DUMITRU IONUT – THE ROMANIAN COOKING SCENE

Romanian chef Dumitru Ionut shares his broad international experience and insights into Romania’s cooking scene.

How did you become a chef?

At the age of 16, I spent too much time hanging around with ‘bad’ guys in Lisbon (Portugal). At some point, my mother had had enough and persuaded me to start training as a chef.

What experience have you had working as a chef in Portugal, Australia, Angola, Germany…? Are there any major differences?

Working as a cook knows no borders, skin colours, nationalities… It’s all about the job itself. As a result, I feel at home whenever I work, no matter where I am. What a great profession. And being able to get to know so many interesting people and recipes through international cuisine is another aspect I wouldn’t want to miss out on.

From my point of view, rules in kitchens don’t vary a great deal from country to country. And at larger and international restaurants, a sauce hollandaise is always a sauce hollandaise. Having sound basic training as a cook makes it easier to adapt to the respective countries.

What was it like in Angola?

Fantastic. I liked the people, the food and the country itself right from the start. When I landed in Luanda, it was as if I’d been there before in a past life.

The people in Angola are really pleasant: They’re straightforward, work extremely hard but are nevertheless very relaxed and happy in what they do. And something that’s not unimportant to a chef: They love good food.

What brought you to Oslo, Norway?

Travelling to Oslo, and Norway in general, is like something off of a picture postcard. For me as a chef, it was the main reason to learn more about Nordic cuisine, which is now so trendy.

THE ROMANIAN COOKING SCENE

If you had your own restaurant in Romania, what would it be like?

A small brasserie on a corner with seating for no more than 25, serving nothing but fresh food – local, seasonal produce wherever possible. With the food, I would try to incorporate my experience working as a chef abroad and to combine this with the local conditions in Romania.

Is there anything in Romania like Wladimir Mukhnin’s White Rabbit in Moscow – a restaurant offering new takes on traditional Romanian dishes?

I don’t know of any restaurants with that kind of approach, unfortunately. Younger chefs do have a go at this every so often. However, in Romania a lot of guests aren’t interested in new interpretations of classic dishes. But I’m sure it will come eventually, because it’s currently a very popular trend around the world and Romania’s cuisine and ingredients tick all the right boxes.

Perhaps it will begin in one of the larger Romanian cities, or maybe even abroad. People there are of course more open and keener to come up with new concepts.

What are some typical Romanian dishes?

Cuisine in Romania, and the country’s cooking scene, are influenced by all sorts of ethnic groups. For example, we have Hungarian and Austrian influences in Transylvania, with the traditional Palatschinken pancakes, meat and herb dishes, but also influences from Turkey and Greece with lamb dishes, aubergine casseroles and dishes containing sheep’s cheese.

Romania’s borders run along the Danube and the Black Sea, and consequently fish dishes play a major role – such as grilled sturgeon, stuffed pike, salted carp and spicy fishcakes.

Soups of all kinds, whenever and wherever, are a must in Romanian cuisine.

In addition to soups, typical appetisers include various pâtés, stuffed eggs, sheep’s cheese salads and, most importantly: mashed aubergine (salată de vinete). In Romania as well as the neighbouring countries to the south, aubergines are cooked in their skin directly on a grill or stove, before being peeled and mixed with garlic and vinegar. This preparation method gives the mash an incomparably smoky and aromatic flavour.

Maize flour polenta (mămăliga) is a traditional farmhouse food.

Sarmale are cabbage or vine leaves that are stuffed with meat, vegetables and rice and then pickled.

Today, the Turkish, Hungarian and Austrian influences are still most striking in Romanian sweets, in the form of all sorts of sweet pastries involving nuts.

Are there Romanian restaurants abroad?

Yes, but as far as I know only in places with a large Romanian community, where they are then very traditional in order to satisfy people’s longing for tastes from home.

Is the practice of hiring a cook widespread in Romania?

Surprisingly yes. It’s been popular for some years now and the trend is growing.

What is the biggest trend in the Romanian restaurant scene?

Fast food – in both the good and the bad sense of the term. What’s bad is that people have less time for good food and just want to feel full quickly, which is attracting all kinds of international fast food chains to Romania. The good part is that, now this segment is here to stay, people are trying to cater to it with healthy ingredients and innovative products.

Are many Romanian cooks returning from abroad?

Only a handful, because although Romania’s economy has started to fare slightly better, the working conditions for highly qualified chefs still aren’t that great, and investing in opening your own restaurant is still far too expensive for most cooks. So the Romanian cooking scene still has a long way to go.

Is Romania home to any Michelin-starred restaurants?

Not yet, unfortunately, but I do think there are a number of good restaurants that would – and do – deserve a star.

Are pop-up restaurants a thing in Romania?

No, but I hope they start to appear soon. Chefs from abroad would be welcome to get the ball rolling!

Are food trucks very common in Romania?

Yes. There were ten food truck festivals in Romania during the first six months of this year alone, and they are attracting increasingly large crowds.

Neighbouring Bulgaria has a number of restaurants which offer local dishes cooked from ingredients from the surrounding villages. Does anyone do this in Romania as well? 

Not yet, sadly. For many restaurants, cost plays a decisive role. At the moment, we Romanians are inundated with cheap and sadly often poor-quality ingredients from abroad. This doesn’t always help Romania’s cooking scene. For people in smaller towns and villages, local produce is standard. People in cities just couldn’t comprehend the idea of eating simple country dishes at some unaffordable 5-star establishment. So that just leaves the few wealthy foreigners.

Another, arguably bigger, problem is the fact that our agriculture is being monopolised and internationalised. Unfortunately, the former structure of small farmers and cooperatives has no place anymore, and no financially viable way to survive. We also have worrying restrictions when it comes to the biodiversity of our vegetable crops. We are seeing our basis – traditional, diverse and healthy cuisine – being lost before our very eyes.

That should be incentive enough for us as cooks to counteract this trend from our kitchens, and to start demanding precisely these products once more. The Romanian cooking scene has so much potential.