The raw nature of Scandinavia
The original version of this article appeared in the August issue of Akademia Kulinarna, a Polish monthly magazine for culinary arts school teachers and students as well as young cooks interested in improving their skills. The text, translated from Polish, tells a detailed story about my experience at the Maaemo restaurant, where I had my three-month internship.
THE RAW NATURE OF SCANDINAVIA
If you have ever considered an internship in a Michelin-starred restaurant, this text is for you. If you have never given that matter any thought, you may start thinking about it seriously after reading this article. Mira Tkacz, who has recently finished her 3 -month internship in one of the Europe’s toughest kitchens, Oslo’s two Michelin starred restaurant Maaemo, will tell you about her hard work, dedication and humility. All these ingredients are essential in becoming an excellent cook.
During the 3 months spent at Maaemo restaurant, I learnt all the details about working there. I truly felt sad about leaving it, as if I had been a seasoned employee.
The beginnings were not easy, though. Every day was filled with doubt. I generally find working for free neither motivating nor captivating, but having decided to come to Maaemo, I had known what that decision meant. I had not had any experience as an intern either. I had been working as a cook for the last 6 years, but this was to be my first time in such a prestigious restaurant, with the unique concept and its consistent implementation.
What follows is a personal account of what I experienced at the Maaemo restaurant. One of the toughest (as many chefs say) kitchen restaurants in Europe.
All interns have their own opinions. I had many moments of joy but also of misgiving, with the latter abounding.
When we decide on such a journey, we must know that we sacrifice our time and money in order to learn something new. We seek inspiration. We widen our horizons. We have an opportunity to meet new people, who just like us love what they do. We can test our abilities and improve them, compare our skills with other professionals. Some choose to do it to enhance their CVs, which makes little sense to me. It is next to impossible to get motivated for such arduous and “invidious” tasks to get only a piece of paper. (Actually, you will not receive anything in writing, even upon completion of your internship.)
The optimal approach is to be aware of why you want to do it. The awareness should stem from the fact that you are convinced you want to do it for yourself. It gives you a chance to survive there with dignity and, at the same time, to gain immensely from the experience. Any other attitude would be useless. Do not expect to be praised, appreciated or recognized as a star for your efforts.
The first two weeks are for getting to know the restaurant, how it all works, and how to relieve stress while working there. During this time you can ask any questions, however silly they may seem. You should not hesitate to take this opportunity, even though after a while, you will have laughed at people asking the same questions.
I inquired about virtually everything. I had a feeling that they must be doing something differently, since the restaurant is considered one of the best in the entire Scandinavia. Questions about throwing out onion peels (maybe they want to make an onion skin infusion?), the ideal temperature for drying scorzonera or how to make lily flower jelly were not uncommon. On several occasions, I had to make sure 3 times how to vacuum seal certain foods, to be free from any doubt that I followed the right procedure. After one day I came to a realization that it would be better to ask the same question even 3 times, than to risk doing something wrong. A mistake would be costly. The sauce chef’s nervousness and anger were not easy to deal with.
Let us recapitulate the main ideas. We need to hide in the kitchen aprons our pride, experience, possible accomplishments or stardom and anything distracting from the task at hand. We humbly bow and get ready for arduous and “invidious” work. Imagine the worst and the most tedious kitchen activities. Yes, that is what we are going to get every single day. The responsibilities include cleaning the kitchen (although this is done by all employees, even the chefs), storage rooms, pantries and stairs, thrash disposal, picking and handling deliveries (about 25 times a day). The restaurant is located on the 4th floor and the storage room on the ground floor. Going to the forest to pick up herbs is another typical task. It feels great when the weather is calm and pleasant, but you are required to go every day, regardless of the weather.
Depending on the season, you are also in charge of garnishing meals with various herbs. During my 3 month internship I dealt with the following herbs: wood sorrel, which must be folded shut when used to decorate the sorbet – about 1000 pieces a day, violet flowers (otherwise known as pansies), rape, garlic, dandelion (single leaves only), forget-me-not (white and blue), garlic mustard flowers and leaves, ramson (known as wild garlic), goosefoot and chickweed leaves and many others.
I was also responsible for separating frozen ants from forest mulch, peeling and chopping onions, preparing shallots by separating their cloves and layers, washing and peeling scorzonera and giving it the perfect shape (practically impossible), peeling, washing and juicing strawberries.
Straining was a huge part of my work. All sorts of juices and stocks were strained. Mousses and purees were also sifted and strained. Vacuum packing was another activity, as well as opening oysters, peeling and deveining langoustines. Those tasks were all important, but first and foremost, I had to take care of cleanliness in the whole kitchen, at each stage of every activity. I do not mean typical cleanliness I was used to while working at other restaurants. I mean the excessive kind, which was borderline pedantic.
Cleaning had to be done with proper movement (not circular, but vertical), all kitchen towels had to folded into a rectangular shape, always the same size, all kitchen products needed to be placed exactly at the same location every time, with their name stickers attached.
Each of the interns came with different work experience. There was a 16-year old, who has been working in kitchen restaurants since he was 14, another man boasted the reputation of being the best cook in his country, and there was also a cook who owned a restaurant with 20 years of business experience, just to name a few. All of them had to perform the same mundane task I did.
There was little time to ask for recipes or see how a chef de partie (station chef) works.
Despite that, having been there for 3 months, I did have a chance to learn and see a lot. My biggest reward is the satisfaction I obtained from the effort I had put during my stay at Maaemo. My experience there has allowed me to change my ways of thinking and to find a new aesthetic approach to my work. I have become more open to new forms of stylistic expression in the kitchen. Certainly, this was not a cooking school. You will not learn how to determine the temperature of baking various meats or how to prepare classic French meals.
Instead, you will enter a magical world of Scandinavia’s cuisine. A little dark and raw, but at the same time beautiful and natural. These characteristics apply both to treating people and dishes that are served. You will need lots of self-determination, perseverance and humility, but do not forget that we all have our egos, sets of values and that we are chefs, too.
The time spent at the Maaemo restaurant will be remembered as a struggle to learn how to be humble, and yet persistent with what I have to do. I have learnt that it is crucial to take care of every detail, even the smallest one, in order to achieve perfection.
I have gained courage and inspiration to develop my own vision of the future and carry it out methodically. It was an unforgettable experience, time very well spent indeed.
Mira Tkacz is a passionate enthusiast of Scandinavian culture and cuisine. She has been living and working in Norway for 6 years. Currently she is the sauce chef at the „Folk og Fe” in Trondheim. Appeared as a contestant on the fourth season of Top Chef Poland .
Established in 2010 by Danish chef Esben Holmboe Bang and Finnish sommelier Pontus Dahlstom. Maamo was voted 64th among 100 best restaurants in the world at the Pellegrino 2015 World’s Best Awards. It is also awarded two Michelin stars. Maaemo serves modern Scandinavian cuisine based on local produce from Norwegian biodynamic and organic farming and cultivation.
The head chef creates the menu, reflecting the raw nature of Norway. The restaurant serves tasting menu of over 20 courses, presenting all the best Norwegian flavours Mother Nature has given to this beautiful country.