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!