This article originally appeared in Danish on MUNCHIES Denmark.
You could think of it as a bovine version of March Madness. When three of Maaemo's chefs—head chef Jordan Bailey, R&D chef Rob Drennan, and chef de partie Tom Downes—set out to make a sorbet for a new dessert that would feature the milk of a single cow, they organised a competition of sorts. Visiting Grøndalen Gårdsmejeri, they grouped the dairy farm's cows into teams of four. They then milked each one, and sampled the result. The best-tasting advanced to the next round. It was a painstaking process, but eventually Bailey, Drennan, and Downes had their winner: a two-year-old Nørsk Rødt Fe named Isrosa. They bought her entire supply, and made Maaemo's diners the only ones—besides her calf—that get to sample Isrosa's deliciously creamy milk.
The willingness of the restaurant to seek out the optimal product for each dish is a big part of why chef-owner Esben Holmboe Bang's restaurant is widely considered not merely the best in Norway but one of the great jewels of Europe's culinary scene. But in an age in which restaurants breed their own seeds and make their own charcoal, the fact that Maaemo's chefs practice excellent sourcing is not the remarkable thing about Maaemo. The remarkable—even revolutionary—thing is that they have the time to.
The restaurant industry's difficult labour conditions are a secret to no one who has picked up a Bourdain book or tuned in to an episode of Hell's Kitchen. Unpaid internships, the emotional stress and physical toll of service, and an ingrained culture that sees anger, bullying, and a well-aimed sauté pan to the head as effective motivational techniques are just some of the components that make a chef's job so hard. But for many people who work behind a stove, the most gruelling aspect is the schedule. Fifteen-hour days, 85-hour workweeks—they're the norm in most ambitious restaurants.
Most restaurants justify their schedules with economics: they need their staff to work long hours if they're going to survive in a business in which profit margins are notoriously thin. The exceedingly long days are also part of the industry's culture; many chefs adhere to them because that's the way it's always been done, and the willingness to put in the time (and miss all those Christmas dinners and family birthdays) is a sign of a devotion, a distinguishing trait that forms part of the collective identity, like burn marks or a full sleeve of ink. But the effects are pernicious: burnout, exhaustion, depression, and one of the highest divorce rates of any profession.
For its first five or six years, Maaemo was no different. The staff there had Sundays and Mondays off, when the restaurant was closed, but otherwise put in days that could sometimes stretch to 20 hours.
"We saw what the job did to people," Holmboe Bang recalls. "Some had to leave, some couldn't cope. And even me personally, I was feeling like I couldn't do it anymore—I couldn't go forever without seeing my family, or always being on edge."
Which is why Holmboe Bang decided he had to take action. In September 2016, he cut Maaemo's workweek from five days to four. "I saw the effect immediately," he says. "People were rested, they had higher energy, they would walk through the doors at the start of the week with a sense of 'this is where I want to be today.'"
And then, he did something even crazier. So noticeable an impact did the reduction have, that Bang decided to take it further: He cut his staff's schedule to three days. Everyone—back- and front-of-house—would still be putting in about 45 hours a week, but they would always have four days off in a row. And once a month, they'd get five days off in succession, so they'd have time to go visit far-flung family, or travel just for fun.
And that, says maitre d' Benjamin Ausland, changed everything. "It was always tense before. People got tired of each other; they'd snap at each other. I'd be pissed off at the waiters because they weren't smiling enough," he recalls. "But now we've turned into normal people. It gives you that boost."
The new schedule, which eradicated Tuesday dinner service but added lunch on Friday, meant Maaemo had to hire more staff. It also had to think more intelligently about time management. "If someone's going to be working lunch and dinner, they need a break between services," Ausland says. "So instead of making everyone polish cutlery for two hours in the middle of the day, we just bought an extra set."
Hiring more staff and doubling your fork supply is expensive, and Bang readily admits that the adjustment has affected the restaurant's bottom line. "If we had continued on as before, we would have made money for the first time in Maaemo's history," he says. "But I'm fine with us just breaking even. It goes back to sacrifice—what are you willing to give up? For us, it meant giving up on profit."
Not every restaurant is able or willing to do that, of course. Holmboe Bang recognises the privileges—three Michelin stars and a location in a prosperous country with a strong social welfare system—that Maaemo enjoys. And he did not in any way set out to be a model for others to follow. "Every restaurant is different; it's such a personal thing," he says. "As a chef, you spend your whole life trying to be unique. So I don't think we can take a box and smash everyone into it."
But he also believes that some of the supposed truths of restaurant culture are worth questioning. "This idea that we're also supposed to be saying, 'I want to be here 18 hours in a row every day, I live on the adrenaline'—isn't that an excuse? A kind of bullshit? I don't see why you can't combine being passionate and dedicated with having a real life. You shouldn't have to be a sadist or a masochist to be successful."
Certainly Maaemo's results have borne that out so far. Not only is the restaurant's staff happier—not one person has left since the change to four days—they're also innovating more. "Oh my god, we're so much more creative," Bang says. "There's just a surplus of energy. You see it in how much we developing now, all these new dishes."
Case in point: Isrosa's milk sorbet. For R&D chef Drennan, the new schedule has been inspiring. "I'm used to working all the time, so at first it was kind of a mindfuck—you're telling me I can work in a three-star restaurant and still have a life? But I think we're all using part of the time off to get better at our jobs. It's allowed us more time to get under the skin of Norwegian cuisine, to do things like cuppings at Tim Wendelboe. Or to go milk cows."
Holmboe Bang still sees the change as an experiment of sorts, and though he'd be glad if other restaurants followed suit, he recognises that sometimes it just takes one person to initiate a broader change. "I don't know if it will work; maybe a year from now we'll find we've gotten lazy. But right now I want to try this. And if it does work, why go back to being a miserable fuck?" he says. "Why not be happy?"