At some point in the career of the truly ambitious culinary professional, there arrives a luminous moment of epiphany in which it becomes abundantly clear that both personal development and advancement in the field will require some travel. This is especially true if you’re an ambitious culinary professional in the relatively isolated and oddly underexposed culture of the United States, a vast land with one foreign country as a neighbor (Canada does not count). You must visit Other Places. One can roast with indirect heat, but learning without direct contact is a tepid substitute for immersing oneself completely in the culture, traditions and conditions of life that waft about a particular gastronomical idiom like so many rich, lusty aromas. Far flung adventures and misadventures are mandatory. You must be as a hungry, wandering lamb, ever sniffing after the fickle Teat of Knowledge, and suckling all the more resolutely when it denies you a proper supper. Perhaps my own story will serve to illustrate the necessity.

It was early 2007, and I was working broiler and sauté at Spiro’s, an old-school Greek fine dining institution in my hometown, St. Louis. I’d worked for the Karagiannis family at Spiro’s before, and I was brought on in November of ‘06 when the holiday season was getting underway. It was around this time that I also began writing and editing commercial copy for a travel agency based in Zadar, Croatia which specialized in culinary travel, or ‘gastrotourism’ as they term it over there. Allow me to explain.

Being from St. Louis, a burg begun by French fur trappers, I have grown over the years to learn what linguists, for the sake of convenience, refer to as the Serbo-Croatian language. My high school and college years spent studying Russian were likely at the root of this, but it helped that St. Louis became the nation’s largest Bosnian refugee depository during Yugoslavia’s disintegration, and was already home to a few generations of Serbian and Croatian immigrants. Of these ethnic groups and others from The Artist Formerly Known as Yugoslavia, each speaks a mutually intelligible dialect of the same South Slavic language. It’s most accurate to say that I speak Croatian, but I understand Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin, Macedonian and a bit of the other South Slavic languages.
With that said…

The mountains of Croatia and, especially, the surreally splendorous Istrian and Dalmatian coasts have been popular retreats for Europeans since the days of the Habsburgs and well before. The Balkan wars of the early 1990’s put a bit of a damper on that for a few years, but once the newly independent Republic of Croatia had recovered from its own homeland war, the tourism and hospitality industry eventually began evangelizing to the world over the Internet. This amounts to a lot of opportunity for a freelance copy writer who knows the language, and I began writing and editing for a few agencies in late 2005. Connection begat connection, and so eventually I was turning out copy for one Alan Mandić, the owner of Culinary Croatia in Zadar. Villas, boat charter, a room in a castle or a secluded dinner for two on a tiny island: You name it, Alan can get it for you in Croatia. When it became known to him that I also cook for a living, and that I possess a deep love and appreciation for regional Croatian and Slavic cuisines, our friendship in food was sealed. It would prove to be a good friendship to have.

It was late winter, business at Spiro’s was slow, and Stevie, the Karagiannis family’s clown prince with a heart o’ gold, sat down with me one night on a milk crate out back to inform me that some cuts were overdue. One of the other outposts in the Spiro’s empire had suffered extensive fire damage a few weeks prior, and the company was hemorrhaging money. And, I was cut from the schedule. I could tell he didn’t enjoy having that conversation with me. Stevie’s a good man, and we’ve had drinks since then. You could do much worse than stopping in and having the lamb shank at Spiro’s next time you’re in St. Louis.

Not three days after this unsavory development in the future of my solvency, a position opened at Bogey Hills Country Club, where another colleague from Spiro’s had signed on as sous chef. Bringing with me to the interview the glowing letter of recommendation Stevie had written and my unbridled enthusiasm for being gainfully employed, I secured a position as saucier and line captain. I was back in the saddle in a gleaming, well stocked kitchen with plenty of shift hours, creative freedom and a non-hilarious salary. The menu was easy, banquet and brunch production were orderly and well systematized; I relaxed into auto pilot mode and started collecting paychecks. And then things got interesting.

About a month into the Bogey Hills stint, I received word from Alan in Zadar that a new hotel was opening in Marina, a fishing village on the Dalmatian coast about a half hour from Split. A Zagreb architecture firm had acquired a historic tower there, built in the 16th century as a summer home and fortified refuge from Turkish invaders for Marcello, the Venetian bishop of Trogir. The proposed menu concept was enlightened by Balkan standards: Mediterranean-nouveau derived from traditional Dalmatian and Venetian dishes and techniques. The hotel needed a chef, and they were hoping for a non-Croat to bring some new perspective to the development of the kitchen. This particular firm, owned and operated by the visionary Croatian architect Davor Žuvić, had been involved in various historic restoration projects around Croatia, most notably contributing to the rebuilding of Dubrovnik after the war. This was the brass ring, an opportunity to make some small contribution to an amazing culinary tradition, surrounded by history. I sent my portfolio to Zagreb and waited.

There is something about Slavic cooking that provokes strong emotional responses in people, even if they’re not Slavs. You’ll witness a subtle transformation of facial expression as they take the first bite; the weight of life is wiped from the countenance. It is a look of all-encompassing fulfillment and total surrender to the meal. Slavic cooking warms, fills and allows you to forget the pain of life which, considering Slavic history, is a hardwired genetic memory more burdensome and deeply rooted than anything an American can comprehend without experience. Thus there is a tendency to keep your good people well fed and close to you, and in Balkan and Eastern European homes you find that the table is the absolute epicenter of family existence, not the television.

The aim of Slavic cooking is not to impress with complex technique or florid presentation. It is, after all, a culture accustomed to oppression and poverty. Rather, excellent ingredients are prepared simply with minimal embellishment and allowed to shine as what they are. It is most definitely not food as lifestyle accessory or status symbol, such as that which American consumer culture would have us believe we should pursue. Theirs is not a restaurant culture, and the Slavic soul almost reflexively rejects commercially produced food as inferior. The preference veers toward solid, soul-warming sustenance prepared with locally derived ingredients by someone from the family or circle of friends.

Though they are highly skilled in creating gorgeous pastry, Slavs are not terribly precious about what their food looks like. They are happy to have food, and they wish to eat it rather than view it. The fuss and posturing over plate presentation that we see in popular culinary culture today have nothing to do with their idea of quality. These resilient, virtually indestructible people place little percentage in trendy ingredients amassed into the non-sequitur coiffures of creative self-indulgence we expect to be served in a class of gastronomical masturbatorium improperly termed here as  a restaurant. That particular cultural artifact is a mutation of the non-provincial French culinary perspective we’ve eagerly adopted. More simply and precisely, food on the Slav’s table must be imbued with heart and soul to be considered truly nourishing, and 86 the bullshit.

The traditional cuisine of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast adheres to this aesthetic while retaining the color of a dizzying array of influences. Dalmatia could arguably be considered the one true border between the Eastern and Western worlds, and a crossroads of countless cultures through the millennia. It was in the mountainous terrain of coastal Dalmatia, at Klis Fortress near Split, that the Mongols, under the leadership of Genghis Khan’s grandson, Qadan, experienced their first major defeat and were forced to halt westward expansion of the Empire. History aside, the topographical splendor of this place inflames the heart and rouses the soul. Islands haunt the salted mists of the sapphire Adriatic, and the heady perfume of lemons, rosemary and lavender dances on the warm breeze. Dalmatia is a scarcely believable place, a living Slavic-Mediterranean fairytale etched into an epic landscape.

And, so, it should come as no surprise that such a place is home to a vibrant culinary idiom. Dalmatian cuisine is defined only in part by its healthy, organic ingredients, skillfully coaxed from stubborn land and pristine seas by a resourceful people. There are also millennia of tumultuous history influencing its flavors, written in part by the Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Croats, Slavs, Venetians and Ottoman Turks. Each of these and others have spilt and mingled blood and culture for thousands of years there.

The notion of paying tribute to a traditional cuisine while adding in some small way to the idiom was most appealing. I wanted the executive chef position at the bishop’s tower. And I got it.

The call came from Zagreb a week after I’d submitted my portfolio. It was Valentina, the firm’s director and project manager. She informed me that Hotel Marinska Kula was opening in two months for the 2007 tourist season. After some negotiations, it was agreed upon that I would enter into a five-year contract with the firm and helm the kitchen. Valentina then informed me that I needed to be there in one month’s time to begin planning the menu and operating procedures. There was also the matter of establishing residence permission in Croatia which, she assured me, the firm would provide every resource at its disposal to help expedite the process.

I gave a month’s notice to Bogey Hills. Valentina wired money for a plane ticket, and away I went to begin discussions with the architect at the firm’s headquarters in Zagreb. We set about planning the menu and operating procedures while the final touches were being put on the tower. It quickly became apparent to me that while they had the best of intentions, these people had no idea what they were getting into. At one point over the course of a week of brainstorming, there were probably seventy-five dishes on the menu, each with some idiosyncratic aspect or another preventing ingredient cross utilization. There was still some time to illustrate the how’s and why’s of doing things in a way that wouldn’t destroy us all, but not much time. The tourist season was beginning and would soon be in full swing on the coast. I had formed my Croatian business entity and gotten my residence status to a point of acceptability from Zagreb’s perspective, and so we drove to Marina.

Renovations on the tower looked to be a good six months to seven years from completion. It is a six-story stone tower, and there were only five men on loan from nearby Bosnia working on it. But I was under contract, drawing a salary, and there was plenty for me to do. I gave the situation the benefit of the doubt. I am, as a culinary professional, after all, not unaccustomed to witnessing last minute miracles, and so I saw no reason to fear the worst. I rented an amazing apartment on the water overlooking the Bay of Trogir for next to nothing. I made good friends in Marina, and began getting to know remarkable people: descendants of Uskok pirates, veterans of the Homeland War, subsistence farmers and fishermen and, most importantly, knowledgeable exponents of the Dalmatian culinary tradition.

Gule, the local clown prince with a heart o’ gold, was hired to be my outdoor cook at the Hotel Marinska Kula. He became my most loyal and trusted friend in Croatia. He showed me the best places to collect herbs and mussels (When he attempted English, he called them his “secret positions”). When my residence paperwork was fouled up, he went with me to Trogir to sweet talk the bureaucrats with the silver tongue all Dalmatians are born with. He taught me the fine art of cooking everything on fire the Dalmatian way: grilling fish perfectly, baking bread, and roasting meat and octopus under the peka, the Illyrian dome oven with ten thousand years of history. Gule also educated me in Marina’s unofficial food, wine and spirit trade and introduced me to the local artisans who were my neighbors. Whether it’s smoked meats and sausages, cheese, wine, brandy, or vegetables, shopping in Croatia is often a matter of visiting with your neighbors before going to the supermarket. It’s not illegal to sell food from your home in Croatia. And given the appetite of the people, your neighbors are the real source for real food.

By midsummer the hotel was nowhere near complete, and so my job essentially consisted of revising the menus and operational procedures repeatedly, watching all five, sometimes four, sometimes three construction workers drink beer. The rest of the time I swam in the Adriatic, drank local wine and cooked for European girls on holiday with Gule in his backyard and on the beach. Not a bad gig. I also spent time with the fishermen and artisans of the village as an apprentice of sorts. I watched, listened, helped and learned. Nothing with the hotel was happening as planned, but I got an education you can’t buy, or even earn. I was on the Dalmatian coast, living with the Dalmatian people, absorbing the soul and traditions of millennia.

My Croatian started to take on the laid-back maritime accent and inflections of the Italian-influenced Dalmatian dialect. I bathed in the sea. I harvested and ate mussels whenever I felt like it. I got a great tan. I was living as a Dalmatian: barely working, enjoying the bounty of the sea and land, surrounded by the warmth and camaraderie you only find in little villages. In Marina I felt like I’d found the home I’d always imagined. Some of the local women were beginning to talk about me marrying their daughters, moving into family cottages and working ancestral land. Living as one of them with no intention of leaving, I suddenly understood the food and its connection to the way of life in a way I hadn’t expected. I had planned on busting my ass in the kitchen all summer, but got a paid vacation instead.

It was, of course, a little too good to be true for much longer.
Summer was ending, and the steady flow of tourist money in the village was slowing to a trickle. This is when Dalmatians go back to the roots of their way of life. The fishing is better. They harvest the grapes and make wine. They dry figs in the sun and begin fattening the pigs for slaughter in late autumn. Well, they either revert to traditional village existence or they return to Zagreb or Split for a life of relative convenience in the big city, living the rest of the year on their earnings from the summer’s tourism. Marina was starting to empty out, and the hotel was obviously not going to open in time to do any business. Since they’d actually lost a mountain of money on the 2007 season and wouldn’t make another push to open until next year, management wisely (but inconveniently for me) decided that I should probably not be drawing a salary. And so, suddenly, I was not to be paid a single Croatian kuna more. I had a feeling that this was how things would play out, but when you’re living that life in that sort of setting, you wait. You call their bluff and wait to jump ship until just before it sinks below the waves.

I didn’t want to leave Croatia, but it appeared as if the only option on the table for staying at that point was being married off to a village girl and becoming a villager. Sometimes I wish I would have done that, as the Dalmatian people are about as fun and laid back as Slavs come. That’s not to mention the mythical beauty of Croatian women, which is not a myth at all. But there was one problem, and it was a big one: Just before leaving for Croatia that year, I’d re-established contact with an old flame from St. Louis who now lives in Portland. We had fallen in love again, mostly over the telephone and email. I asked her what she thought about me coming to Portland if things didn’t work out in Marina, and she was all for it. I’d never even been to Portland, and I didn’t care. I had learned that any journey will yield unexpected disappointments and treasures, and that you’ll always find something of value that you weren’t really looking for. If I could make it through the shenanigans in Croatia, I figured Portland, Oregon would be a breeze.

So I left Marina in late September 2007. I flew from Split to St. Louis, where I visited with family for a few weeks, then chanced upon a ride to Corvallis, where I quickly found work. When the seasonal slump started there, I pulled up stakes and made my way to Portland. It took me three months to get to Portland from Marina, but I made it.  The girl didn’t work out, but I’ve fallen in love with this city, and have been in the Nob Hill neighborhood since arriving here. Literally. I think I’ve left Northwest Portland fewer than ten times in the last two and a half years. In many ways, Nob Hill is like a little village, and I like that. I’m comfortable in that setting.

A very big part of me remains and will remain in Croatia. My experiences and relationships there taught me more about life and being human than all of my years in America. But I’m in Portland now. The food work I do as a private chef here is a way of framing the village tradition of local artisanship in terms an American can understand. I am a private chef, and I work by appointment. But I’m also still just your neighbor in the village who happens to cook, bake and smoke his own meat. The facts don’t really need any further dressing up, but packaging is part of the American tradition, and I’m in the United States now.

The Hotel Marinska Kula celebrated its opening in the summer of 2010. While there were more than a few instances of head butting between me and the firm, I am grateful to everyone involved for teaching me some valuable lessons. And I miss them. It’s been far too long since I’ve been in the Adriatic Sea, so I think I’d better make a visit to Marina next year. I’ll be sure to leave my expectations behind.