Do you remember your last meal with friends in a restaurant? The food you shared, the conversations you had, the people who made the evening unforgettable? The past year has brought into sharp focus the social aspect of the fine dining experience, and its absence has given us a new appreciation for the importance of dining out and the value of sharing a meal with others.

In Oslo, the epitome of such an experience is Maaemo. Located in an industrial quarter near the city’s old dock, Maaemo has earned its stellar reputation by elevating indigenous Norwegian ingredients with a menu that takes diners on a journey through the country’s landscape. The clue is in the name – Maaemo means something close to ‘Mother Earth’ – and the restaurant honours her bounty with an extreme commitment to local ingredients, whether farmed or foraged.

The Joy Of Dining

At the helm of the restaurant is Esben Holmboe Bang. The 37-year-old Head Chef and co-owner was born in Copenhagen but has spent the bulk of his culinary career in Oslo, rooting out the essence of Norway and putting it on a plate.

Holmboe Bang’s elevated yet natural approach to Nordic cuisine may be what earned him a place among the world’s culinary elite, but to him, food is only one part of what makes a visit to Maaemo such a memorable experience: “I think the fundamental value for any restaurant is to give joy. We are lucky to be able to get the opportunity to create a memory and to share some hours together with our guests. It’s the stripped-down, unforced way of being social.

“No matter how many guests are gathered around the table, stepping into the universe and being part of the energy that is created when joy is being passed on, you can’t help feeling part of something. The dynamic between restaurant and guests is a beautiful social interaction.”

An Opening – And A Closing

One year ago, in March 2020, Holmboe Bang was hard at work in the kitchen,
preparing to create this exact energy and joy with an eagerly anticipated relaunch. Maaemo had moved to a new, bigger location and was ready for its grand reveal.

“We did everything we could to elevate the guest experience,” Holmboe Bang recalls. “The new space is a representation of Maaemo. A collection of impressions that is distilled from my personal aesthetics and my taste in architecture, art and music. My cuisine is still the core and DNA, but with the new location, we created the perfect vessel and the ideal universe for us to exist and create.”

However, the newly created universe was shut down when, only a week after reopening, Maaemo was forced to close again. Although Norway was less affected by pandemic measures than many other parts of the world, the restaurant has been closed on and off throughout the past year and currently is once again waiting for restrictions in Oslo to be lifted.

For its Head Chef, the impact has been devastating, as he explains: “I am a firm believer that you should always make the best of any situation and focus on a silver lining, but cooking in a restaurant has been the majority of my life for over 20 years, and being away for this long is difficult. I have focused on my family and people in my life that I haven’t seen enough of, which has been wonderful, but I miss my restaurant and team dearly.”

An Ego-Free Kitchen

Holmboe Bang is inevitably the face of the restaurant he opened in 2011 and he gets much of the credit for the two Michelin stars it earned in 2012 and the third that was added in 2016. However, he doesn’t allow his spotlight to detract from the contributions of others. From producers and suppliers to the kitchen team and service staff, he always acknowledges the restaurant’s success as a result of a community effort.

“Maaemo is based around myself and the team,” Holmboe Bang emphasises. “In terms of creativity, we are a small group that drives the creative process and defines the further development. This is indeed the backbone and core, but the day-to-day execution is the beating heart of Maaemo. It’s the grind and the joy of the ‘everyday’ routine. That is what counts and what creates the energy that you sense when stepping through the doors. We hold each other accountable and we push each other to deliver.”

This underlying attitude also fosters an inclusive, positive working environment. Along with other young, often Scandinavian colleagues, Holmboe Bang has been leading the charge in eliminating the toxic work culture that long dominated professional kitchens.

His reasoning is reassuringly level-headed: “I believe in setting a tone and creating an environment where we thrive and where everybody feels included and valued. I think macho destructive behaviour patterns should be a thing of the past. The fact that we look after each other and focus on inclusion and nourishing a healthy work environment is not only the responsibility of any professional business, it’s just common sense.”

Food That Makes Sense

For better or worse, the Danish-born chef’s cooking is usually described as Nordic Cuisine, and Maaemo is often appreciatively listed along with the likes of Copenhagen’s Noma or Sweden’s Fäviken. Holmboe Bang doesn’t object to being in this illustrious company, but he does reject the oversimplification of the label.

“The cuisine of Maaemo is personal and produce-driven,” he explains. “It represents Maaemo more than any regional base. We only serve what makes sense, and focus on the bounty and beauty of the produce that you can find in this country. The heavy produce focus results in a Norwegian terroir that flows through the DNA of our cuisine.”

Something To Look Forward To

Maaemo may translate roughly to “Mother Earth”, but much of the planet – including the world of fine dining – has been at a standstill for a year now. One year in, under normal circumstances, most gourmets would have had their chance to visit the new location. To put it positively, most of us are still looking forward to our first visit.

So what can we expect once we are finally able to travel to Maaemo 2.0? A unique space, in a central location next to the Oslo Fjord, especially designed to enhance the dining experience. Each visit begins and ends in a welcoming ‘living room’, with starters and desserts to frame the main tasting menu served in the dining room. A sociable experience, built around food that is true to its provenance, shared by the people who create it and those who celebrate it.

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