When I realized that creator of wonderful meals in Lanterna na Dolcu, a charming little restaurant in Zagreb, is a guy who hasn’t even reached his 30s, I started wondering how did he decide to become a chef in the first place. So, I asked him and our conversation turned out to be more than interesting. Plus, I took this chance to get first-hand answers to some of my personal mysteries that were bugging me for quite a while, like whether broth truly is a must, is it true that a perfect steak must be turned only once, and why do famous chefs always carry around their own set of knives…
The place where our chef works has its charms, too. The whole crew seems to work real hard to build a friendly recognizable image. When it comes to food, they avoid trendy couisine, but still remaine creative. What makes them interesting to a local tour guide like me, is the blend of this city’s tradition, warm welcome, rich tastes, cosy atmosphere and the fact they’re traveller friendly. For example, they insist on having a breakfast offer even though it’s not a custom to eat breakfast out in Croatia at all. And one more thing - they make us eat only fresh ingredients from the nearby Dolac market since they decided not to own a freezer at all.
Lanterna is actually just a toddler on Zagreb’s gastronomic map, but it has more tradition and connection with this town’s history than many of its older relatives. There’s a physical connection for starters. Part of the restaurant is placed in the town walls of Kaptol, one of the predecessors of nowadays Zagreb. When you find yourself under the brick ceiling, know that you are as safe as can be among the 1,5 meters wide and several centuries old walls. Another thing that goes back to the days is a rare example of a Zagreb cookbook they sneaked out of a museum for a while, just to use the recipes. They did some modifications, but trust me, you won’t resent them. The food is wonderful. I had a chance to try some of their specialties, and that’s precisely what inspired me to arrange this interview in the first place. Don’t take my review too serious, though, I’m just giving you my honest impressions, but I’m far from being an expert.
It just seemed incredible to me that a young cook can add such a creative touch to traditional food. I instantly thought to myself – this one’s a natural! And I seemed to be right, as our chat will soon reveal. But let me just mention that other members of their team are just as enthusiastic about their work. Such is Tomislav, one of the owners of the place I had a chance to meet, and Darko, waiter with pastry knowledge. Darko is also a coffee-artist who made my day with this little fellow:
Tradition aside, they are modern when it comes to marketing, and it’s a proactive direct marketing approach that distinguishes them from other restaurants. They participate in major food events when ever possible. Just recently, they were in the Restaurant Week for the second time. And last month, they were guests at the Chocofest opening. You would never guess what our chef dared to prepare for that occasion, and you would never believe that it was a smooth combination. So, let’s find out what it was, along with other interesting things our guest Marko Miljković shared with Secret Zagreb Walks.
Secret Zagreb Walks: How did you come to choose your profession?
Marko: I was born with it. In the first grade of elementary school, when we all had to draw what would we be when we grew up, I was the only one in my class to draw a cook. I’ve loved this job ever since and I wish to God to be able to do it for the rest of my life. Because I really enjoy it… after a fight with my girlfriend, when I'm pissed, I just cook and it relaxes me. It really fulfills me, I'm most satisfied when I cook.
What was the very first meal you prepared?
It was cheese omelet. I actually saw it in a cartoon. Omelette au fromage, Dexter repeated, and it enered my mind. I didn't understand French as a kid and wanted to find out what it meant, and when I figured out it was cheese omelet, I tried to make one. I think that's the first real meal I made.
How old were you then?
I think I was about seven. First grade, something like that.
What did your Mum say about that?
Not much, 'Well done, son', I guess. She probably thought I was just a playful kid, especially since I was pretty overweight when I was younger. When the puberty came, I started losing weight, but my love towards cooking remained.
What type of food do you like to prepare most?
I don't have a particular favourite. Instead, I prefer experimenting with food, whether it's meat, fish, pasta, or anything else. Sometimes, when I see a cook and some recipe on TV, I take a piece of it, an ingredient, try to notice the way he bonded carrot and asparagus for instance, and then I take that combination and add a few ingredients of my own to see how it will work out. I particularly like to combine the unthinkable. I managed to combine fish with chocolate for this Chocofest. Everyone told me I was insane and there was no way I was going to make it happen, but I thought it was so tasty, and people reacted really well, too.
If I had to chose, it would be something accompanied by sauce. Whether it's a steak or grilled fish, that's too common all by itself, all you have to know is how to cook it well, maybe add a marinade. But if you have to prepare a sauce, that's a little bit more demanding, and I like challenges.
Can you share a secret of yours with us, maybe there’s a special ingredient you use regularly?
I don't use Vegeta because it makes everything taste the same. And I like nutmeg. I don't put it in each meal, but I like it because it adds that special touch. For example, I put it in mashed potatoes or gnocchi. As a result, you get regular gnocchi, but a bit more tasteful, a bit different than what you get in other restaurants. A little extra touch, that’s all.
Are you responsable for the Lanterna menu?
Yes, I made it myself. Sarma, gulaš, faširanci, there are people who would love to have those traditional meals, but mainly, when they actually come here, they decide to have a beefsteak, zagrebački (cordon-bleu) and all that. So I altered a few things. Instead of having turkey breasts with vegetables aside, I filled little rolls and added mustard dip on the side. Awesome combination. Than, there’s maksimirksa rolada. It's stuffed chicken, only with prosciutto and riccola to make it a bit distinct, rolled in breadcrumbs and parmiggiano for finer taste.
Do you cook at home?
Can’t really say I do. Sometimes I do cook, but I used to do it more often before, cause my folks are old fashioned and they always tell me what to do. When ever I start preparing a meal, they go 'don't do this, don't do that'.. In the end, I’m left with a piece of meat, potatoes and salt and pepper, and that's how they prefer their meal, although they asked for le mignon with all sorts of wonders. Things turn out great only when I don't tell them anything and cook something on my own. I cook almost exclusively for my girlfriend.
Does being a cook make a difference when it comes to your love life?
It does make a little difference. Now that I'm in a relationship it helps, too, but it used to be even more helpful before, just saying that I was a cook:) Now that I have a steady girlfriend, I see she's satisfied with a guy who knows his way around kitchen.
How do you like working in Lanterna? It seems to me that you have certain amount of creative freedom, but on the other hand you work a lot, considering all the events you participate in?
Yes, it all depends on the season and how much there is to work. Sometimes there's plenty, and sometimes none. I like it here. Sure, there are disagreements, there are problems, but you have all that everywhere. But, generally speaking my colleagues are all good persons, and we can always come to an agreement. So, when I look down at it all, I'm really satisfied.
How did you all get together as a team?
To be honest, by pure chance. I used to work in the restaurant Scala with open kitchen, cooking in front of guests, where I had a chance to learn a lot of finesses, but my boss quit and basically left us to ourselves. Just around that time, a friend’s father heard that some boys are opening a restaurant and looking for a cook. So, I called and spoke to Tommy, ended up on probation here with couple of other guys. It so turned out I suited them best, probably because we clicked as persons, too. And Darko, he's a truly great worker and really knows the catering trade well, so if I need an advice, he's there for me.
What kind of guests do you prefer?
Middle class guests, like you or me. I don't like the elite for they expect heavens to be served on their plates. Middle class because they mostly know how to appreciate food and they are the best critics. They'll say, 'listen, this really sucks, it's burnt, you blew it and that's it'. It's my job to take a note of it and make it right. Or if they mean it, they'll say ‘this was great.’
Have you ever received a complaint, or had the food returned?
And how does it feel?
Well, like shit. On Valentine's, my friend wasn't satisfied with the food and I really felt bad. I am sorry, not just because he's a friend, it’d be the same if it was anyone else, I just felt so bad about it. If something like that happens, I get quiet, think about it, and cook. Just thinking about why it happened and how to make it right…
So, what happened?
I don't know. A moment of carelessness, rashness, you want to get it done in haste, not wanting to leave the guests waiting, but then again... I have this rule of thumb, it's better for them to wait for a couple more minutes and get their meals right, than to have it on time, but done in haste. Still, it's in the job description, sometimes it gets crowded, and that rule just slips my mind, meal gets too spicy, burnt, little things like that happen and these are the mistakes that I have to learn from.
Do you have role models?
Not really. At first, it was Jamie Oliver, more of an inspiration than a role model, but lately I like Gordon Ramsay and his Kitchen Nightmares best. Ramsey is down to earth, I like his food for it’s tasteful, but simple, he doesn’t complicate too much... Sometimes, if you complicate, you’ll blow it. You want to put 15 ingredients in a dish, and it can be tasteful, but if it's too complex some just won't like it. On the other hand, if you take meat, vegetables and three spices, maybe a little sauce, most of the people will compliment it because it's light on the stomach, it's tasty and that's all there is. When I saw the way he makes simple food, I started to cut on seasoning and stopped complicating.
Do you have special tools you can't do without?
No, the only thing special is my uniform. I don't have a set of knives, but I do plan to purchase some. I still haven't found the quality ones.
What's the deal with chefs and their own set of knives? Why do they want to own one?
Because knives go blunt in the kitchen real fast. Plus, when a waiter comes in and needs a knife to cut bread or something else, not that I blame them, he just grabs it and starts cutting. But knives tend to go blunt even when you cut paper. And when the cook uses that same knife to cut up fish, it doesn't turn out just right. I am not that much of a professional to have such wishes and requests, but I’ve started to get it why they do it. They just want to give their best and make it all perfect. So, when they bring their own equipment knowing how to treat it, everything must turn out well. If someone uses and blunts chef’s knives, a bit of nervousness here, lack of concentration there, and he can blow everything.
What’s your favourite dessert?
I love kremšnite, I actually love vanilla cream, but kremšnite are my favourite. To be honest, I’m not very good at making them.
Are you on some sort of mission, a meal you’d like to make but can’t seem to get it right?
Yes, this might sound silly, but I am working on a meal for two years. Lamb, honey, rosemary, nutmeg and something else, and that something is still missing. If I knew what it was, I’d be happy to share it with you. But I don’t have it yet. The meal is already tasteful, but it’s still empty. I’ve already tried to make it five or six times, but that’s not it. It lacks something else for me to be able to say - Wow! Normally, I’m not perfectly happy with any of the food I prepare; I’m completely satisfied in some 20% of cases. But then again, when I prepared chocolate pasta with sea bass fillet, I couldn’t believe the taste! When my colleagues tried it, they were stunned too, and so was the Chocofest audience.
Do you eat out, where do you like to go and what do you order?
I don’t eat out as much as I used to. When I really want to give myself a treat, then it’s ćevabdžinica, a dump with great ćevapi and grill. The sort of place where each chair is different because they don’t care about the atmosphere, but the food is always great, like Kod Srbina. Ćevapi are great there, but when you enter you can’t help but wonder what kind of place is this. When I’m in the mood for something exotic, it’s Mexican or Chinese kitchen, to try out something new and then attempt to make it on my own.
Are you being extra critical towards other cooks, do you return food if unsatisfied?
Sometimes I am critical. I rarely return meals. But I do make complaints, some even say I’m being a pain. My friend, who’s also a cook, made a great cheesecake, but I found the biscuit a bit too dry. It was, perhaps, an unnecessary remark, but then again, I put myself in her shoes. I like being told ‘look, the meal is tasteful, but burnt.’ Okay, I blew it and next time I’ll take care it’s less done. I always like to hear a remark so I started giving them away, too.
So, are you a bit more demanding than average guest?
A bit demanding, yes, but I don’t show it that often. Especially not when I’m truly hungry. I was once at a restaurant asking a medium beefsteak, and I got a raw bloody one. But I was so hungry that I thought – just give it to me and let me be. On the other hand, at a restaurant on the coast, I got salad with black edges. You can eat that, no one ever died from it, but it bothered me so much, I kept staring at it throughout my meal. When the waiter asked me how it was, I told him it was all great, but remarked that the salad wasn’t cleaned well. However, when I do complain, I’m careful not to insult anyone. I’m no Michelin stars big shot to know exactly how things must be. But, if the meal is too salty, too bitter, or badly performed in my opinion, I just say so. But I didn’t have many remarks lately.
What will you include in the new upcoming menu?
There will be a couple of salads, maybe another pasta, but it’ll be something local, like Istrian fuži with truffles. We plan to add rožata to desserts, since it’s Croatian; I prefer rožata over some pudding or panna cotta. We currently offer chestnut mousse and we might as well leave that one because it’s our original dessert. I found an old 1947 pudding recipe and changed it a bit. I live and learn, each day finding out something new, and trying to use that in the kitchen. There will be a couple of new dishes, I haven’t quite finalized them, so I don’t want to announce them just yet in case I drop some. I also plan to simplify the menu.
Here are a few more tips and tricks from Marko.
How to salt meat?
Some people advised me to salt the meat before cooking, others to salt during the cooking. Some say not to salt it at all, just rub some coarse salt in when making marinade and leave it be. Whatever they say, I realized the best way to know what’s right is to try it out on my own.
Is broth truly is a must in the kitchen?
Yes, it’s a must. I prepare soup and have plenty of stock left for the meals.
Do you turn steaks just once?
It’s true - it’s best to turn steaks only once. But I turn some meat several times, like pljeskavica, to release more juices and grease, while it’s better to turn other meat just once not to dry it out. But if you roast a beefsteak hard (which in my opinion is a sin, comes down to eating a regular fat steak), you have to turn it more then once because otherwise it will burn on one side. Or you can bake it very slowly, but people are often too impatient.
What type of cheese do you use when cooking?
I love fresh cow cheese. Then there’s inevitable gorgonzola and parmigianno.
Any advice on crumb frying?
When I fill something with cheese, I crumb twice, especially if it’s rolled. Eggs, bread crumbs, and then again eggs and crumbs to seal it up.