Exec Chef Set on Taking Georgian Restaurant Industry to the Next Level

The Tbilisi food scene has undergone many changes over the last decades. The traditional

styles and approaches to cooking and dining, while still prevalent in many parts of the city, have made way for new, modern techniques from around the world. A host of restaurants now serve fusion cuisine, and the resistance to change of yore is slowly giving into a growing internal demand for something different.

Yet, the biggest and most profound change is still to come: Qalaqi. A restaurant — no, a culinary institution; that promises to make waves in the Georgian wine and dining industry, GEORGIA TODAY sat down with its Executive Chef David Tavernier to get exclusive insight into Tbilisi’s impending food revolution.

Tell us how you got into the restaurant business in Georgia?

Being French, I started my culinary journey in France, undergoing a classical, French evolution of chefs. I went to cooking school for two years during which I was an apprentice at a restaurant, and upon graduating and receiving my diploma I started to work full-time at restaurants. Working at a Michelin star restaurant was always a dream of mine, so I began in my region of France, Burgundy, where I worked at all of the local Michelin star restaurants, over many years, under different chefs, different styles of cooking, being exposed to a plurality of techniques and traditions. At 23, I went to Luxembourg and England, before coming to Paris for a year and half to work under a two Michelin star chef, Michel Rostang, who gave me the opportunity to work at his restaurant in the Caribbean as an Executive Sous Chef. Then I went to Dubai for a short while before ending up in Lebanon for a almost two years, where I learnt a huge amount about restaurant management and organization from the chef I worked with. In addition to operating the restaurant, from March to October, every single weekend we had weddings to cater too, each with unique menus and dishes: one of them was the second biggest in Lebanese history with 1,700 guests!

As for Georgia, Qalaqi is a consulting by Nicolas Isnard, a French Michelin star chef. When he got his contract in Tbilisi, he began to look for an Executive Chef to run the place. My job is to create the menu, organize, train the staff and run the restaurant. I was given complete freedom to create the menu, with Nicolas approving/rejecting proposals, or offering suggestions on what to add to a certain dish.

What kind of cuisine will be served at Qalaqi?

First, traditional Georgian food prepared by my chefs. Some dishes I don’t touch at all because they are really good, and some I put a little twist on in texture or taste, or in the design and plating, for example. And second, European, which I’m in charge of. These two will occupy the first two floors in a high-quality brasserie format.

Then, there’s the fine dining. The third floor will be a one Michelin star standard fine dining French restaurant, “Bronze by Nicolas Isnard”, all dishes signed off by him with 35 seats maximum. It will completely different from anything else in Georgia; the way of service, the style of cooking: everything will be revolutionary; a Michelin star quality ‘top of the top’ establishment. We will have two formulas: there will be a menu with five starters, six main courses (three fish, three meat), four desserts. Out of this, guests will be able to choose four or six courses. The former will come with one starter, two mains (one fish, one meat) and one dessert; the latter with two starters, two mains (one fish, one meat) and two desserts.

Where will you be sourcing your ingredients from?

I try as much as possible to work with Georgian produce. My philosophy has always been to take advantage of the good stuff that my host country has to offer. While there may not be such a large selection in Georgia, there is some very good produce and agricultural know-how. I’d say that at least 80% of the menu is made from Georgian produce.

Even the plates in the fine dining restaurant will be handmade by two Georgian ceramists. I try on every aspect of the job, the service, the food, the plates, the music, the training, everything, to help the country and its restaurant culture grow.

What are your thoughts on the Georgian dining and restaurant culture?

The Georgian food industry has reached a point in its history when it’s ready to step up. People are open to it; 20 years ago everyone clung to rustic traditions, but today they want change, they want all the new methods from around the world to come to Georgia. That’s what I want to bring, not just through the food, but through the training of chefs in the kitchen.

For every fine dining chef, foreigner or Georgian, in this country, we have two problems. First, the produce, of which is difficult to find good quality and diversity. Second, the staff. In Georgia there is an absence of a very high-level gastronomic cooking school, and the idea of fine dining is still in its infancy. The task now is to train the staff and change their attitude towards work. Currently, there is is this international mentality amongst young people that they will get everything instantly, make big money and be “free”. No, first you have to stop and learn everything, it’s only after that that you will have the necessary skills to earn your “freedom”.

The problem with many young people is their mentality. I was shocked when I came to work here and saw people sitting in the kitchen using their phones. I don’t sit in the kitchen, and if I as the chef don’t sit then no one does. My mentality is ‘when you work , you work.” You’re not here to play with your phone, listen to music, sit and sleep in the kitchen, or spend three hours of your day outside smoking — no. I’m not a guy with a big ego; at the end of the day I am an employee too who is paid his salary by the owner. He doesn’t pay me to sleep or smoke or play with my phone, so if he doesn’t do that for me, why should he do that for my staff? I put the same strictness and expectations on myself as I do for my staff: if I’m on my phone in the kitchen its because I’m placing some orders or in contact with my suppliers; they will never see me on Youtube or Facebook in the kitchen. In the kitchen your sole focus is the food: you need to be 100% focused to make great food, even the simplest tomato salad.

I have two faces, if you will. I’m really old-fashioned when it comes to the hierarchy and organization of the kitchen, chef, sous chef, section chefs. I learnt my trade with the really old-style French chefs who would often start screaming from the moment they walked in through the door. If I have to scream, it means that someone has really pushed me too far. My philosophy is that if there is a mistake, screaming doesn’t change anything. You have to find the solution to it, teach whoever screwed up to not do it again, and then make sure that it doesn’t happen again to anyone else, either.

I would say that I am really “cool” and open in the kitchen as long as the job is done properly. I give my staff a lot of liberty, as long as the job is done on time and to the standard that I expect, and the kitchen is kept clean and tidy. As long as they adhere to this basic etiquette of keeping things professional, calm, tidy, organized, and give their 110%, I’m an easy guy to work with.

What are your impressions of Georgian cuisine?

I really like Georgian cuisine. I am not too into the stew scene, kharcho, etc., as I personally don’t see a lot of variety in them, though I’m a big fan of khuchmachi: not only does it taste great with a really nice balance of spice and juices, but it’s a dish that is really complicated to cook, intestines, heart, and other organs, perfectly. It’s a very complex dish that, as a chef, allows you to judge the quality of a restaurant instantly.

Is there anything completely unique to Georgia?

Walnuts. This is the first country I’ve been to where walnuts are pervasive. In France, we use walnuts as a garnish, it’s not in our culture to use them, or any kind or nuts, in cooking. I discovered a whole new world of possibility after moving here.

Traditional Georgian food is very similar to what we had in France 70 years ago. I’ve re-discovered this mentality of cooking that my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother used to teach me. In the European restaurant we’ll have two dishes based on family recipes: one from my mother, the other my grandmother. Initially, I wasn’t considering including them in the menu but after starting to understand Georgian, I said “I want the European menu to have some French dishes similar to Georgian ones.” So I called my mother and asked her to give me the recipe for her beef stew with red wine, doing the same with my grandmother and her veal stew with cream sauce.

What about the wine?

I’ve discovered some incredible wine here. I’m a real fan of the Qveri wine; I’d never seen that anywhere else in the world. It’s really nice to drink and cook with, or to make some cocktails with. It is completely different from what, as a foreigner, you think of when you think about wine. It’s a lot more complex, and that’s what I like: what I’m looking for in wine is the same as in food: different tastes, temperature, some bitterness, sweetness, herbs. My way of cooking is a balance of taste, texture, color. You have that in Georgian wine too, which is really interesting.

Máté Földi

08 February 2018 17:14