Chef Sidonia Radeva from Constantinoff RestoBar, the first face in Faces Cases rubric– Part 2
In the first part it became clear when and how she cooked her first meal. We also discussed the image of the chefs as angry boys in the kitchen, the rivalry between chefs, the dark side of the industry and also the unsatisfied customers.
In this second part you will learn whom she was named after, what her favorite cooking techniques are, what role plays Balkantourist in her dishes. If you read the third part of the interview later, you will know how the famous Bulgarian TV talk show host Slavi Trifonov influenced her carrier.
Let me ask you something else. I associate the name Sidonia with the Greek peninsula of Halkidiki and its second leg Sithonia (in Bulgarian we pronounce the name of the leg just like the name of Sidonia)- nice nature, sea, delicious food, relax and rest. It is the same here, only the sea is missing. (We both laugh) Whom are you named after?
My grandmother. Her godmother was a German woman. Her favorite flower was one that most people don’t know- its name is Sidonia. That’s how she named my grandmother. Last year, I accidentally met a person who even knew that Sidonia was a plant. Cydonia is called a region on Mars, which resembles a human face, but its inverse image is a lion’s head.
In continuation to your question, how I decided to make career as a chef, I would add that I was very much involved in my mother’s business, who was dealing with canteen cooking on the sea. However, I felt the need to refine my cooking techniques. So far we used only the notebooks and the cookbooks we had. Internet was developing gradually and providing new info about cooking. I became interested in more and more details. I went to HRC Academy. It’s headmaster was Robin Villarreal. I was in the first course, consisting only of 8-9 people. But many things I learned traveling around the world as a client- France, Spain, Holland, Turkey, Greece, Thailand. I have attended a lot of courses too. I worked in a Michelin star restaurant in the United States, in Napa Valley, California- Solage Calistoga was the town. In this area are the restaurants with 3 Michelin stars of Thomas Keller and Joel Robuchon. I chose the place because this was the area where the best wine of USA was being produced.
Speaking of which, who makes the selection for Constantinoff wine bar?
One of the owners of the house. He is an avid fan and collector of Bulgarian wine. He’s got an amazing sense of good wine.
Here Sidonia told me that for the interesting interior of the house is responsible one of the owners, to whom belong also the famous restaurants “Shtastliveca”. Her name is Mariana. She adds the small elements that give the unique coziness of the places as blankets on the chairs, furs, old photos of cities, etc.
How exactly did you decide to make Escoffier’s Sundae?
(Sidonia made a replica of the famous Peche Melba, which was created by Auguste Escoffier, when he was Chef at Savoy, London.)
I was looking for a modern interpretation, and besides, I like to challenge myself and play with shapes. I don’t want to do extreme molecular cuisine or anything that will totally scare people. I wanted to find a balance-to have something playful as shape and texture. The easiest would be to put in a nice copper cup a poached peach, home ice cream and raspberry syrup on top. But I chose to mold a gel strip of peach.
Gel? It comes out that you use modern techniques.
Yes, I do.
Your dishes are expressive. What story are you telling by them? What experience do you want to provoke in your clients? Give me an example with a particular dish.
Let’s take the calf’s brain. One of the most preferred dishes in this restaurant. The idea is not to make it too opulent. At the same time, it must be perfectly made- crispy crust, well-cooked brain inside, not greasy, with nice dressing and very fresh salad… I meant to create a drawback in the past when this dish was preferred and liked very much by the customers.
What’s the story you were telling with this dish?
Memories of Balkantourist from its good times and its great dishes- Melba Surprise, Steak Antoannette.
(Balkantourist was the state company governing the whole HoReCa business in socialist Bulgaria. It’s products and services were quite expensive for the regular Bulgarians, so its primary customers were foreign tourists)
You’ve just started answering another question of mine. As in music, showmen return to old pieces, put them in new arrangement and re-produce their popularity, so in gastronomy it could be applied the same, similarly to what you do with the Peche Melba by Escoffier. You mentioned those old hits of Balkantourist. Do you intend to re-create them?
Yes, a few of my regular clients have already asked if I can offer Steak Antoinette in the menu.
You know, I don’t remember what Steak Antoinette is. What is it?
Nice beef, maybe pork, sealed in light breading and put on a so-called bed of crispy toast. On top are arranged peaches or pineapple. It is gratinated, i.e. it is baked, with yellow cheese. This was often the offer of the chef in Balkantourist restaurants and it was perfectly executed.
I have many such ideas like memories from the old films. Even now the lunch menu contains things with “recipes from the old notebooks”-Dessert Agnes, Inverted Peach Cake, Lady’s Whim. I try to update the menu regularly.
Is it hard for you to find cooks? Nowadays, in any business in Bulgaria it’s hard to find qualified people.
I’m looking for candidates with whom we breathe one air, look in one direction. They need teamplayers, even if they are not so good cooks at first. The team’s backbone must be robust to minimize errors. We’re humans after all. As you can burn out your meal at home, hear we could overcook a little a steak’s side. If this happens, we ask the client to have a little more patience, because we are not satisfied with what we have prepared We cook dynamically and such things happen. Sometimes the oil is different, or some other product. We do not have a central kitchen producing pre-prep food, to warm it and put it on a plate. Everything is done right before serving.
So, I have to pick cooks carefully. I watch them at first- how they move in the kitchen, what they do. Whether they pass the fallen napkin on the floor or bend to take it. If it is oily, and someone carries hot and heavy saucepan, they may slip on it and have much trouble. Such a small detail is not to be underestimated.
Do you have your favorite cooking techniques?
Oh, yes, poaching.
Why do you like it?
It preserves the product. But it must be cooked with great care, not to overcook the product, otherwise it will fall apart. The other is the confit. With it, the meat, or even everything, becomes incredibly juicy and the most heavily locked internal flavors are made to come out. It is practically cooking at low temperature with fat, for a long time. The flavors are perfectly extracted through the fat. Take even just tomatoes with olive oil with thyme and garlic- under the lid they become great. The duck confit becomes amazing- very tender, no leathery taste, perfect. Last month, a Parisian lady, who shared that she eats duck confit everywhere she goes, said that here she ate the best duck confit. This is what keeps us high and motivated- this type of feedback. We also have a notebook for the customers’ feedback at the entrance of the house. I take it downstairs to the kitchen regularly for my colleagues to read it too. I’m not the only one deserving the applauses.
Many things were written in the yellow press about your participation in the Lord of the Chefs. I passed quickly through the headlines, but I don’t read any yellow information, by default. Do you want to say something that you think is more important for people to know about you?
I have to say this- in the beginning when they started writing those things, I was accepting them heavily. Friends told me not to read what those people write about me. But some force makes you read it. And the inner push to answer back is enormous. I succeeded to control it though. The people I care about, know me well. So I don’t have to explain myself to the public. The haters will always hate, and the evil ones will always be vicious. Those who like to comment will never stop, even elementary things, like items of our lunch menu. I wrote once in our daily menu that we offer French soup vichyssoise. Immediately someone commented, supposing maybe that I should enter at once the explanatory mode. I was a guest in France to my French friends and they served it in the winter warm. This is my personal experience, from the source. That’s it.
But in the end, it’s important whether the clients likes it. They may not know what vichyssoise is, they just want it to be delicious.
That’s what matters to me, not to razzle-dazzle them in terms. I have written it as a words play. ” Soup vichyssoise -with leek and cauliflower from us.” In winter it is served warm, in the summer- cold. The French gazpacho is vichyssoise. I’ve given up on explaining myself. To write a long post, which will take me at least 20 minutes to explain where I’ve been, what I’ve eaten and why I’ve decided to do it warm-who cares? The soup is delicate, aromatic. This is important. And the customers liked it.
How do you know if customers like what you and your team have prepared for them, especially if they’re not in the hall downstairs where the kitchen is, rather up on the ground floor? Just by the feedback book?
I see what’s served out in the plates. The greatest compliment to the chef is to have empty plates returned. When I’m down here, I hear and see the emotions of the customers. Sometimes I go upstairs and there I sense them too. I just need 10 seconds to find out.
Tell me honestly, is it annoying for the chef when a client says he wants to meet her?
No. As long as we’re not overloaded, and we’re not in some kind of strain to issue millions of orders, with the utmost pleasure, because that’s how I feel the energy of these people. They are open.
Many times I wanted to say directly to the chef what a good job they had done in the kitchen. Because the waiter is only a messenger, he/she may not transfer properly the compliments. Sometimes people in the kitchen create masterpieces and I want to tell them “Great show, people, thank you!”
That’s a very big compliment. Yes, sometimes they transfer them to us. We also know that the client has expectations. When we see a full plate returned, we tell the waiters to ask them what they would like to eat. Nothing takes so long that we can’t get it ready, as long as it’s not some time-consuming technique. For example, the marination of eggs for the salad with poached egg and spinach takes quite a time. It is stabilized in the marinade with lemon. It enriches the spinach and avocado flavor. Some customers say they want a hard-boiled egg. We can do it right away, but we will lose the special taste that comes exactly from the liquid yolk and which is also part of the dressing to the salad. This is a plaything with the textures.
I find the textures a very important element. I have exactly such a category in my reviews named Feel… where, apart from servicing, I also write about textures.
To be continued …
Catch up with the first part of the interview with Chef Sidonia Radeva here.