WITH MATS VAULEN
We arrive at Trattoria Popolare on Thursday morning, eager to experience Mats’ grandmother’s love through her recipe. Upon entering the restaurant we follow Mats upstairs to the commercial kitchen on the second floor where we begin to chat away as he swiftly and carefully preps the meal.
Growing up as a child in Solund, a small island town in Northwestern Norway, Mats was taken care of by his grandma, Petrina. Mats would spend hours in the family kitchen lovingly watching his grandmother cook. Petrina was a former cook and used all her love and passion to fill the family house with traditional Norwegian dishes that she had inherited from her mother and grandmother. Every Thursday Petrina would make her family a special hearty dish called Raspeball, for which the entire family would come together to enjoy.
Raspeball is a meal with roots that trace to Western Norway, but with recipes that will differ from town-to-town and kitchen-to-kitchen. Mats remembers how his grandmother slow cooked the meats for the dish; braising them until they fell loosely from the bones. He walks over to the lamb shoulder and ham hocks on the stove and points to the meat, which he has been roasting since last night. The effect is mouth-watering.
We follow Mats to the basement where the line chefs prepare meals, the baking takes place, and the prep work is done. The chefs are buzzing about; preparing focaccia bread, biscotti, and handmade pasta for the day. Mats is a sous chef at Trattoria Popolare and the other chefs seem to part from of his way in unison, as he moves around the kitchen. While straining the potatoes, Mats continues to invite us into his memoir as a chef.
With an open smile, Mats tells us, “I like to think cooking is in my blood as my great grandmother’s were both cooks.”
Mats first started cooking at age 12 when he tasted a curry recipe at a school event. He was so infatuated with the new flavor of curry that it inspired him to simulate the same meal for his family. That first meal was the beginning to a lifetime dedication to discovering new ways to use flavors and spices amongst various cuisines. Encouraged by his success with curry and invigorated by the newfound creativity in cooking, Mats continued to experiment with new flavors and spices. He knew for certain that he wanted to be a chef when in 1993, Bent Stiansen, became the first Norwegian to win the Bocuse d’Or, a French Biannual award for top chef.
Mats story is interesting to me for two reasons; first because his inspiration occurred at such an early age at something like a science fair and second because most children idolize basketball players and rockstars and here is this child unabashedly yearning to be a chef. It is remarkable how impressionable a 12 year old can be and even more remarkable how one small event can be the tipping point in someone’s life.
We return to the kitchen and chat comfortably as friends as the lamb and pork broths are simmering on the stove. Mats glances at his watch and indicates that it is Potato Dumpling ball time. He shapes the first potato into the shape of a heart and then continues to quickly and deftly shape the rest of the potatoes into perfect spheres. He makes it look so easy! For the average cook, this task would most definitely need silence and undivided attention, but Mats keeps the conversation flowing.
After highschool, Mats studied at Ferde Culinary School for 2 years followed by 2 years as an apprentice in Hotel Continental at the Michelin star rated Andre Etasje. After various stints in Oslo, in Bergen, and at his family seafood restaurant in his hometown, Mats decided to return to school for a Masters Degree in Bergen. However; just as he began studying, he received a call from a former colleague who asked him to be a sous chef at Gamle Raadhus in Oslo. Mats couldn't resist and accepted the invitation. He ended up working for three years at Gamle Raahus before joining the team at Trattoria Popolare.
After one year at the Trattoria, Mats was eager to discover new cuisine and to travel. Mats took a three-month backpacking trip to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. During the trip he was invited into several grandmothers’ kitchens to learn local methods…too bad The Recipe Hunters weren't there to join him! After his 3 month exploration, Mats returned to Oslo and was quickly offered a sous chef position at Trattoria Popolare. The owners were smart enough not to lose their top talent to Asia and Mats has been leading the restaurant ever since!
Watching Mats cook is watching an artist; he tastes, adds, thinks, and patiently waits for the flavors to develop until he is perfectly satisfied. When we ask Mats for some general advice on cooking, he takes a moment and replies that “you should never serve something you are not completely satisfied with, that you should make sure to taste the dish often and throughout the the meal preparation…Sometimes you can make a boring dish exceptional if you add a little lemon juice in the right way.” He finishes this thought with a taste, and I am quick to follow!
From a full four hours of cooking and waiting it is almost time to eat. The aroma of the slow roasted meats, the fried bacon, and the sausage fill the room. Mats plates two enormous platters, each about 16 inches in diameter. The platters are overflowing with succulent potato raspeballs, hog hanks, lamb shoulder, sausage, bacon, and rutabaga. With 5 minutes to spare, Mats runs to the grocery store and returns with the two most important parts of the meal: the sour milk and the syrup. Odd at the sound of it, but this bittersweet combination allows your taste buds to reset so you can fully indulge in another bite of this hearty meal. He tells us to drizzle some syrup on our plates and wash down each hardy bite with sour milk, just as his grandma did. We join in on the tradition and eat until our stomachs are full and more of Thursday Raspeball, simmered with Love.