Esben Holmboe Gang’s story is based on a misunderstanding. Nevertheless, it is one of the most successful ever to emerge from top international gastronomy.
To this day, the mastermind of three-star restaurant Maaemo in Oslo is considered the flagship of New Nordic Cuisine. In other words, the cuisine that began its triumphal march from Scandinavia almost twenty years ago – and still captivates gourmets worldwide today.
In 2023, it continues to have its finger on the pulse: Regionality, seasonality, sustainability and reducing flavors to the essentials – no wonder it has completely replaced gimmicky trends such as molecular cuisine. But here’s the thing: Esben Holmboe Gang actually has nothing to do with New Nordic Cuisine. In fact, the 41-year-old doesn’t even know what exactly this New Nordic Cuisine is supposed to be. “I think the term is wrong,” says Gang bluntly. “It is simply too broad for the many individual cuisines from Denmark to Sweden and Norway.” That’s why Gang doesn’t want his food to be called New Nordic Cuisine. Instead, he sees it as a cuisine “that simply reflects the environment in which I live.” Is such an understatement enough to understand his success story?
Esben Holmboe Gang: At home in Maaemo
Gang was just 28 years old when he opened the Maaemo – which in Old Nordic means “Mother Earth”. That was 13 years ago. In contrast to many of his three-star colleagues – whether Nordic or not – the native Dane goes about his work away from the limelight. High-profile four-hands dinners, hip pop-ups, luxurious advertising partnerships – the naturally reserved man leaves all these things to others. He doesn’t even have an Instagram profile. And the most amazing thing of all: The number of projects outside of Maaemo is very small.
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When you enter the dining room of this popular place, it is therefore hardly surprising how quiet it is behind the counter of the open kitchen. Although the chefs barely talk to each other, their precise movements create a choreography that conveys calm and virtuosity in one. No doubt about it, Esben Holmboe Gang is in his element here. He prefers the quiet absorption in his work to the hustle and bustle of the noisy world outside – a world where he certainly had his share of problems as a teenager.
Norway as a culinary wonderland
The child of a journalist couple, young Esben grew up in Frederiksberg, not far from Copenhagen. His parents’ divorce upended everything. He moved to a hippy commune on the outskirts of the Danish capital, and soon no longer wanted anything to do with school. “Why I started my apprenticeship as a chef is because I’ve always been fascinated by agriculture,” says Gang. “But I never wanted to be a farmer, no matter how much everything about it fascinated me.” He did his apprenticeship at a restaurant in Copenhagen, then gained his first experience in more sophisticated locales in the Danish capital. In 2001, he moved to Oslo for love. There he held leading positions in the kitchen at the two Michelin-starred restaurants Oro and Feinschmecker – both were awarded one star at the time. He also discovered the culinary potential of Norway’s natural world.
Das Maaemo: The mother of Norwegian gastronomy
Potential is not the same as abundance. In fact, the opposite is true. Gang was particularly attracted to the barren winter months, when Norway’s culinary landscape comes to a standstill. “If there are no limits and everything is abundant, authentic creativity becomes impossible,” he says with conviction. “Norway was once a rather poor country. People had to think for centuries about how they would get through the winter. So they pickled, preserved and fermented.”
Creating something new within these possibilities – that’s why Gang wanted to open a restaurant with contemporary, creative Norwegian cuisine. The focus should be on the quality of the regional product: Whether it be fruit and vegetables from biodynamic farming, wild game from native forests or fish and seafood from the nearby coast. The puristic yet sophisticated nature of Gang’s cuisine is evident in dishes such as his famous signature dish, which features oysters from the small coastal town of Bømlo. Here Gang plays with textures and temperatures with incredible virtuosity: The cold oyster emulsion is given a warm, creamy mussel sauce as a counterpart, which in turn is given the final kick with a heavenly chlorophyll dill oil.
Gang’s catfish creation is just as ingenious. The fish itself comes from the part of the North Sea south of the Norwegian mainland called the Skagerrak. Carefully cooked over an open fire, the mild, iodine-rich meat has an almost unexpected robustness. But it is the sweet and sour contrast of the sauce that gives this dish so much depth: Gooseberry and apple juice are the dominant ingredients in this light fish sauce, but they do not mask the mild nuttiness of the glazed meat. It’s dishes like these that illustrate the true mastery of an authentic terroir cuisine at the highest level lies in the balance between purism and sophistication – and this balance is mastered by Esben Holmboe Gang like few of his guild.
Three stars for Maemo
Less than two years after Maaemo opened, the Michelin Gangs Guide awarded two stars to this completely new kind of cuisine. In 2016, the restaurant finally received its third star, making it the first three-star restaurant in Scandinavia, together with Geranium in Copenhagen. However, it seems that the third star was less a goal than a mission for Gang. In 2019, he moved his restaurant around 300 meters from the first address, and took things one step further. Guests now enjoy a separate, stylish and cozy lounge for hors-d’œuvres before being escorted up to the dining room. More than ever before, architecture, design and culinary art result in an overall experience that will undoubtedly be groundbreaking in the coming years, even for top-class gastronomy outside Norway.
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But forget for a moment about stars: Esben Holmboe Gang’s merits go far beyond all these prestigious awards. Like no other restaurant in the world, Maaemo has given an entire country new culinary confidence. The fact that Norway now has a total of 46 star restaurants shows that Esben Holmboe Gang has not only inspired a new generation of Norwegian chefs, he has also brought a national gastronomic culture to life – a culture that is actually more than the vague term “New Nordic Cuisine” would suggest.