Foraging for Michelin Stars
A Conversation with Chef Bang, who prepares eco-sensitive meals at the most northerly Michelin three-star restaurant in Scandinavia
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,” Bang says. “I want to create a progressive environment that has an emphasis on the outstanding produce of our region.”
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.
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.
“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.