— Jon-Frede Engdahl

"With these kinds of projects one must be surrounded by passionate souls, by people that love what they do and what they stand for." Jon-Frede Engdahl reaches out his hand and offers a good cup of coffee. It’s easy to talk with him about raw materials, market shares, possibilities, ecology and idealism. One story leads to another and, before you know it, it’s lunchtime and the restaurant is suddenly filled with hungry women and young mothers on maternity leave.

– So, is everything on the menu organic?

– Pretty much. We work hard every day towards a 100% organic cuisine and here at Frogner we have only few exceptions. Take “brunost”, for example. It’s a product with deep roots in Norwegian tradition, but we have yet to make it organically. However, our home-delivery subscribers as well as the bakery and Maaemo customers are guaranteed 100% organic wares, he says, smiling contently.

Just a normal city boy.
Jon-Frede Engdahl and his team have become the capital’s foremost exponents of natural and organic food, spreading a range of products to us consumers. Kolonihagen delivers generous baskets full of organic ingredients home to its many subscribers. The Kolonihagen bakery at Sinsen is already turning a profit after only two years; it now delivers bread and cakes to select boutiques and restaurants all over Oslo. The restaurant/café in Frogner has become used to the constant queue of customers. And restaurant Maaemo has been award critical acclaimed in the media and is becoming Norway’s answer to Noma in Denmark; the restaurant which has depassed El Bulli and The Fat Duck as one of the best restaurants in the world. It is clear that Jon-Frede and his partners mean business.
– So much passion! Did you go to Steinerskolen?
– No, absolutely not. I’m just a regular city boy, raised on Gilde and Tine products like everyone else.
 Where and when did you realize that organic products were the way to go and worth the investment?
– It started when a cook friend of mine from Tønsberg was imposed the use of purely organic ingredients to cater a birthday party. He called me afterwards explaining that it wasn’t at all as difficult as he had expected. In fact, the tastes were better than usual; his mango sorbet, for example, didn’t need the help of any acids or sweeteners, just the taste of the mango itself. He was saved.

From expression to impression

It didn’t take long to convince Jon-Frede, who at that point was running a design bureau, that organic food was an exciting new field. With a group of close friends, Jon-Frede ended up travelling around to rediscover food in Norway and it left a strong impression. The tour resulted in a cookbook, «Slipp råvarene løs», a tribute to good ingredients, to honest food and to the passion of organic farmers. The book, printed for environmentally friendly readers, came out in 2002, after which there was no turning back for Jon-Frede. His wife soon gave up her job in real estate to stay home in the kitchen and help with the packing and delivery of organic food baskets to the growing number of subscribers.

Even if they’ve now upgraded to a larger, more professional business model, they are both still very involved in their organic projects in addition to parenting their three children.
Hard work. And a lot of it. – When my son asked me if I would be home for christmas I had to question what I had gotten myself into, says Jon-Frede.

Easy to give
– What was the hardest challenge in starting an organic concept?
– There were many good, mostly economical reasons to give up the fight, says Jon-Frede.
– We who work with organic products definitely don’t choose the path of least resistance. If you decide to open a restaurant, for example, with mainstream suppliers like Tine and Ringnes, you can get sponsored a lot of equipment like refrigerators and displays; but we choose smaller suppliers and end up having to take up that investment alone. It is also difficult to have a large turnover of organic products because the largest players in Norway today are nearly boycotting organics as a whole. We love the products we get from Røros Meieri because they’ve understood that all tasteful, rich dairy products should be produced organically. Whereas Tine chooses to mass produce low-fat milk, kefir and tasteless cheeses like Norvegia. It’s thanks to my uncompromising colleagues that I haven’t given up. I remember when we were planning restaurant Maaemo that I suggested that we could not create a 100% organic concept; that 90% organic maybe would be enough. Many of my colleagues stood up and threatened to pull out. With these kinds of projects one must be surrounded by passionate souls, by people that love what they do and what they stand for. No matter what you do, it’s not about doing it alone, but about being with people that can inspire you and make you better. Also, we couldn´t have done this without the help of SLF (Statens landbruksforvaltning), Cultura Bank and the county; all of them believed in us and in the cause.

Do, don’t tell
A survey amongst cooks revealed that more restaurants use organic ingredients than we realize. The demand is logical because these ingredients give cooks a better quality raw material with which to work and thus making their jobs more satisfying. The commitment of these cooks has been a driving force behind the evolution of organic farming. But it’s still is a big step from using the organic ingredients that are available to running a 100% organic business.
– Many of your customers of the café in Frogner don’t even know that it’s organic?
– We don’t advertise it so much. Organics is more the driving force of the café than a sales argument. “Being” organic is more important than calling ourselves organic. If we give the customers a holistic food experience, we can then announce to them proudly that we work only with organic suppliers. I believe taste is a better way to sell organic food than trying to explain what’s happening on the farms.

Norwegian roots
– To which organic foods is Norway best suited?
– Root vegetables! Norway rules here. Parsnip, swede, carrot… all of them can be stored well and they all benefit from the nutrients in northern soils. A lot of meat farming could also be done organically because Norwegians have the buying power to pay the extra cost, says Jon-Frede..
-But people are funny… they complain about food prices but turn around and buy the newest flat screen tv… Sometimes several of them, he says, shaking his head.
– Speaking of which: you’ve started an ”necessity” blog about your good and bad food experiences and about the unnecessary use of additives?  
– Yes, a blog is a great way to react. Unfortunately, a good blog takes a lot of time and effort so I mostly just feel guilty about it.
His latest blog vented his frustration over Prior’s latest egg product: readymade omelet mix.
«Yet another product we do not need», he wrote. «If we can’t even crack an egg and whisk in a little salt, then Norwegian food culture has hit rock bottom. A whole egg (in shell) has a naturally long storage time, which means that Prior must compensate for this by adding conservatives and pH-regulators to their ridiculous omelet.»
Ridiculous products and energy waste makes Jon-Frede very angry. In his opinion, instead of creating artificial consumer needs we should use our effort to find a way back to the original, honest products of the past.
– Regardless, I feel enriched by my experiences and optimistic for the future, he says. – It’s just the way it’s going to be.

Many in Oslo know about Kolonihagen, the café in a lush Frogner backyard, where a flourishing of herbs, flowers and bushes greet you on the way into a cozy outdoor dining area and further in to a restaurant where the smell of coffee, fresh baked bread and warm food from the open kitchen all vie for your attention. I’ve come here to meet a true founder of organic foods; the man behind Kolonihagen and Oslo’s newest and most exciting eatery.

Jon-Frede Engdahl doesn’t run Kolonihagen, MAAEMO or the bakery alone. He has both his wife and his sister, as well as a team of cooks and bakers. All have shares in the company and they all share the commitment to organic food.

Text by Wanda Widerøe
Photos by Jon-Frede Engdahl.