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I feel wonderful in the kitchen where I am alone and cooking.
The following story was originally published in Benji Knewman Vol. 3.
My experience with culinary arts began by accident eleven years ago. Many of those I spent in shitty kitchens of Riga, wondering between orders whether this really could be the extent of the culinary world.
I like to immerse myself. I watched Jordan Kahn in Los Angeles and René Redzepi in Copenhagen and decided to explore what my own country had to offer. These are my notes longing for spring.
In developing a kitchen where the ingredients and cooking itself would be maximally honest, it occurred to me that the word would be “naked”. When you are naked, you can’t hide anything. As few ingredients as possible, clean, uncomplicated, close to natural food. The plan would be to transfer the kitchen and cooking from the entertainment industry (where, for a price, anyone can get anything they want, everyone is satisfied or satisfies themselves) to culture. Or at least close to culture. How can one even say at a restaurant, I will not eat this, give me another side dish? At an art gallery no one would think of saying, make them paint this a different colour, I don’t like the red!
Last year, Latvian chef Mārtiņš Rītiņš cooked crows, to which writer Dace Rukšāne said on Twitter – Our cooks are trying so hard to outdo each other in coolness that now they are really going nuts. First of all, I don’t know with whom Rītiņš could compete – he has been Number One for years. Second, I would rather call it taking stock of what we have in this country and what we can do with it. Being aware that there is something more than supermarket chickens and other shit.
I feel the need to develop a base and an environment that would let me work and create completely independently. First of all, to banish imported ingredients and develop my own pantry, thereby creating a base for the menu and gradually exploring the gifts of the forest, fermentation and storage methods. Second, to banish packaging and products offered by the big producers (or any producers). For the food to be one hundred percent honest, I should create as much of it as possible by myself: grow greens and shoots, and in the future – near or more distant – also vegetables and (possibly) raise fowl, bake bread, and churn butter.
A restaurant should start with the chef, good produce, and an idea. Instead of – oh, wow, we have a really cool bar and really great interior design. I have to ask – and the food? What about the food? Now it’s popular to say “contemporary Latvian cuisine” and “the taste of Latvia”, but I will need a new name for what I want to do and accomplish. A short while ago I saw an advertising brochure that invited one to “taste Latvia”. But there was pasta with shrimp and North Sea mussels! Crazy!
I am looking for ingredients with which to replace common, but not local ones. For instance, how to achieve spiciness without using pepper? How to achieve a sour taste without using lemon? What could be the equivalent to ginger? How would I go about making my own Worcestershire sauce?
Today I saw a restaurant’s “special spring menu” in February! There were new potatoes on it and such. In Latvia, they are not available even quite a while after spring has actually arrived, let alone in February! Nuttier and nuttier. It is similar to what happens before the local strawberry harvest when the market is flooded with Polish and Spanish berries: as a result, people have already stuffed themselves with strawberries before they are ripe here and have a decent taste. Our growers then are forced to get rid of their harvest for a song.
The first real walk with my daughter – we went to the Open Air Museum. She is only two weeks old. It’s a pity that the baby is still so young and cannot see much of what’s around her. I want to show and tell her so much. But I do understand: she has her whole life ahead of her. And spring will come early this year. We had a mild winter and that’s good in a sense. It will be easier to find new roots, thistle, for instance, and wild carrot. Today we found biting stonecrop – just like that, on the side of the path. It is a very juicy and, as my father would say, valuable plant (he knows a thing or two about wild plants). Stonecrop is often used in folk medicine and of course, you can also eat it. Initially the taste is grassy and fresh and then begins to bite your tongue, as the name suggests. Used in small quantities, it can replace pepper.
The first foraging expedition this year. As befits International Women’s Day, I had both my ladies with me. Spring really has come early this year. I have a few observations. First – people are pigs. Second – in two to three weeks, I will be able to do some more serious foraging. As far as the first – there is a lot of garbage in the forest. Some idiot had cut off the top of a fir tree and stuck an apple on the remainder. Very funny. Very. And as far as the second: I found biting stonecrop again and quite a lot of it, too. It’s at its prime right now. We also saw our first butterfly, which was a bright greenish yellow. I’m not sure it’s such a good thing. I enjoyed seeing it of course, but the butterfly can expect a premature death – there is nothing for the poor thing to eat. He looked very confused. By the way, this is the right time to collect wild rosemary for tea. I read that the Haida Indians used to collect it before blooming or in late summer. I’m interested to know what else could be done with it. At one event, I used the blossoms of wild rosemary with lamb liver.
I have decided to disprove classical culinary methods. In other words, I do not believe that the same vegetables are necessary every time you make a broth. Aleksandrs Kardašs (my former boss) told me – don’t put celery everywhere, otherwise everything will taste of damn celery.
It is the weekend, and the three of us – me, my wife and daughter – are going to dig for roots. To the forest, with a spade. And then we will come home and conclude that we still have to wait. The natural processes have yet to begin and the roots are a little woody and bitter.
Today an excellent idea was born: to throw a food party with ingredients found in the garbage bins of supermarkets; in other words, to use the food still good for human consumption that is being thrown away in great quantities. The guests would not know anything about it. After the meal, there would be a small lecture, drawing attention to this global problem: resources are used to produce food that would fill the shelves in supermarkets to create a false sense of plenty. Moreover, food items are specially made excessively expensive, so that this “spoiled” food can be written off daily.
A few days ago, feeling extremely hungry (when I am in such a state, I just can’t think straight), I bought meat produced by the Nākotne company – some produce to cook with grey peas. I was making a sauce from this supposedly smoked supposed meat. For the first time in my life, I saw meat absorb liquid. Something is very wrong in the food industry.
I am preparing for a pop-up event in May, which I will hold at the Ģertrūdes Street Theatre. I will call it an untamed culinary event at an untamed theatre. The idea is very simple: to show the public what nature has to offer right now, and what is taking place in the mind of the cook – in my mind, that is. Right now I have a menu of some fourteen dishes, which are being tested and improved. I add something and take away something, depending on the time and season and my attitude toward certain ingredients.
The construction work on my new kitchen will take another couple of months, for that is how it happens here – workers are not interested in doing their work efficiently. The approach is – whatever happens, happens. I have also come to another conclusion: to create, the process of creation is essential, for I have created the best ideas and dishes by accident or by experimenting. When the concept for a dish is created in one’s head, it works out only by some 50 percent, and then adjustment and adjustment to adjustment follow.
Ramson, wild garlic, has appeared in the market – in Latvia it is cultivated, for in nature it is a protected plant. The last time I was this excited was before my daughter was born. I have discovered another thing – fermenting is very good. And I don’t care what the ayurveda prophets have to say about it.
The ramson season is now officially open. This year I am hoping to experiment with its preservation. The easiest would be pesto and freezing it, but since I have practically no equipment for freezing at the restaurant, I will try a method that a woman at the market, who spent her childhood in Siberia, explained to me: simply put the ramson in brine. It also occurred to me today that beet is one of the most versatile vegetables – it goes with most anything.
I am making a very long list of things I want to do. With each passing day that work is not begun on the new kitchen, I get increasingly tense, for I understand that I will have to pass on many experiments for which there is simply no space right now. The kitchen where I work right now is very small.
If the kitchen is not coming to me, I will go to the kitchen. Today, I began my vinegar experiment: vinegar from beer in three different versions: wheat beer plus pine buds; porter plus black currants; porter plus currants and twigs of wild raspberries; porter plus mountain ash berries and hawthorn.
Sometimes I ask myself why I want to make it all myself. It could be so much easier: one phone call, same day delivery and it’s done. Mix some ingredients together, call it your recipe and sell. Money in your pocket, it’s pretty tasty, and so it goes. In a way, it’s my competition with others, but why am I talking about all of this? Why am I trying to talk other cooks into doing and daring more? Perhaps so that I could be one hundred percent honest by saying – this is me on a plate!
I tested the beer vinegar, which has completed the first quarter of its maturing process. It is definitely tangy and the taste of beer has receded. It works! And what’s most exciting – there is nothing like it anywhere. During my days off I launched a few more little experiments – looking for a recipe for sandwich bread and the initial stages of the barm fermentation of sourdough bread (you put flour for fermentation in natural yogurt and heated milk; the process takes six days).
Perhaps bread seems like something to be expected in a restaurant. I hasten to explain that I am a chef in a bar. In Latvian bars bread is served (if at all) from a package where the bread has been cut up by a machine. Why do I need a real, live bread starter? Why do I want to make several kinds of fresh bread every day? I don’t know. I simply need to do it. I have to develop a story about my kitchen, about things of which I can be proud. So that I can take pride in my ingredients and the end result. We do not serve any special delicacies from France, so, in order to take pride in simple things like bread, they have to be made by myself, from A to Z.
After today’s nature trip, I came to two conclusions. One – I’ll have to wait and be patient. Two – the new juniper berries are very mild, with almost a fruity taste. So I’m getting ideas. The main question is how to get a quantity of the berries and where? I also found some nettle. My fingers are smarting from being stung. But it may have been worth it. There wasn’t much, just a handful but it may help me understand some nuances in the changed menu. For instance, do burnt fir branches work with wheat beer, pork and powdered nettle or is it all in my head?
One of the vinegars is ready – wheat beer combined with last year’s pine buds. The colony of bacteria has settled and that means that there is no more alcohol to be processed in the vinegar. And that in turn means that the result can be pasteurised, bottled and stored to go on experimenting. Of course, there are all kinds of new ideas in my head – cider and chamomile, light beer and juniper berries etc. That’s how it is with tattoos. You have one done and you need the next one. I guess I have found a lasting hobby, for these taste combinations are practically infinite.
I have set up not only a small lab in our apartment but also a place for drying herbs and a miniature garden for plants/greens. It’s a good thing that there is a lot of space and various corners where things can be stored and they do not get in the way. While the child has not begun to walk it’s still possible.
A little while ago, I yet again had to discover that, because of the climate, it is not possible to create alternatives for many common food products. For almost the entire season, I could not obtain camembert from the producers that bring me cheese once a week. Too warm. The climate is too unsteady. So they ended up building a separate room with a regulated and controlled climate. Another example: about a year ago, in a store I saw a dried deer leg that I truly admired. A year passed and several components for a dish combined in such a way that I was ready to use the dried deer meat, but apparently it is no longer made. And again it’s because of the unstable climate, they need a controlled environment. What now? Have to find an alternative.
A little digression: A few days ago, I decided to abandon the idea of a multifunctional eatery. A quick and very cheap (given the products that I use) lunch – an hour-long sprint. Later, a more relaxed and elegant dinner in which I invest a lot of myself. A race of several hours. And then the evening with beer lovers with endless snacks. Another sprint. After a while, there will be a separate bar menu that will be available till late at night and the weekend brunch. So now it is five establishments rolled into one. And I hate such a model. Or at least used to hate it. I realised that the relaxed dinner does not bring in so much money as to support the kitchen and continue working with new ideas and new ingredients. So all the other formats are also necessary. And when I read that René Redzepi did banquets to support his NOMA, it all became clear as a bell. It will not be easy. But I have to put up a fight.
Before the official swimming season begins, I must get busy on the beach. It’s full of designer items: pieces of glass and wood, fish and animal bones, seashells. Paradise! And in the dunes, one can pick some greens and cut the new budding branches to put in a vase. All you have to do is go and get it all. It’s nature’s supermarket, and everything is free. I really needed today’s two-hour walk. The chilly winds are a good cure for exhaustion and are reviving. A walk on the Suspended Bridge in high winds must be a great cure for a hangover. I am sure of it.
Days are getting longer and so is the time I spend in the forest. We bought a baby carriage, so Irbe can sleep peacefully while my wife and I are working. The apartment now looks as if it was in the countryside – something is drying or growing everywhere. We gathered some wild carrots to figure out what to do with them. Last season, I only used the greens, because they look good and are tasty. But I didn’t get any further. Frankly, I do not like the carrots fresh. At least not during this season. They are too bitter. Possibly it’s related to the weather. When they are boiled, the bitterness abates somewhat and the sweetness, which is so common in cultivated root vegetables, is brought out a little. So that’s good. This way, wild carrot may be palatable for the wider public. But I would not recommend frying them. I tried to sauté them for a long time in butter, but that only increases the bitterness, concentrating it in the middle of the root. But the boiled roots can be caramelised in honey.
False morels have appeared at the market. That means that a new dish will be on the menu. A discussion developed as to whether or not these mushrooms are edible, for they are said to contain toxins. Reading all that’s available I concluded that there are as many views as there are sources. I know that the mushroom used to be eaten. I also know that it can be poisonous but by rinsing and boiling twice, the toxins will disappear.
I am slowly getting ready for the fall season pop-up event. It always has to be done well in advance. It is interesting how, in the process of collecting the ingredients and exploration, new combinations and ideas appear. And the budding ideas of a year or two ago suddenly are complemented by the necessary, hitherto lacking ingredient or use. I enjoy this process. I really do. I had an idea for a puffball broth, which I have already tried; there was also an idea of dried roots to be eaten with fish. I also had an idea to pour wild thyme tea over something. Today it all came together, for the uniting component was found – the dried leaves of nettle and ramson. If I make a puffball and wild thyme tea and pour it over a piece of fish strewn with dried leaves, in theory I should end up with a very aromatic soup.
Of course, not everything goes as planned. And such new, conceptual dishes are not always successful. So then the next process begins – you adjust ’til it’s right. This reminds me of my childhood when I drew a lot. I don’t know why I have stopped doing it, but I haven’t done it in some eighteen years or so. I used to be able to draw a perfect outline of most everything. But, when it was time to colour, one wrong stroke with the brush was enough to make me crumple up my work and throw it into the wastepaper basket. Concentrated outlining of two hours done for nothing. In my culinary experiments, the conception of an idea is akin to outlining, whereas the practical side can be likened to colouring. Of course I could do it in some slipshod way and most people would not notice, but I would know and it would keep me up at night. There must be some general name to call people like me.
Today I have rhubarb, nettle and a toothache. I am ecstatic over the first two but not about the last one. I slept badly. Also because I have no idea how to do everything that’s recorded in my calendar for May. Daily work, the pop-up event, a banquet in Tallinn, the beer festival in the Vērmanes park, another outing, master classes, new products and thus changes in the menu, the new kitchen, the lack of employees, vacations of the existing employees. Hmm, while I was reading this, the toothache began to seem unimportant. Sometimes there is just too much of everything.
Yesterday we were at Ložmetējkalns. Wood sorrel is all around! Even my wife was puzzled at my unarticulated screams and simultaneous monotonous mumbling. Of course it had to be picked. One always has to pick everything. Actually, we went to look for the new chamomile shoots to experiment with some bitters and drinks, but then Irbe got all restless and we had to go home. And one more annoyed comment: I am not going to listen to criticism from people who eat at McDonalds.
First there are the ingredients, then the chef, and only then the interior and all the rest. I need to emphasise it again; it seems very important to me.
I finally understood why every morning I get so nervous and tense in the city. I get over it in the kitchen and in the forest. I am bothered by having too many people around and their many needs. I feel wonderful in the kitchen where I am alone and cooking. Also in the forest. That is my meditation.
There are some who do and then there are those who say that they do but really don’t. As my wife says: wilderness is to be found in nature and not on the price sheets of suppliers.
My pop-up event went better than I had hoped. Initially you’re all excited about your dishes and you want to feed them to someone – at this stage, you have an awful lot of energy. But, the longer you work, the more naïve your dishes and ideas seem to you. Up to the moment when, on the day of the event, you are simply overcome by pessimism. And then the inevitable: the guests are sitting at the table and are waiting for what they’ve been expecting all along – food. And me. Then a marathon of four hours ensues after which you get back every one of the seconds you invested: the public enjoys it, your pessimism disappears and it is replaced by satisfaction.
If I could only do this and it brought in enough money for me to exist independently and be able to support myself, I would be happy. Or at least happier. But there is all that other work that gives no satisfaction and just takes something from me, without giving me anything in return. Money? Yes, there is money. But that’s all.
But it is worth taking this path. Gritting my teeth. I can’t wait for fall and the fall products. I can’t wait for the excitement of finding puffballs in the forest. I can’t wait for mushrooms at the market – and I don’t mean just chanterelles and boletus. So that my creative process would begin anew.