Chefs prep for service at Oslo, Norway's Maaemo. - Bandar Abdul-Jauwad Chefs prep for service at Oslo, Norway's Maaemo. - Bandar Abdul-Jauwad

Chef Q&A: Maaemo’s Success Starts With Its Staff

Esben Holmboe Bang is in an enviable position.

Bang was one of the youngest chefs to receive two Michelin stars back in 2012 when he first opened Oslo, Norway restaurant Maaemo and was just awarded three-star recognition for the second year in a row.

Uninterested in expanding the restaurant from its current eight tables, or recreating similar concepts in other locations, Bang is instead focused on how to make Maaemo not only one of the premier dining institutions of today — but also one of the best places to work.

Bang recently sparked a conversation in the culinary world about work-life balance when he limited his restaurant staff’s working week of staff to just three days, totaling 40 to 50 hours, each week. His commitment to team culture expands beyond working hours and, in a recent conversation with Skift Table, shared that the initiatives he’s most excited for in 2018 revolve around team vitality.

Photo by Tuukka Koski

Bang’s commitment to his team is rivaled only by his dedication to the quality of produce that he puts on diners’ plates. He speaks about the superiority of biodynamic produce, whose production is more unprocessed than its organic counterparts and involves lunar cycles in its cultivation, as well as the joys of foraged food. Both play important roles in Maaemo’s cuisine and its connection to the Norwegian landscape.

Last month, Chef Esben Holmboe Bang sat down with Skift Table on a cold afternoon in Oslo where he talked about principles and how he strives for the highest possible quality for his team, his diners, and himself. Honest and affable, Bang’s insights demystify the elements behind the headlines and reveal his and his restaurant’s methodologies.

On Maaemo’s three-day work week: 

“It is a luxury. I’m very aware that our model doesn’t necessarily work for everybody, but I think it’s important for every business to look at what they’re doing. I’m not saying they should do what we do or take it that far, but I think it’s important to lay out whatever you turn over a year and, instead of it going to a big surplus, invest it back into the staff. That’s where investment should go these days.”

On making physical — and mental — health a team priority

Bang hired a full-time trainer beginning this month to ensure his staff can fit exercise into their work schedules. “I’m very aware that if you want to do serious fitness training then schedule doesn’t necessarily always allow that. With a full-time trainer, we can do fitness whenever we want to do it. I want my staff to be able to deliver on a high level so it’s important to me that they feel good.”

He’s made mental health a priority, too. “We offer everyone the opportunity to go to a therapist if they want. I go to a therapist two times a week and it’s helped me a lot. I don’t think mental health is necessarily linked with going to see a therapist. It’s more linked to how much we work and under which conditions we work when we’re actually here. I don’t think people have a problem with working too much. I think the human body can take a lot, however, it’s how we work. That’s the most important thing — if you work in the right manner.”

To him, this is an investment in balance and wellness. “If you go in here all stressed out, you can be here for five hours and you’re dead. If you go in here and you feel good, you can be here 16 hours and no problem.”

In an Instagram post marking the restaurant’s 7th year of service, Bang called out its people as the restaurant’s biggest pride.

On hiring:

“We make sure that we hire the people that would fit well within the group. The most important thing is that they have a desire and a passion about what they do. I think that adds more to the team than some technical level.”

On Maaemo’s commitment to biodynamic and organic produce:

Unsurprisingly, the three-star chef has a strong commitment to the highest-quality ingredients. “The whole industry should move towards using more biodynamic and organic produce. Ninety-nine percent of restaurants send an order to a wholesaler every night. If you buy biodynamic and organic from a wholesaler then it’s much more expensive because quality is more expensive.”

“If you spend the time getting to know the farms around you and buy locally then you don’t pay more, but you still get so much better quality. It’s about establishing that relationship with the farmer — I’m not doing it to save money.”

“It’s important that all restaurants look at what they serve and if you can get better quality somewhere else then they should just shift and not think too much about the finances. Raise the prices if they have to. I think there’s this idea of what things should cost and I think maybe you can break out of that a little bit. We have to look at our pricing structure in the restaurant and I price whatever the produce costs. I don’t price it to get rich, but what the product costs.”

“It’s not always about prices though and there’s other way to affect the top line. Sometime it’s higher turnover. A restaurant of this caliber obviously has very small margins. We don’t make money. We pay our bills and pay our rent and everything is fine, but you’re never going to get rich off it. And you just realize that.”

On following trends:

“I don’t think a lot about trends. We’re a small restaurant. It’s more like a household to be honest with you. We do what feels right here and we do what feels right in the perspective of Norwegian food culture — both then and a little bit of now. If it’s trendy or not, I don’t really care. And I know it’s cliche to say it and a lot of people say it, but honestly I don’t care.”

“There are other chefs in this region who are doing similar things and there’s a good community here. There are restaurants that are more in the spotlight than we are and I’m totally fine with that. I like being on the side.”

On how his roles as chef and leader change as Maaemo gains recognition:

“I think in general chefs are looked at as these oracles these days. We have to have an answer to everything, but I don’t know anything about business. I’m a cook! You’re looked as kind of you want to save the planet — which is great because it puts pressure on the industry to start thinking in a sustainable manner — but at the same time it’s also okay to say, you know what? I don’t have answers for that.”

“I like to be in the kitchen and inspire people who are in the kitchen and cook delicious food for people who come to my restaurant. That’s the main objective that I have. At the same time, I’m aware that the choices that we make here have a sort of ripple effect. When we make choices here, and we put it on Instagram or something, journalists call and want some elaboration on it. This is great because we can then speak about what we think is important.”

“I think pressure is something you put on yourself. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I’m fine with it. It’s also a matter of making sure you have people around you to make sure that you can handle the pressure. Two years ago I couldn’t. I went down, full on. But then you surround yourself with people who help you make the right choices for yourself and for your business.”

More from Skift Table