Chef of the Week: Ants Uustalu, Ööbiku Gastronomy Farm, Estonia
Meet Ants Uustalu, the Head Chef and owner of Ööbiku Gastronomy Farm, an old farm in the middle of the Estonian country-side transformed into a charming restaurant.
Ants gets inspiration from local raw materials and traditional cooking methods. He uses Estonian meat, lamb being his favorite, and dairy products from the region and vegetables grown by local farmers.
His goal is to create delicious dishes with respect and love to local and raw ingredients.
Chef’s Pencil has talked to Chef Ants Uustalu about his career, restaurant and Estonian cuisine.
1.What inspired you to become a chef?
During my childhood I loved to stay at our family summer cottage and then I started to cook for myself. One of the first dishes I remember was a milk soup with macaroni.
2. Where did you train to cook? Do you recommend formal training for someone who wants to become a chef, for example culinary school?
I studied in a local vocational school at Saaremaa (my home island and the biggest island of Estonia) and a few years after that I went to London for 3 years. So, I got my strong cooking skills basics from there.
3. Tell us a bit about Estonian cuisine? What makes it special and what are the top Estonian dishes we absolutely need to try?
I think the trademark for real Estonian cuisine are the pure tastes and textures of the local ingredients, the fish tastes like fish, carrot like carrot. The variety is offered by the four seasons and the berries, mushrooms, and wild animals from our forests.
When eating in Estonia you need to try out an amazingly simple dish called Mulgipuder. It is a mix of mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, barley, and pork neck.
Real Estonian cuisine are the pure tastes and textures of the local ingredients, the fish tastes like fish, carrot like carrot.
4. What do you regard as the quintessential Estonian ingredient and dish?
For me the quintessential ingredient is rye and the dish is Estonian dark rye bread.
5. What’s the best travel destination for a foodie in Estonia?
The whole of Estonia itself including its islands is a destination for a real foodie. Although Estonia is a small country it offers lot of regional varieties. The best starting point for the journey is of course Oobiku restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Raplamaa.
6. Tell us about your work at Oobiku Gastronomy? What is the concept and what was the inspiration for the menu?
Oobiku Gastronomy is a lifestyle place. In the beginning of the summer of 2013, I opened Oobiku pop-up restaurant in a shed on the Oobiku farm with max 12 seats and it became a huge success.
Today the restaurant is operated in a fully renovated, 100-year-old Oobiku farmhouse and is open all year around as a fixed 5 course menu dinner restaurant with pre-bookings only.
The menu is not published and remains a surprise for the guests right up to the point the dishes are served. The main reason for this is our desire to use mainly local produce from nearby farmers/producers. The seasonality and limited availability of the produce provides the inspiration for creating the menu again and again….
7. What’s the most popular item on the menu?
Throughout all the years the most popular dish is a low heat charcoal grilled local lamb. Local farmer Mr. August grows them only for my restaurant and the quality of the meat on his lambs is a guarantee for a great dish.
8. You are known for using local produce to create your dishes. Why is that important to you and why do you think that using local products is not embraced by more chefs?
Using local products is much more time consuming then ordering the goods online from a big wholesale supplier. To get the best ingredients available, you must meet the producers, get to know them and their products to use their ingredients in the dishes.
As my restaurant is in the middle of a forest, I also quite often use wild animals on my menu. Local hunters offer great variety and a few weeks ago we even had beaver on the menu.
9. You are regarded as one of the best Estonian chefs. What sets a top chef apart from the pack?
Cooking with dedication, passion, and love.
10. Do you have a signature dish or a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking?
My favorite dish differs depending on the season. Mostly I enjoy cooking lamb and wild animals on charcoal.
11. Do you follow food trends? If so, what is the top trend for 2020 and what’s next for 2021 and onwards?
I like to do food travelling and from these experiences I don’t look so much for new trends, but for inspiration for myself.
Food trends are not something created by someone, they are born from a mix of different aspects, like people’s increased knowledge of healthy food, the importance of local produce etc.
12. What advice would you give someone who wants to become a chef?
To become a chef, it is enough to know the basics. To become a great chef, you need to acquire as much experience as possible from different cuisines, countries, cultures, and then be able to incorporate this knowledge into your dishes.