Issue 1, 2018. February-March

   

PRESERVATION OR INNOVATION? A DEBATE RAGES AS GEORGIAN CUISINE GOES GLOBAL

Georgia's rich cuisine is gaining popularity with foodies around the world. But at home, the debate about the future of the food-preservation or innovation-is far from decided.

Tatjana Montik

Georgian cuisine is in vogue these days. Praise for Georgian dishes is spreading, as wine lovers and foodies around the world learn about the country's rich culinary traditions.

But some Georgian chefs are concerned that a debate raging at home over how far and how fast Georgian cooking should evolve past its signature dishes could dampen the country's gastronomic rise. Issues of food safety and overall standards also threaten to overshadow Georgian cuisine's growing popularity, according to some industry specialists.


Pushing Borders

Over the past several years, Georgian cooking has caught on outside the former Soviet Union, with restaurants opening in capitals around the world.

Take the German capital Berlin. In the past two years, the number of Georgian restaurants has increased to seven. Mzia Chiburdanidze, co-owner of the restaurant Mimino in Berlin's fashionable Fasanenstrasse, says this is a good sign. "Competition is good for business as well as for Georgia as a country," she says, noting that Georgian restaurants abroad play the role of ambassadors of Georgian culture.

Moving Past Post-Soviet Fame

Chiburdanidze notes that the 70 per cent of her restaurant's clients are people from ex-Soviet countries. But "more and more German visitors are starting to appreciate Georgian food and Georgian wine." Dishes like khachapuri, eggplants with nuts, mtsvadi from veal, pork and sturgeon, as well as chanakhi and chicken tabaka, are very popular with the restaurant's clients.

"Maybe ten years ago, mostly post-Soviets made up the majority of the clients in Georgian restaurants abroad. But now the situation at least in the United States has changed," notes Tekuna Gachechiladze, a successful Georgian gastronomist and owner of three legendary Tbilisi restaurants, Culinarium, Cafe Littera, and Khasheria, who has spent years working in the restaurant industry in the United States and in Germany.

"How otherwise would you explain that such prominent newspapers as The New York Times and The Washington Post are publishing articles about Georgia, its very special exotic cuisine and about the Georgian restaurants opening in the USA with such regularity recently?"

She adds that the Georgian restaurants that opened in the USA in recent years are more modern, lighter and more adapted to the recent food trends and, therefore, more popular with the locals and not necessarily only with Russians and post-Soviets.

Tiko Tuskadze, the owner of a prominent London restaurant, Little Georgia, which already has two locations, confirms that the popularity of Georgian cuisine is growing as a consequence of Georgia becoming more and more known as a travel destination and popularized as the cradle of wine. "Look how much coverage there is now about our country in the English-language press, and you will understand why Georgian food is gaining popularity. Our good wine has becoming more and more interesting for Westerners, too. And when people learn about our wine, they automatically become interested in our food," she says.

Her restaurant's clients include visitors not only from Britain or the post-Soviet countries, but also France, India, Japan and China.

"I think when people who are carrying the traditions of great cuisines like the Indian, French, and Chinese are coming to taste our cuisine, maybe we Georgians are entering the culture of great culinary traditions, too?" Tuskadze enthuses.

Tradition vs. Evolution

Gachechiladze, who loves experimenting with Georgian cuisine, is less euphoric. "Being aware of the traditionalism of the Georgian society," she said, "we should be less proud of the popularity trend of our traditional cuisine abroad. Instead, we should work hard at our food standards and develop our cuisine further, as it was stagnating too long during the Soviet period. Otherwise, our cuisine will end up as Peruvian cuisine did: we saw the rise of its popularity a few years ago, but this trend quickly went down, as the Peruvians did not do anything to develop it."


Chef Guram Baghdoshvili agrees.

Baghdoshvili, who is running a culinary show on Rustavi-2, has years of experience as a chef in Russia and Portugal. He also helped establish some prominent restaurants in Tbilisi and Batumi. But Baghdoshvili believes that his countrymen "don't love gastronomy. They just love food," which, in his opinion, is not enough.

Higher Standards, More Education

"At the moment, we have a lot of catching up to do in the gastronomic sector. Five years ago, a chef was not an honored profession in Georgia at all. And we still don't offer a proper education in this profession. Many chefs only cook according to their own standards concerning quality and taste, as we don't have any overall standards. This must urgently be changed. Fortunately, we have some good restaurateurs and chefs, such as Tekuna Gachechiladze, Keti Bakradze, Levan Kokeashvili and Levan Kobiashvili, working on this issue," Baghdoshvili said.

Baghdoshvili wants to change the mainstream perception of Georgian cuisine in and outside Georgia. This month, he is opening a new restaurant, Anona, in central Tbilisi. He is planning to offer innovative cuisine, a kind of Georgian-Mediterranean fusion. Baghdoshvili is also trying to break the old ways of cooking through his TV show, which is based on the highly popular Australian TV project "My Kitchen Rules."

He noted that even young people aged 16 to 20 are watching his program and learning new cooking approaches from it. The chef dreams of establishing a boarding school for underprivileged children, where they can learn food industry professions, where they can learn professions and skills in the food industry, such as cooking, waiting, barkeeping, and accounting. "I want them to study a general education program together with their profession and to earn their own money to be independent once they start their careers. If this project can be brought to life, our colleges will provide professional guidance not only for Georgia, but also to all fifteen post-Soviet countries," he said.

Gachechiladze has been trying to break the Georgian cooking traditions established in the Soviet period. Some of her innovative dishes have already become Georgian culinary classics, such as, for instance, ghomi balls with almond sauce or chakapuli made from mussels. Gachechiladze is convinced that Georgian culinary traditions require an urgent makeover, as "in the Soviet times we were obsessed with maintaining our ancient traditions, to keep them untouched, just to survive. It was in the culture, in the language, in the cuisine."

"Before [the Soviet Union], Georgian cuisine was more refined, more aristocratic, and if you look into old Georgian cooking books you will find recipes like sauce bechamele and plombier," she said.

"What we have today are mostly recipes from the standardized Soviet cuisine," Gachechiladze said, noting that while "'fusion' is now a fashionable word, Georgian cuisine has been a pot of different tastes and influences for centuries. Our location on the Silk Road was of major importance to our cuisine. If you look into Georgian classic cuisine, it is a mixture of Persian, Indian, Chinese, European, and Russian tastes. We have adopted all these cuisines very well and made our own unique cuisine out of them. Now, I am intentionally doing what we were doing during for centuries."

Her urge for innovation started in 2008, when a passing comment by a visiting French chef made her realize what was going on in Georgian restaurant culture. "A famous chef from France, Allain Passard, was visiting Georgia and we brought him to different Georgian traditional restaurants. After five days of trying different famous restaurants, he told me that he wanted to meet the chef of all these restaurants. He thought it was a chain of restaurants with their signature dishes. He was surprised to learn that there were different chefs. He was collecting the menus, asking me 'How can the menus be the same?,'" she said.

"And then I thought that something is wrong with the restaurant culture here. I realized that there were 35 dishes, and all of them were the same," she explained.

Preserving a "Culinary Museum"

Eduard Sikharulidze, chef of the famous Tsitskhvili ("Mill") restaurant based in Tbilisi's Dighomi district, argues, however, that tradition is a vital part of Georgian cooking.

For Sikharulidze, the most important thing in Georgian cuisine is having fresh and high-quality products, but not touching old recipes. "Our restaurant is a kind of culinary museum," he said, "and we cherish our old recipes so much that the cooking process is for us a holy ceremony. Each dish we prepare from the best products-the quality of which I check every day when our suppliers deliver them to our premises. We have a doctor working at it, too, and a special appliance checking the groceries for nitrates. For instance, our meat only comes from Georgian cattle and poultry."

Tinatin Lominadze, a former housewife who now teaches cooking classes out of her home, also worries about unchecked innovation. Lominadze provides culinary master-classes together with wine-tastings not only for people from the former Soviet Union, but also for German, French, British and American guests. "Our cuisine is unique, and it is able to open the hearts of even strong introverts. Georgian culinary art teaches people to look at life from a slightly different point of view, one with a Georgian accent," she said.

"The value of our cuisine lies in our old traditions, which should stay untouched," she added.

Lominadze noted that there is a danger in the growing popularity of Georgian cuisine: "For example, old recipes can be distorted and then popularized by inexperienced bloggers who often share something with others of which they have no idea at all."

Meeting International Standards

Regardless of whether Georgian chefs opt for the traditional recipes or create new versions, the country is doing a good job in improving food safety standards, according to Hendrik Kuusk, an Estonian working as an international long-term adviser within the Georgian National Food Agency. His specialty is the whole food chain, starting with food safety and ending with state support to the restaurant sector.

"I cannot say anything bad about the food standards in Tbilisi. In the capital, you have many so-called open-kitchen restaurants, so the customers can see what is being cooked and what others are doing in the kitchen. Those standards are up to international level; I have nothing to complain about: how they manage the food, how they manage raw materials. All the materials they use are fresh."

He added, however, that the situation is a bit different outside the capital.

In general, Kuusk said, "food safety is developing quite well in Georgia."

"If you compare it to 2010, when I started to come to Georgia, there was absolutely no kind of food safety or veterinary or animal control existing. Those were different times. Now the system is working. The National Food System of Georgia is well-trained and more training is ongoing. Judging from the state side, I can say this. And from the customer side, let's say these standards are good."