Ante Valentekovic – Croatian Executive Head Chef speaks about the culinary art of Croatia
Ante Valentekovic has been working in gastronomy since he was a young boy. His first job in a 4-star hotel also sparked his love of cooking.
Today Chef Ante sheds some light on Croatian cuisine, tells us what Croatian cooks do outside of the summer season and where he would like to gain some experience as a cook someday.
Ante Valentekovic – The culinary art of Croatia
You are an experienced Executive Chef and currently live in Korčula, Croatia. Where did your cooking career start?
During my school days in Zagreb, I was working seasonally for a couple of months during the summer in the Adriatic. Throughout the summer, there is a great demand for workers in all areas, especially for caterers, so it was not a problem to find a job even though I was only 16 years-old at the time.
As an apprentice, I worked in a couple of places but my first real chef’s job where I fell in love with what I was doing, was in a 4-star hotel, where the executive chef was a culinary academic. Given the situation in the nineties in Croatia, there were not a lot of hotels and restaurants that operated in the French system or even cooked international cuisine.
That was my discovery. Depending on the region – by the end of the nineties, 90% of the restaurants in Croatia had similar menus so it was difficult to learn something new if you did not change jobs frequently, so it is easier for today’s young chefs because they can find a lot on the internet.
Which culinary school did you attend first in Croatia?
I went to a catering tourism school in Zagreb.
Croatia became a tourist hotspot in the warm months, especially on the coast. But what do the cooks do there in winter?
Croatia is a country that thrives in tourism during the summer months, as well as the chefs. There are hotels and restaurants that work in the winter in larger towns and the rest of the smaller towns and places sort of hibernate over the winter. Many chefs seek work outside the country in places such as Austria, Germany and Italy, in places that have a winter season, and for that reason they do not have permanent employment because we are a summer destination. The exception being the capital and a couple of bigger cities, and when the winter season ends, they return, and some remain working and living in those countries.
How would you best describe Croatian cuisine?
The best Croatian cuisine is a cuisine with fresh ingredients. We have the sea, the fields and the mountains. You can buy fresh fish that was caught this morning, or find fresh picked parsley, tomatoes or vegetables of all sorts at the market. We are quite traditional, many people cook at home, so, those things are important to us.
The Croatian cuisine is Mediterranean with its own character. Why are there no other Croatian restaurants in other countries? I mean, you see Italian restaurants everywhere.
Croatian cuisine has a great Mediterranean influence, but it has lesser-known influences of other cuisines such as German, French, and Hungarian. Let’s say when you come to a restaurant in Dalmatia, the main ingredients are fish, olive oil and tomatoes, it could be said that’s the Italian influence.
Slightly north in Istra, they add truffles as the main ingredient. A few kilometres north in Zagorje are various mushrooms, cordon bleu, heavy soups, smoked meat, strudels, you see already the influence of French and German cuisine. In the east of the country you have meat stews and fish stews, river fish and various doughs and meals that have a Hungarian influence.
Each region has its own specialties, so it is difficult to narrow-down Croatian cuisine and pick dishes from very region to represent a menu.
The big trend: traditional country kitchen, in a new and modern interpretation. Do you also offer something like this?
Yes, we have modern cooking techniques, fresh ingredients and tradition. If you put everything together, you will get something really beautiful.
Can you share some of your current creations with us?
I would not say that I have creations, but I have my own interpretation of various creations.
For example: fresh tuna, onions, carrots, garlic, figs, mustard and honey.
Using various cooking techniques, you get from these ingredients the dish called “fresh tuna with fig caviar, young vegetable, garlic coulis, mustard & honey sauce”.
Where do you get your inspiration for new creations? (creations of top chefs on Cook Concern)
I get the most ideas in nature, sometimes I get an idea when I see an interesting piece of meat, fish or fresh vegetables or spices.
What are some of the lesser-known spices you use and in what creations?
I would say “Levisticum”, with which we season sauces and soups. There are more similar spices, but that is specific to this region.
What are some of the lesser-known ingredients that you use and in what creations?
“Samphire” definitely! A plant that can be used for many purposes, like for salads, sauces, pickled or as a dessert.
What are some of your unique cooking techniques?
I use a variety of cooking techniques for each dish. I would not point out a specific one because you can use every technique in your own way.
Since you know Croatia well – What are the current trends in the culinary scene of Croatia?
The Mediterranean cuisine is still the number one among most chefs. The Asian and French cuisine make a smaller impact. I would say most cooks are guided by the combination of these three cuisines.
Is there a place in the world where you would like to work as a chef someday? (international job offers on Cook Concern)
Spain and France are great places to gain some experience as a Chef.
Thank you for your insights, Chef Ante!
When did you know you want to become a Chef?
Tell us on Cook Concern!