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A Sense of Belonging

It should have come as no surprise that Even Ramsvik responded: “Sentralen would be nice,” when I asked him where we should meet. After all, having recently walked away from Ylajali after six years of hard work, this place is his new baby.

During his time at Ylajali, Even found himself constantly evolving and moving forward, to the point where he was finally rewarded with a star in the Michelin-guide. Quite surprisingly, that’s when he decided to take a step in a different direction. A step away from fine dining, a step towards reaching a broader audience. And with Sentralen or “The Central”, he definitely succeeded in doing just that.

I arrive just a few minutes past 11 am, a little late as always, and find Even in the restaurant. He makes sure to ask the waiter to let us know if they need our table for other patrons. Half an hour later, the restaurant is filling up, and we move to the café – which is also considerably more buzzing now than it was only half an hour ago. And during our conversation, it will continue to fill up. Kids riding around on tiny bikes, grown-ups, hipsters, men in suits.

– Sentralen definitely attracts a mixed crowd.
– I really love that about this place, Even says, after we almost trip over a young girl on a three-wheel bike.
– It’s a great mix of people, a real meeting place. Which is just what we wanted to create.

But let’s take it back a notch. Why does someone decide to close the door on a highly praised restaurant just one year after receiving the much-coveted Michelin-star? Who would voluntarily walk away from such prestige?

– It was one of the toughest decisions of my life. But after six years working to keep the progression going, developing the logistics of the restaurant as much as we could, we got to the point where we realised we couldn’t take it any further. Everything after that Michelin-star would just be about maintenance. Maintaining the level we had reached, maintaining our reputation. There was no room to grow and expand anymore.

– Although my morning routines have changed a lot since Ylajali, I still find myself walking in direction of the restaurant in the morning. It was six years of my life. But I am proud of both the restaurant and the decision to quit while we were ahead. To keep going would just have been the beginning of the end.

And in the beginning of the beginning, Ylajali’s profile was not that much different than the rest of Oslo’s fine dining scene. It was all about continental, molecular techniques – “see what we can do.”

– But then something started happening around us. The Nordic identity grew stronger, and I finally had the guts to go in a direction I had wanted to for a long time. But instead of doing what they were doing in Denmark or Sweden, I wanted to create something all Norwegian, to bring out the specific flavours and feeling of Norwegian cooking and landscape.

It resulted in a profile full of powerful flavours. The long Norwegian winters, with sparse access to produce, make Norwegian food hearty, smoky, salty and tangy. Traditionally, Norwegians had to find creative ways to conserve produce for winter, so we fermented and pickled. It was a kitchen full of rough and raw flavours – just like our environment.

– When you walk through the city in a snowstorm, bundling your jacket around you, trying to protect yourself from the cold and the wind, and you come into a warm restaurant and sit down at the table, an asparagus just doesn’t add up. Even if that asparagus comes from Sweden. It’s not Norwegian, and it doesn’t suit the climate. I wanted to make food that belonged here, that carried on the traditions of the Norwegian food culture. Masculine, rough flavours, tracing back to the Viking era.

But flavour is tricky. We all have our own favourites, but also things that utterly disgust us. Making everyone happy is impossible. If you try to cater to all, Even says, you’ll end up like one of those family friendly Chinese restaurants that serve both sweet and sour, hotdogs for the kids and lobscouse for the grandparents. Instead of trying to make everyone happy, Even thinks the right approach is to make what you love and be faithful to your concept and ideas.

– I never make food thinking about what the guests will like. I make food that I like, and usually that makes the guests happy as well.

Our personal flavour palette is an acquired taste. When we grow up we are, hopefully, continuously exposed to new flavours and textures. We may not like it, not at first at least, but as we age, our palette changes, our taste buds became more mature (and less in number), and the things we couldn’t stand as kids may end up being our new favourite foods. For me, the first time I tasted celery I was 19 years old, and it was awful. A few years later I found myself in Singapore, eating a bowl of rice, marinated aubergines and pumpkin and the tastiest celery I had ever experienced in my entire life. How could I not have liked this before, I thought, as I chewed on the crunchy, flavourful green vegetable stalk I was coming to love – it is so darn good!

Like me, Even didn’t grow up in a gastronomic home. It was the eighties, and good meat was still expensive, something you saved for Sunday dinners. Vegetables meant carrots, peas and kohlrabi. Beets were always pickled, and blood pudding and pancakes were common everyday foods. It wasn’t really the flavours of his childhood that inspired Even to become a chef. So what was it?

– I think my fondest food memory from childhood has to do more with the excitement we all felt when my dad took to the kitchen on a Saturday, preparing a steak of a deer he had hunted himself, matching it with a mushroom stew and béarnaise sauce. Children’s television, and the bag of Saturday candy couldn’t steal the spotlight from that dinner. That feeling of fully anticipating a meal, the atmosphere and the joy that it brought me, that is something I always wanted to recreate.

In the end, it all comes back to childhood memories. Taste and flavour is more than just the taste and flavour you experience in the moment. It is also the vast array of associations and memories. When Proust started his epic novel In Search of Lost Time, it all begins with Madeleine cakes. These cakes take the character back in time, back to childhood. It is no coincidence he let taste play such a pivotal role in his novel, because our sense of taste of smell is one of the strongest emotional triggers affecting the human brain. It stirs up memories and feelings like few other things can. So sometimes, all I’ll want is a bag of mashed potato from Mills, because that was usually the way would eat mashed potatoes when I grew up. At least after the last supply of my grandmother’s frozen, homemade mashed potatoes were gone, long after she passed away. Even smiles at my story of weird cravings for childhood foods that I sometimes get, even though I normally prefer food that is more real than dried up flakes stuffed in a bag (where you add water, butter and stir).

– I think a lot of chefs try to rise above it, and will frown when I say this, but I still eat béarnaise sauce from Toro, he laughs.

– Now I know that it has nothing to do with real béarnaise, and that it tastes artificial, but it is still the béarnaise I grew up with. It was part of my father’s Saturday dinner, and brings back all these positive associations and memories, so I still like it. I had the same experience with Oskar Sylte’s pear soda. I grew up with it, and when I moved to Oslo I brought a batch with me and told all my colleagues they just had to try it. They did, but they all thought it tasted awful.

We share a little laugh, before he adds that he doesn’t really drink a lot of sodas anymore, not even Oskar Sylte’s. So, the last time he had it, it didn’t really taste like he thought it would. Which in many ways sums up our thoughts on taste and flavour quite nicely. A flavour can never be an objective experience. Our sense of taste changes and evolves over time, from our sensitive palates as children, to a more mature and often more tolerant palate as we grow older. We try new things, and at first we may not like it, but then suddenly it becomes our favourite of them all. We cut back on sugar and salt, and after a while the food that tasted normal becomes too sweet, too salty. And sometimes we get a craving for something we used to love when we were younger, but when we take a bite or a sip it just doesn’t taste the same. But the memory still lingers.