A Croatian Success Story: Chef Marko Gajski – from Masterchef to Michelin Star
There is a very American success story happening on Croatia’s Adriatic coast. An IT graduate, passionate about cooking, joins Masterchef, the amateur chef reality show, which sets him on a dream path to win a highly coveted Michelin star.
But it’s not really as easy as it sounds. Marko’s determination, dedication, and sacrifice sets him apart from the pack. Getting to the top is never easy, even if you’re a culinary genius.
Marko is an inspiration for all amateur cooks that dream big of a famed culinary career. Yes, you can do it!
Read on to see what it takes and what success at LD Terrace looks like.
Story put together with the help of the Croatian National Tourist Board.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I would have to say it was the 2009 crisis. It pushed me into an experience that changed my life forever. My friends applied me for the first Croatian Masterchef and I liked it.
Where did you train to cook?
To be honest I started cooking on the show. After that I got a job offer. I didn’t have any options and I needed a job, so I started working as a commis chef and dishwasher at Divino restaurant on Hvar island.
One thing led to another and after a few months the executive chef left in the middle of the season and the owners didn’t have any options, so they offered it to me. I found it very challenging and accepted it. Crazy right?
After that I saw that there are so many things to learn and I needed to learn quick, so from that minute I invested every minute of my life to get better.
That was a life changer for me, after that my view on gastronomy changed completely.
Tell us about your work at LD Restaurant? What is the concept and what is the inspiration for this season’s menu?
Before LD I was exploring my gastronomy signature. When I met the owner of LD, Michael Unsworth, I realized that we had the same perceptions about business and gastronomy.
I was ready for great things. I just needed the right dancing partner and LD was the perfect choice.
My philosophy is that food is more than feeding. I wanted to create a moment of thrill and joy, with perfect balance of tastes. The most important things are the ingredients. My focus is on perfect ingredients and then there is always some background story, some inspiration. Sometimes inspiration is a person, a moment of joy, a dream…
If we choose our proteins, vegetables, and fruits in perfect shape then our job is not to ruin them, our job is to present them with the right techniques and imagination to our guests.
What’s the most popular item on the menu?
There are so many things that have made our guests happy for the last three years, but if I have to choose I would say Komiška pogača, my interpretation of a famous dish that comes from Komiža, a village on the island of Vis.
It has two of my favorite ingredients, salted anchovies and tomatoes. For this creation I was helped by an experience that I had in Massimo Bottura’s restaurant: the crunchy part of his lasagna inspired me to create Komiška pogača.
Secondly, Mediterranean gyoza or prawn gyoza. I was always crazy about gyoza and always wondered how to present that comfort food as a fine dining dish.
Asian cuisine has a lot of influence on me, but I wanted to use Asian techniques with Mediterranean flavors. So I started like always, with the ingredients – prawns, but the trigger or idea was gyoza, and then imagination.
We made prawn gyoza using the shells to infuse the butter, which is the base for our mousseline sauce with chili, then oven dried tomatoes and chive salsa. The dust comes from the rest of the shells and fried legs. Now we need some acidity so we use wine vinegar and infuse it in some daikon to get some texture. And after all of that the magic is there.
How did you feel when you were awarded your first Michelin star?
I was thrilled. Everything I dreamed about has been fulfilled. All the sacrifice from the past 10 years, I had put everything to one side for this.
For our team it was the best day and the saddest day – everything was perfect except one thing, our crucial team member, our F&B manager and main sommelier (Dražen Matković) had passed away that winter and it was his dream too. So we were full of joy and sadness at the same time.
How much of an impact did the Michelin star have on the restaurant?
From that moment, our email and phone rang all the time. From the beginning of March, we were completely full for most of season. This Covid situation has interrupted everything, but we are going to be ready for our guests and we are going to continue our philosophy, no matter what.
Tell us a bit about Croatian cuisine? What makes it special and what are the top Croatian dishes we absolutely need to try out?
Croatian cuisine is the most exciting in the world because it has had a lot of other cultural influences through its history. We have Italian, French, Austrian, Hungarian, and Turkish influences in our cuisine. We have the Adriatic Sea and just a few kilometers behind us we have mountains, forest, fields…
Almost everything within just a few miles. The potential is huge and for the last 10 years there has been so many great chefs and restaurants presenting modern Croatian cuisine.
If I have to go from region to region, I would like to say that you need to try Kulen from Slavonija, Zagorski štrukli from the northern part of the country, Istarski fuži with truffles in Isria, lamb from the island of Pag, lobster buzzara from Hvar, Žrnovski makaruni from Korčula.
What do you regard as the quintessential Croatian ingredient?
Black pig from Slavonia, scampi from Kvarner, potatoes from Lika, oysters from Ston, and fish and olive oil from Dalmatia and Istria. I would also have to point out that Croatia has more than 100 indigenous varieties of wine, which is also crucial for our gastronomy.
What’s your favorite place to visit in Croatia?
That is a very hard choice because Croatia is such a beautiful place, we have beautiful countryside, lakes, and mountains in the continental part, a beautiful coast and islands with the clearest sea on the planet.
My choice would have to be the island of Korčula – for me a little heaven on earth.
You are regarded as one of the best Croatian chefs. What sets a top chef apart from the pack?
It is very hard to speak about yourself. I would point to my strengths which have helped me to succeed in this world.
Determination: for me there is nothing that is impossible, we just have to work harder and to focus more.
Social intelligence is a very crucial thing [for a top chef] because we are working with a lot of people every day in difficult conditions and you need to be a leader, to set an example, not be an arrogant bastard.
Team: focusing on the strengths of your team, because if you want to achieve something you need to have people you can trust and you can rely on. Honesty: I’m always honest with my guys. This is a very difficult job, not just physically but mentally also.
There are times when the team is exhausted and you need to tell them that tomorrow is not going to be any easier, it’s going to be even harder, and expect them to come happy and ready for the next day.
Do you have a signature dish or a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking?
I enjoy cooking all of my dishes, but if I have to choose from our signature dishes, it would be our favorite dessert chocolate caramel ganach, as well as our Komiška pogača and Foie gras with salted caramel.
What advice would you give someone who wants to become a successful chef?
If you are not prepared to give everything to this profession, then don’t expect to be successful.
Your best piece of advice for amateur chefs?
Just enjoy the food you are making and never make excuses.
Featured image credit of Marko Gajski: William Anthony.
Story put together with the help of the Croatian National Tourist Board.