Nikola Milovanović, 30, is a young Serbian chef, who presently specialises in Asian cuisine, with a CV that includes several prestigious Belgrade restaurants like Violeta Kućo Stara, Grand Casino, Salaš, ABC and Žabar. He now works in Iguana, a restaurant particularly popular among foreigners in Belgrade.
Milovanović is a fan of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria, who he says are responsible for developing molecular gastronomy and promoting the understanding that cooking should not stop at being a craft, and that constant improvement is a must. Milovanović spoke to Southeast Europe: People and Culture about his understanding of Serbian cuisine and the growing presence of global culinary trends in Serbia.
Is there such a thing as original ethnic cuisine?
Any national cuisine is a collection of recipes, characteristic of a particular people. The cuisines in our region are similar because of past influences so I believe that none of them are entirely original, but they do have their peculiarities. For example, it is well known that cooks in Dalmatia are masters at preparing fish, while Leskovac reigns supreme in the realm of grilled foods. Serbian cuisine is a mix of Turkish and Austro-Hungarian dishes. Authentic specialities in any cuisine are always a matter of perspective. I am aware that the majority of people might not agree with me, yet I think that ajvar (relish, made principally from red bell peppers), kajmak (cheese similar to clotted cream), duvan čvarci (a kind of porc crisps), and pihtije (aspic-like dish made from porc) are authentic Serbian foods - in spite of their Oriental origins.
How receptive are people in Serbia to the art of food preparation?
The art of modern food preparation is taking hold in Serbia, but there are prejudices and stereotypes insofar as modern is seen as something pricey and insufficiently filling, something that leaves a person hungry, so that the majority of restaurants serve traditional dishes for fear of going out of business.
What makes a good cook?
A good cook knows that they must constantly hone their craft and love their job. Love of the job is the motivation to keep working at it all the time, with lots of stress and the will for new ideas. Although I've heard that one can get satisfied just from the scent of cooking, to tell you the truth, I have never had this happen to me.
How does the typical day of a Serbian cook look?
I start out by planning the daily menu, checking the quality of ingredients, and then move on to getting ready for serving time, which is the pinnacle of everything. I am currently employed in the Iguana restaurant. I am trying to learn as much as I can about Asian cuisine, because I am fascinated with their cooking techniques. The majority of foods are cooked only briefly so that the composition of the meals corresponds to today's notions of healthy food. I am especially interested in the variety of spices and flavours that you can get.
Do think that a cook should cater to the "mass taste" of restaurant goers or do you prepare dishes according to your own standards?
No, a good cook must never bow to the taste of the masses, but remain charismatic enough to convey their vision of a dish to the rest of the staff and guests. Maybe the best road is direct communication with the guests. You could say that the job of catering consists of small creative moments, in this case the tone of a meal that you will be discussing at work the next day or with friends.
When you're preparing food do you always stick to tried recipes or improvise more and let your imagination run with it?
If we're talking about musaka or Bolognese sauce, meatballs or something like that, than there is no real wisdom to that. You shouldn't change recipes that date back more than 100 years, because I respect the people who have been producing foods in a particular way for generations. Nevertheless, I like to improvise and I do this by taking a couple of ingredients and arranging them according to gastronomical principles or by following my own vision.