The Foraging Journey of Chef Esben Holmboe Bang

 Maaemo’s executive chef, Esben Holmboe Bang. His new Norwegian cuisine has garnered him three Michelin stars, and his cooking draws heavily on organic produce from small regional farmers in Norway. Photography by Tuukka Koski
Maaemo’s executive chef, Esben Holmboe Bang. His new Norwegian cuisine has garnered him three Michelin stars, and his cooking draws heavily on organic produce from small regional farmers in Norway. Photography by Tuukka Koski

 Mahogany clams, raw and diced, served with a dashi of Norwegian shiitake mushrooms from Telemark, and seaweed. Photography by Tuukka Koski
Mahogany clams, raw and diced, served with a dashi of Norwegian shiitake mushrooms from Telemark, and seaweed. Photography by Tuukka Koski

Esben Holmboe Bang is not even 40 years old, and has been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential chefs in the world. His Oslo restaurant, Maaemo, an old Norse word meaning “Mother Earth,” was awarded its third Michelin star, making Esben the youngest chef and the first in Norway to be an executive chef at a restaurant holding three of Michelin’s stellar accolades. 

There are reasons for this immediate and intense recognition. One is his creation of an unexpected culinary narrative specific to Norway, which combines both past and present in Norwegian culture. He is creating this narrative through foraging. His goal is “to gather the best that nature can give us,” he says. “We focus on the relationship between raw nature, produce, and Nordic history.” 

But there is something else, also. Bang’s menu is based on his emphasis in locally sourced, natural, and seasonal produce: scallops from the coastal Arctic waters of Trondheim, grilled in the shell over burning embers; an emulsion of raw oysters from Bømlo in the South, served with a warm sauce of mussels and dill.

 

I want my cooking to reflect the rugged nature and climate of Norway. I want to create a progressive environment that has an emphasis on the outstanding produce of our region.

 

“I want my cooking to reflect the rugged nature and climate of Norway,” Bang says. “I want to create a progressive environment that has an emphasis on the outstanding produce of our region.” 

 Pickled mackerel from Oslo’s fjords, topped with ramson, a variety of wild garlic, and young shoots of elm.  Photography by Tuukka Koski
Pickled mackerel from Oslo’s fjords, topped with ramson, a variety of wild garlic, and young shoots of elm.  Photography by Tuukka Koski

 Norwegian oyster with a gel of blue mussel and oyster juice served with a warm sauce of mussel and dill essence. Photography by Tuukka Koski
Norwegian oyster with a gel of blue mussel and oyster juice served with a warm sauce of mussel and dill essence. Photography by Tuukka Koski

  Maaemo’s signature dish: fresh langoustine, with pickled spruce and cold-pressed rapeseed oil poured over dry ice to create a scent of primitive Norwegian forests. Photography by Tuukka Koski
 Maaemo’s signature dish: fresh langoustine, with pickled spruce and cold-pressed rapeseed oil poured over dry ice to create a scent of primitive Norwegian forests. Photography by Tuukka Koski

In each Maaemo dining experience, Bang uses only organic, biodynamic or wild produce, and from farms and farmers local to the area, or local to Norway. 

Bang is a forager whose beliefs imply a deep green intelligence. One of his major principles is that natural produce should not be tainted with chemicals, or it will lose its natural flavour and true identity. “If you have carrots” he says as an example, “and you spray them with herbicides or growth enhancers, they will no longer be carrots.”

This is the conviction of an eco-sensitive, biodynamic forager, who also knows Norway’s culinary limitations — its short growing season, six months of sunlight, six months of near sunset, and its range of climate and terrain. But Bang has discovered and nurtured the relationships of Norwegian ocean, forest, and land farmers, and has taken advantage of their gathering expertise, all to the advantage of the Maaemo restaurant experience. 

 Another signature dish: rommegrøt — a porridge of sour cream, browned butter from Røros, plum vinegar, and dried reindeer heart.  Photography by Tuukka Koski
Another signature dish: rommegrøt — a porridge of sour cream, browned butter from Røros, plum vinegar, and dried reindeer heart.  Photography by Tuukka Koski

 Light frozen fresh Nýr, a fromage blanc variety, from Grøndalen Farms outside Oslo. The filling is salted, smoked fresh salmon roe.  Photo Courtesy of Maaemo
Light frozen fresh Nýr, a fromage blanc variety, from Grøndalen Farms outside Oslo. The filling is salted, smoked fresh salmon roe.  Photo Courtesy of Maaemo

 Scallops from the Trondheim coast in Arctic Norway, grilled in the shell, with winter apples and celeriac. Photo Courtesy of Maaemo
Scallops from the Trondheim coast in Arctic Norway, grilled in the shell, with winter apples and celeriac. Photo Courtesy of Maaemo

With just eight tables in the main dining room, as well as a private Test Kitchen table, the food is sublime. The 10-course menu runs to 26 plates. These may include frozen cow’s milk, salsify pickled in juniper, red-cabbage gel with horseradish, a traditional porridge with reindeer heart and brown butter.

The first course is usually the Maaemo signature plate: two langoustines with a glaze of pickled spruce juice that comes atop a rock and cuttings of spruce, with spruce smoke. Then following are hand-dived scallops created as a mousseline, with sea buckthorn. 

This is cuisine at a high level, as it is said that Bang is one of the few who combines his philosophy of classic foraging with that of great cuisine.

 The Norwegian landscape blends clearwater fjords with dramatic mountains and cliffs. This image is of Hardangerfjord, and was taken from the Hotel Ullensvang, on the shores of the Hardangerfjord, in Lofthus, Norway. Photography by Susan Kime
The Norwegian landscape blends clearwater fjords with dramatic mountains and cliffs. This image is of Hardangerfjord, and was taken from the Hotel Ullensvang, on the shores of the Hardangerfjord, in Lofthus, Norway. Photography by Susan Kime

 The interior of Maaemo is kept simple, quiet and unobtrusive, so guests can focus on the cuisine, as it combines seasonal ingredients with foraging bounty from the Norwegian mountains and forests.  Photography by Bandar Abdul Jauwad
The interior of Maaemo is kept simple, quiet and unobtrusive, so guests can focus on the cuisine, as it combines seasonal ingredients with foraging bounty from the Norwegian mountains and forests.  Photography by Bandar Abdul Jauwad

“When you take fresh herbs in the forest and you eat them there, they have a clear flavour and are pure,” he says. “But everything else that happens on the way to the plate just dilutes the flavour. Our cooking? It’s personal because we cook from the heart and we want the flavours to be as clear as possible, no dilution, really clean.”

At Maaemo, guided by the imagination of the forager/executive chef, what is served is a fraction of a forager’s bounty. Yet if the berries, flower petals, scallops or clams are treated with respect and kindness, nature reciprocates, and the results are seductive, and of course, priceless.

English Text by Susan Kime

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