentation and food preservation. The coastline is key; the scallops, the langoustines, the cod --  it’s amazing.

Who cooks at home; you, or your wife?

We both do. She’s a cook by education and owns a small shop that sells organic vegetables, coffee and such, but we both cook at home.

What’s a typical family meal for you?

It can be whatever, but we always eat with the seasons. We try to eat a lot of vegetables, fish, and not so much meat. We focus on eating clean and organic -- that’s all.

As Norwegians, what do you hope for the future of your children here, in Norway?

That’s a very emotional question. Like any parent, I hope that they grow up to be whatever they want to be and have everything they want in life, in Norway, or anywhere else.

What are your hopes for the future; how do you want to be seen and recognized?

I don’t know how I want to be recognized, but I have a very clear plan of what I want to do. I want to make a difference in the culinary landscape; I want to continue down this path that we’re on, until I feel that Maaemo has nothing left to give, or that I have nothing left to give to Maaemo. I want to do what I do here, but take it more into the wild; maybe, get out of the city and do something in a cabin somewhere -- but, let’s see. Right now, I’m very focused on what we’re doing here.

And no plans to open up a burger joint anytime soon for fast cash?

No, the restaurant takes up more time than I have, already, so I couldn't see myself being able to give anything to another place. I give everything that I have here and I don’t want to be spread too thin.

Any other thoughts that you’d like to share?

It’s good to be alive!

Interview: Mark Best, Marque

It may be hard to imagine, but one of Australia’s most acclaimed chefs used to work as an electrician in the mines of Western Australia. These days, however, Mark Best brings electricity to the kitchen of his award-winning, French-influenced restaurant, Marque. Located in the hip, inner Sydney suburb of Surry Hills, the sleek dining room of Marque is a far cry from the searing temperatures and dusty, ochre landscapes of outback Kalgoorlie.

What brought you from working as an electrician in the gold mines of Western Australia to your current place in the culinary world, as a symbol of new Australian Cuisine?

After working in the mines for four years, I spent a period of time refitting submarines for the Australian Government before finding my feet working with food. I simply found myself working in a job that I didn’t like and under quite arduous conditions, so at this stage, I was looking for any means to escape. Food revealed itself to be the answer to what I was looking for, and it just so happened that I was kind of good at it as well. Being a chef is obviously a stressful job and I went into it with a full awareness of that. I went into it purely for the love of cooking and that continues to be what drives me today.

What factors and influences have defined new Australian Cuisine? (I couldn’t help but notice the shocking absence of kangaroo and vegemite recipes in your upcoming cookbook, Best Kitchen Basics)

It’s funny actually because most of the general public here in Australia still struggles with eating at least one half of our coat of arms (The kangaroo part, that is, for those who aren't familiar). It’s the cute factor, I suppose.

In terms of influence, Australia’s geographical connection to Asia & given the fact that a significant part of our population arrive through immigration has had an enormous positive effect on our culinary culture. Nearly 40-percent of Sydneysiders speak a non-English language at home and more than 250 languages are spoken in Sydney. These language groups are quite concentrated in Sydney (far less so in Melbourne) That means that these language centers are also cultural centers of religion, food etc.

The biggest influence for me has been the way we as chefs eat in Australia via the continent’s multicultural diversity. It also means that we access the local ingredients grown and push our creativity to use them in unique, non-traditional ways. The Australian landscape is unique in that it is particularly rich in diversity -- rich, but also harsh. These environmental extremes define and bring the Australian ‘flavour’ to our cuisine. Indigenous ingredients are also now becoming more widely recognized amongst consumers and their supply is at a consistency to be taken on as everyday staples in our commercial kitchens.

How would you like to see the current face of Australian cuisine recognized on an international level?

I think that we’re already well on our way to being recognized internationally, however, it is mainly through travel by chefs as well as tourism that the awareness that something different and special is happening with our culinary community here, down under, is spread.

I don’t wish for Australia to be seen as better or more recognized for its cuisine than any other country, just different and flourishing, which is in an of itself something to be acknowledged and celebrated.

With the upcoming release of your book, Best Kitchen Basics, what statements on culinary culture do you wish to convey and what message are you attempting to bring into the home kitchen?

This second book of mine is a collection of home-style recipes that I want to add to the Home Cooking lexicon. I want to challenge tradition a little and get the average home cook to think a little more about what they are cooking, why, and where their ingredients are coming from.

These days, technology of all forms continues to have a exponentially growing presence in all of our lives, in our homes, and in our communities. As a chef, do you find yourself embracing these advancements as an asset in your kitchen environment, or does technological presence instead fuel a nostalgic tendency towards the use of more basic methods and techniques?

Technology is simply a means to an end and cuisine needs to either advance or atrophy in its wake. At my restaurant, Marque, we have always used the latest technology in conjunction with traditional and artisanal techniques. I don’t believe in using any technique as a gimmick or for theatrical purposes, but instead as a means to broaden my choices in the way that I use my ingredients.

 This interview had been edited and condensed from its original format. 

Interview: Amanda Cohen. Dirt Candy

Amanda Cohen is the Canadian chef and owner of the restaurant, Dirt Candy, located in New York City. Her award-winning establishment was the city’s first vegetable-focused restaurant and is widely regarded as a key leader and innovator of the vegetable advocacy movement. In 2012, Cohen released her own cookbook, Dirt Candy: A Cookbook; the first graphic novel cookbook to be published in North America.

Dirt Candy is known as a vegetable restaurant, as opposed to vegetarian; is there a connotation of the word vegetarian that you want to avoid?

For years, I think the term ‘vegetarian’ has been associated with a ‘lifestyle restaurant’ as opposed to the quality of the food. It was about giving vegetarians options for a place to eat - it didn't really matter whether the food was good or bad. Opening Dirt Candy, 8 years ago, we really wanted to separate ourselves. We wanted to say, the fact that we don’t serve meat is neither here nor there, what we’re really trying to do is celebrate vegetables. Dirt Candy is all about the food. The restaurant has never had any political connotations; the only philosophy behind the restaurant was simple - let’s serve good food.

So, why only vegetables; why not fruit?

Well, Fruitarians; kind of odd people. *laughs* When I first opened the restaurant, I didn't know that it was going to be solely focused on vegetables; that developed with our personality during those opening months. We knew immediately that there would be no meat, that’s the way I learned how to cook and it’s the way I like to eat. I still haven't found a piece of meat that makes a vegetable taste better. Once opened, the idea behind the restaurant became ingrained quickly. I looked around and thought, it’s an amazing thing: there are thousands of exclusively steak, hamburger, fish and chicken restaurants, so it’s bizarre that there’s not a single restaurant anywhere that’s dedicated to vegetables. I knew I could utilize that niche. When we were trying to figure out a name for the place, I thought we were going to have more fruit at the restaurant. My husband suggested that we call the restaurant ‘Dirt Candy and Tree Meat’ (“tree meat”, being the fruit) -- I thought that sounded gross.

Did the restaurant immediately receive a lot of support from the community?

We were lucky because, as a non-meat serving restaurant, we had a dedicated customer base from the start. Geographically, there weren't many vegetarian restaurants when we started, so we hit that market immediately. Our real customer base, however, the one that’s propelled us and allowed us to open up a bigger restaurant, is omnivores -- simply, because they’re a bigger group. It took longer for them to find us but, once they did, they kept coming back. That was probably about six months to a year after we opened, before we started noticing those regulars.

I can imagine they would’ve been a much tougher audience than the vegetarians to convince into eating at a vegetable-only restaurant.

As I was looking at the food scene, I saw that there were all of these vegetarian restaurants that fulfilled that healthy lifestyle niche, but that's not how most people want to eat, necessarily, at a restaurant. I said, let’s get flavour and decadence into vegetables, and that’s how we’ll get people to eat them. That really set us apart.

Naturally, as a chef it’s understandable that you’d just want your food to be taken seriously, not necessarily for being vegetarian but, instead, for just being great food.

Yes -- Previous movements towards supporting increased vegetable consumption have been based around various things, mostly health related, but flavour has never been the linchpin. The result of this is a giant cluster of bad vegetarian restaurants.

We haven't seen the, ‘eat vegetables because they’re delicious movement’, yet, have we?

Right - but momentum has shifted in the last couple of years. We now have chefs that are realizing this whole other world out there. People are talking about vegetables and eating healthier, and we now have these very talented chefs who are focusing on vegetables for the first time.

I love how you said in a previous interview, “Treat your vegetables with the same respect that you would treat a piece of meat”. How would you like to see the role of vegetables change in the kitchen?

I’d like them to stop being an afterthought. It’s already been said -- this is the year of the vegetable; this is the year of kale -- but the truth is, it’s not. It’s still the year of meat; it’s always been the year of meat. What you have is vegetables being treated like second-class citizens in the kitchen; we’re still not moving them to the center of the plate. That’s the balance that will really push our creativity and get people to eat more vegetables. As chefs, it’s our responsibility to do this, because if we don’t do it, no-one else will. Well, actually, big companies will do it and then chefs will have lost out. Right now, I’m seeing big food companies gaining interest in vegetables, which means that the point of view of the chef is going to be pushed aside, in the same way that big companies have taken over organics.

Chefs certainly have a huge amount of power in influencing people’s relationships with food.

Yes - We are in the era of celebrity chefs and foodies. However, where’s the vegetarian cooking show on the food network, or even a vegetable cooking show? Somehow, we’re still in that mentality that vegetables don’t sell and, yes, that’s actually true, but if we want this to ever change, we have to start making the conscious decisions required to make it happen.

What do you think surprises people most about your food at Dirt Candy?

That it’s actually filling! That’s the comment that we hear most often. People are like - “I thought I was going to have to get a slice of pizza afterwards”, instead they leave full. Yes -- we’re a real restaurant, we have real food, and we’re not just going to give you ten different salads. Alternatively, others expect that it’s going to be much lighter and that there would be more vegetables on each plate, but we’re a restaurant and this is what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to make you think about food differently, to crave it and want it; it’s not about just giving you a lettuce leaf.

Many people are probably surprised that you can actually create so many more interesting dishes from vegetables than just salads.

Right, and we don’t use a lot of grains either, so there’s no filler - it’s all vegetables.

Does that become expensive, working without those filler (and generally, cheaper) ingredients?

Yes, because vegetables are an incredible amount of labour. When you think about a plate and how much food has to go onto it, when adding a cup of rice, for example, that accounts for the balance of the food on the plate - we don’t really have that.

With the high costs of working with only vegetables in mind, do you think that it’s realistic to expect that many other restaurants will follow in the footsteps of Dirt Candy?

If everyone started working with and serving more vegetables, we’d all be able to raise our prices across the board; then it wouldn't seem so expensive. One of the problems that we have in the States, is that we don’t charge enough for the food that we sell at restaurants. Some restaurants make it up through alcohol sales when, the truth is, we should be making it up on what we’re selling, which is food. When thinking about the intricacies of a food chain, you realize how complicated it is and what goes into it. If I’m buying carrots, I go through a purveyor who pays a distributer, who pays a farmer, who pays their labourers, who all have families to feed -  we’re talking about one carrot that I’m buying for less than a dollar. It’s insane, how little we pay for food, including meat. I stand by the belief that all food prices should be raised in restaurants.

That has a lot to do with changing public perception of the value of the food on their plates.

That’s one of the big issues: value and perceived value. People are paying so little for the food; and they don’t realize that price includes my rent, insurance, staff and even the toilet paper in the bathroom -- it’s not all free. It’s about trying to get the customer to understand this.

Your recently published article in The New York Times, humorously tackles the relatable struggle of choosing between either eating locally and seasonally, or eating healthily, especially, during times of year when most fresh produce is unavailable, or in regions where many beloved ingredients are never locally grown. At the end of the day, what do you think takes priority; what we eat, or where it comes from?

That’s a tough one. Definitely, in the winter, it’s what we eat; whereas, in the summer, it’s a different issue. Again, I’m speaking for the States and we don’t have the healthiest nation. As a chef, I see it over and over again, people trying to convince everyone to go to farmers markets, eat seasonally and eat locally. The truth is, most people shop at supermarkets, they do it after work when it’s convenient and they’re short on time. They go in and wonder what they’re supposed to buy in the middle of winter, and just end up confused -- they return to their comfort food. If we could just convince people to eat more vegetables and to eat healthy, that’s better than being worried about where people are getting their tomatoes from in the middle of winter. In the article, people took issue to the fact that I was talking about tomatoes, but I could have used any example - I could’ve said lettuces. In the North East, there’s no such thing as a local lettuce in the middle of winter, yet we all eat salad and feel very virtuous. Somehome it’s still okay to eat salad but the tomato is wrong. When it’s available, it’s great! If you can afford it, access it, but not everybody can, even in the summer. It’s better to eat healthy - get some real food into you.

And when we think about changing consumer habits, if the ideal is to have everybody eventually eat healthy, locally and seasonally, we still have to identify where to start and what we prioritize.

Right, and that doesn't mean that the two can’t be talked about simultaneously. However, the bigger issue concerns how we are going to make America healthy. The statistics that I quoted in the paper, from the USCA, are really depressing. When you realize that potatoes and tomatoes, french fries and ketchup, essentially, are the most eaten vegetables in the United States -- It’s just depressing.

I live in this elite food world where you hear everyone proclaiming, ‘Kale! Kale!’ But when you look at the actual numbers for kale, the sales are around .002% -- they’re so low -- nobody’s eating kale. We might be eating it in New York City, but most people are not.

Lastly; if you were a vegetable, what would you be?

Probably, an onion -- I’ve got lot’s of different layers, I’m a little bitter, and sometimes I like to make people cry, but treat me right and I’m sweet.