The Gastronomy theme has been a popular topic recently, and we asked Zeljko Knezovic, an Executive Chef of Regent Porto Montenegro to tell us more about the emerging fine dining scene in Montenegro, share his recipe for a successful team and his biggest passion for his job.
#mnetoday Where do you come from and where did you train as a chef?
ZK: I was born in a small town in Bosnia-Hercegovina, where I went to culinary school. After finishing school in BH, I traveled to Croatia to study gastronomy and worked along the coast, starting in a French restaurant with a Chef who had been awarded two Michelin stars. This was when I first started cooking seriously and understanding how to prepare food. Then I slowly moved around the coast; I worked in Kempinski, after that I completed an internship in Noma in Denmark, then continued working at a friend’s restaurant, where I was in charge of the restaurant’s operations and finally I moved to the Lafodia Hotel, on an island near Dubrovnik. I worked there as a Chef for 3.5 years before deciding to move here. I’ve been in Montenegro now for 3 years.
#mnetoday Do you have a “signature dish” or favorite dish you enjoy cooking? What are your essential ingredients, the things you couldn’t live without?
ZK: I believe that I have a few. The most important ingredient for me is an egg. I like to prepare and experiment with eggs; they are my favorite items of food.
#mnetoday Which cuisine do you most enjoy eating?
ZK: So far I enjoy experiencing Thai street food: there are millions of spices contributing to the explosion of different textures, scents, and tastes. I believe that one can explore the tastes of fish, meat, seafood and pretty much everything else in the best way. This year I’m traveling to Barcelona and Madrid. I also like Mediterranean food, mainly fine Italian cuisine suits me well and is complementary to my philosophy of fresh herbs and fresh fish.
#mnetoday What is the most exciting or fun experience from your time in restaurants?
ZK: Every day is a very dynamic day in a kitchen; one cannot predict what might happen. I do try to organize everything in an optimal way, however, the unexpected always arrives when its least expected and that spices up the day; and it may turn out to be good or not so good. Every day brings a handful of new challenges.
#mnetoday What do you do to stay educated about new trends?
ZK: The trends are booming and sometimes it is hard to keep up as every new Michelin tour guide introduces a change. Every year a new wave comes along, new restaurants open and each of them tries to either apply the trends or to create a unique style. When I have the opportunity I like to travel, to visit other countries, taste different food and learn more about their working patterns and the specialties of each region and country. The internet helps a lot now, especially during peak-season, when we are very busy and I cannot move for six months. I spend at least a few hours each day searching and looking; all my social network profiles are filled with pictures of food. The thing that I always say to my colleagues is that the difference between an extraordinary and a good chef is someone who, during their own spare time, will spend at least an hour or 30 minutes researching their own field of work in order to expand their minds and horizons. This contributes to the way we think. Perceiving our own tasks as a game, enjoying them, finding different ways to see different things and applying creativity with a lot of hard work and discipline is the path to excellence.
#mnetoday What do you do to keep the high quality of the food going out to your customers?
ZK: It is a challenge to keep the standards and consistency. We maintain this by daily monitoring, close relationships with our suppliers, searching for the very best items and offering only the best. Constant training and coaching and challenging our own colleagues, in the best way possible, is the method that I practice daily.
#mnetoday Is there a chef you admire the most? Who and why?
ZK: I have a few of them, however as I started working in a French restaurant at an early age, French cuisine grew on me and especially French Chef, Gill, that I worked with. Cooperating with him changed me for good due to the fact that he introduced me to an abundance of French cuisine. At the time I was coming from a regular restaurant on the coast and I did not have much experience in fine dining, he taught me and showed me how to prepare true French cuisine dishes. I believe that I started thinking differently since then.
#mnetoday Do you remember any advice from him?
ZK: No, he was just screaming all the time [laughing]
#mnetoday Speaking about that, what’s your Chef’s style?
ZK: In the kitchen it’s always like an army, you must know your own task the best and at all times. If you have ten people and one is not good, then the chain is broken: one mistake can lead to a lot of other mistakes. This is really important. Maybe I was tough when I was younger, but now I like to have a good atmosphere. Of course, we must all know what must be done and which task should be completed at which hour. My colleagues follow the instructions, however, since I appreciate good teamwork and a good atmosphere I try to balance criticism and praise. There are many situations when the Executive Chef must show his people when and how they are making mistakes, however, as stated – I always try to maintain a balance.
#mnetoday How do you challenge or motivate your team?
ZK: I believe, this is a question to ask them. [laughing]. I’m trying to keep everything balanced; the most important thing is for them to enjoy cooking, despite the stress, the rush, and the tension. They should enjoy 90% of what they do.
#mnetoday When you are at work, what is the most enjoyable moment for you?
ZK: I like adjusting the menu, I like tasting the new menu items and changing the concepts and menus. Every three months we change the menu. I like to taste new things and this is the real motivation for my team as well. An example is the Olive day that we recently held.
#mnetoday What is the modern kitchen gadget you couldn’t live without?
ZK: Knife and tweezers since we are serving micro herbs.
#mnetoday What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
ZK: My mother would cook pig-brains; my sister loved it, but I did not like it. I tried fried crispy ants, honestly, they were nothing special. I tasted brains, chicken and beef hearts.
#mnetoday What advice would you give to home? chefs who are inspired by your style of cooking?
ZK: My cooking style is Mediterranean. I use a lot of fresh herbs, this is the most important ingredient in my kitchen, as well as olive oil. There are plenty of herbs around the mountains, it is important to love and to enjoy using them. With spices every single dish can be fully transformed into its own best version!
#mnetoday Why do you think the Balkans does not have a restaurant with a Michelin star yet?
ZK: We have good ingredients and we have a lot of influence in terms of gastronomy from Hungary, Italy, and Turkey. The problem here is that restaurants usually operate for a short time, therefore their lifecycle is usually very short. It takes time for a restaurant to reach the Michelin level, it takes many years of hard work. It does not happen overnight. In other countries, the restaurants are open for 10-15 years and only after that can they count on receiving a Michelin star. Montenegro is an emerging destination for fine dining. I am looking forward to the new phase that the Adriatic coastline is entering into: where each region and or restaurant is defining its own style and stepping away from a very standardized menu and we can now find this in each and every restaurant along the coast.
Now it is changing, and I’m happy for that because new chefs are emerging. I believe that in five years’ time it will reach us, we just need to keep this pace.
This is what I enjoy the most at work – changing the menu since I want to show people that change is possible and I like to introduce new and fresh changes. It is better that the only constant is change and growth in order to attract people to something new while still keeping the balance.
#mnetoday Are you happy with the first “Game of Chefs” event?
ZK: I hope that the guests were very happy with the “Game of Chefs”. It was the first of its kind in the region. I think the Chefs that I invited represented the countries that they are from in a very good way. We have already started preparing for next year when we plan to invite international Chefs and some other creative plans are ready which we will keep you posted about in due course such as the open kitchen day etc.