—The deer and the kale

The past year Maaemo has been given a lot of attention, also here in Norway, but maybe most of all from abroad. With their non-compromising approach to organic and local ingredients, the art of cooking, design and the whole food experience, they have mesmerized many, driven bloggers bananas and made food critics wish their dice had more than six eyes. But if you ask them, they are just getting started.

Food Studio stopped by for a casual chat with Esben Holmoe Bang and Pontus Dahlström about experiences, about food and about the story of the deer and the kale.

P: We were trying to get hold of kale for a certain dish, and Esben knew this farmer who grows it and stores it in the traditional way; under the snow. We called, but he wasn´t interested in selling any to us. He thought it was too hard to transport it to Oslo, and he was also quite content with selling it locally. In the end we had to visit him at his stall at a Farmers Market, and try to convince him, by buying a huge sack, proving that we actually weren´t after buying just three leaves for home cooking. After a while we established a good dialogue with him, and started buying a lot. But then one day he calls and says; you can´t have your kale today.

E: …and this was in the middle of the grand opening of Maaemo, so it was actually quite a crisis. We were really depending on all our producers.

P: So we asked him why? How come no kale…? And he tells us that deer had stopped by his farm the night before, and eaten it all up! That was kind of a wake up call, but again; it´s reality. The way it should be. It was actually quite liberating, knowing it was nature creating these problems, and not a transport lorry stuck at the Swedish border. It showed us things are going the right way. Back to nature, not towards the industry.

FS: It’s interesting that there’s so much pride involved in this. Most Norwegians are probably not very proud of our food traditions, so it’s nice to be able to come here and experience something to be proud of.

P: It’s funny that you mention that, because an interesting aspect of this is that the group is two-thirds foreigners. Esben is Danish, I’m Finnish. There’s something weird about gastronomy and drinks in Scandinavia. Traditionally we have been proud of the Scandinavian, like the architecture, the music, the design and how to take care of that. But when it comes to gastronomy, our reference points for fine dining are French, Italian and Asian, instead of going back to the reality of what surrounds us. It’s about putting those things together.

A: I think it’s also about the desire to create something new. For us Danes there was a lot of focus in the media on poor production. If you walk into a regular food store in Denmark today, you have six or seven different organic producers of milk to choose from, and that’s just not the reality in Norway. I believe the media has a responsibility to expose what’s hidden behind the curtains. At the same time we’ve had some trendsetting restaurants with strong focus on Danish products. This makes the consumer regard organic and local as ‘trendy’.

FS. Yes, we’ve noticed a survey that showed Denmark being way ahead in that field, while Norway and Sweden are sadly far behind.

P: And that can, once again, be traced back to the industry. It’s the big companies who have told us that we can’t get by in Norway without having tomatoes and asparagus and pineapple in the shops 365 days a year! And this has become such an ingrown part of people’s consciousness that we think we can’t survive without avocado at any given time.

But how has actually human kind survived up through the ages? Well, by harvesting and taking care of what nature gives you through the growing season and the summer, through drying, fermenting and pickling. So it’s about finding back to that, not inventing something new. Nowadays people buy a TV-dinner with meatballs, eat it and are content, not wasting a thought on what they just ate. If you were going to have meatballs back in the day, you had to know the ingredients and butcher the animal yourself. I think it’s incredibly interesting with old wives advice, the way my grandmother harvests rowanberries on the third day after full moon in September. It’s moving towards the concept of bio-dynamics. There’s just so much fascinating knowledge that’s being forgotten.

E: It’s also sad how there’s so much unsexy design tied to organic products. Or this is at some point getting better, but there is still a long way to go. For example, Innovation Norway is putting lots of money into Holli Mølle. They’ve developed a beautiful profile and packaging design, and have a product that justifies that, wonderful flour products, right? But they have no sales channels! Where are they going to market that? Who is paying to get these wonderful products onto the shelves? So there is definitely a potential, helping the smaller and good organic producers find the right marketing channel.

P: So many people are aware, and want to buy these products but they just can’t get hold of them. I know how it is, when you go to the store, you get mad because you cant find anything, and then you read the back of the package, and go “Well, I’m definitely NOT getting that one!”

E: And again it comes back to the responsibility of the established companies.

P: Going back to what I was talking about earlier, I remember when we started this project, we spent so much time on making the logistics work with all these producers, spending time on the phone, convincing them to let us buy their products, getting the products on a bus to Oslo, and so on.

E: But now we’re experiencing that the producers are getting in touch with us instead of us calling them.

FS: Well, now most of them have probably understood what this is about.

E: True, and they see that they get publicity. In for example D2 and some of these TV-programs. There’s a symbioses between the producer and this publicity, and I think that’s important for the producers to understand.

P: What’s also important to us is to include the end user, the consumer. We try lifting forward our producers through this little brochure we have. It presents some of our collaborators, and tries to make people more aware. Tries to encourage them to ask for Holli Mølle flour at their local food store, for example. If just 50 people do that, it makes a difference, but if everyone just accepts and tolerates the established actors as fact, then that’s all we’ll ever get, and nothing will change.

E: The problem with some of these establishments, I think, is that they’ve already blown all their arguments for organic products on their conventional products, with all these images of the cows grazing happliy, so romantic and nice. How are they going to market organic farming when they’ve already spent those points?

UO: Is this way of thinking something you’ve grown up with?

E: I grew up in a sort of hippie collective, so there was already a lot of focus on bio-dynamics and organic farming. I went to an experimental school and it was all very alternative, so I’ve always been fascinated by organic food, and especially bio-dynamics and about living in harmony with nature. We grew a lot of vegetables our selves, and I also remember my parents buying organic food. In Copenhagen back then you could only get hold of these products in kind of an old, dusty cellar, German canned organic food style. But anyway, it resembled the Rudolf Steiner kind of collective, so yes, I got all of that in with my early childhood, and I’ve just been building on that ever since, adding even more of a Scandinavian attitude into it.

P: My background is a bit different; I was born and raised on the countryside.
That means going to the hunter to buy meat, half an animal, you butcher it, grind it and make a burger. You go to the farmer who has harvested potatoes, vegetables all of that, it was a bit ‘old fashioned’. You didn’t go to the store to buy everything, you bought the basic things there like washing powder and such, but everything else you got from the people who caught or grew it. The society was so small, you knew everyone who grew or hunted or caught food, it was fantastic. When I return to Finland as an adult with my own children, I drive those 15 kilometers out to Nørby gård to buy that flour, and I drive to the vegetable stand that I know has the best tomatoes; they’re magical. And I get the fish directly from the fisherman.
This summer I got so furious with him, because he was standing there with Norwegian farmed salmon and proudly yelling “Norwegian salmon!” Once again, the fishermen of my little town have been manipulated by the food industry into believing that Norwegian farmed salmon is the greatest thing on earth, instead of fishing the local wild species, like bass. It’s sad. We’re sort of like a Soviet country in Finland, it’s a little old school, and we trade goods, even food. My mother, for example, rents out our cabin to the grandchildren of a man she gets food from, a hunter and farmer, instead of being paid in money.

FS: Another thing we really appreciate is your holistic approach to both design and food. Not many restaurants in Norway think about it in that way, at least not in such a detailed degree as you do. How did it come about from the start?

E: We have a vision of what we want Maaemo to become, so everything that has to do with Maaemo harmonizes around this, especially regarding the visual profile and printed material. There’s always a sense of the product within the visual sphere. There’s also something poetic in holding a physical object in your hand that reflects what the restaurant is, and I believe that is a priority for us. We can’t do anything only fifty percent.

P: It’s also about creating a totality, a frame around a whole experience. We’re working on a project were we prolong the restaurant experience, time wise. It starts a long time before you arrive, and keeps going until long after you’ve left, but it’s not concrete enough yet to tell you more. But we have never talked about selling food and drinks, we’ve talked about this in the same way that you experience booking concert tickets. How you buy them weeks or months in advance, then you start listening to the bands old albums, getting revved up for it, watching their concerts on YouTube and so on. That’s the feeling you build up to when you go to a restaurant, which puts you in a certain mood. You are open and accepting. That’s something we’ve focused on in all those small details, the printed materials, how they are shaped and designed, colors, materials, all those things have so much to say. You don’t need to be so direct, but more subtle. It’s in the details.

You don’t have to be open to everything, you don’t need to catch everything, but if you ask, or find out about it yourself, then its just “wow!” And that’s the big difference from a product that’s just there, it just exists. “Here you are”. “Thank you”. You pay and you’re done. We want to create an expectation. Its about restaurants like Holmenkollen restaurant, people go there for the view, or to Frognerseteren for the mood, they go there to get all those things, but in addition all those other 150 things that come together to create that special experience.

FS: But is this an interest you’ve always had?

E: We’ve worked in the restaurant industry for a long time, and perhaps Maaemo is the culmination of all the things we’ve found missing from other places. I think Norway lacks that respect for the guest. That when you arrive and sit down for four hours and spend a lot of money, I really think you owe the guests more than just a meal. You should give them an experience, a total impression of what we convey, and to do that, all parts of the communication need to play their role, reflect each other, have their place and function.

P: A fantastic compliment, that we’ve received many times, is guests coming back and telling us “The next day I spent all day thinking about the food. Not just that I ate it and it tasted nice, but that it was so good and fantastic. I analyzed the whole meal and moment.” This helps strengthen the complete picture, because you make them think “Maybe this was how they thought”, and when they come back they might ask about it, and we can say “Yes, that’s exactly how it is,” and they’ve understood what we are trying to do. It’s a strong experience for the guests.

FS: You’ve been among the first in Norway to focus on Nordic food in a way that’s helped start a trend. Now that that ball is rolling, what are your ambitions outside of the restaurant? What are your thoughts and plans, how will this develop?

E: It’s important to remember that we are restaurateurs, we do everything we can for our guests, but all that follows in the wake of that is fantastic. We hope that people who eat here will ask questions and start making demands next time they’re at the store. We’re not trying to force everyone to eat organic, but it’s about taking a stand in regards to what you eat. People in general have a very low threshold for what they put in their mouths. It’s important to them to have large houses, cabins in the mountains and a huge car, but they still keep putting garbage into their mouths. So we hope we can help people start asking questions about that. It’s also about how the big food companies have a responsibility that they are not taking seriously. They spend lots of money on marketing that puts a lid on peoples curiosity in one way or another, it just gets pumped into your head that “here’s the right thing, eat this, it’s Norwegian”.

P: I wish to add a few things, because the whole philosophy of Maaemo is about the guest in focus, to create the experience with the best tastes, the best service, the best experience. Without guests you can’t run a restaurant, and we focus on that in every step of the process. In the beginning I think we were misunderstood, that we were trying to revolutionize the world, that we were a green lighthouse and had this hippie way of thinking. That’s not what this is about for us. All the choices we make are natural for us regarding organic, local, the service, making our coffee on a primus in the restaurant instead of Italian espresso, all those experiences are for the guest. It’s not because we want to change the world. We want to create an experience.

Photos: Jon-Frede Engdahl