Chef of the Week: Chef Deni Srdoč, Croatia’s Youngest Michelin-Star Chef
Few chefs have achieved as much in their entire career, let alone in their 20s, as Croatian superstar chef Deni Srdoč.
One year later, at the age of just 27, he earned the highly coveted Michelin-Star, making him one of the youngest Michelin-star chefs out there.
Chef’s Pencil has talked to Deni about his career, work, Croatian cuisine, and future plans.
Story put together with the help of the Croatian National Tourist Board.
1. What inspired you to become a chef?
Although my initial plans went in completely different direction when I started studying electrical engineering, my love and passion for food and kitchen took me, I believe, to the right path.
The desire for developing and improving our traditional cuisine was far too strong than exploring the laws of physics.
2. Where did you train to cook?
After the first year of studying, I decided to quit it and went to a private cooking school in Split which was a perfect starting point for the type of cooking I had in my mind when I pictured myself as a cook.
I was also very lucky to get the best possible practice during my internship with some of the best chefs in the country, starting with Dino Galvagno, a true kitchen master and later with Zdravko Tomšić, the first head chef of Draga di Lovrana who was my mentor and a person I learned most of.
3. Tell us about your work at Draga di Lovrana?
Being a head chef doesn’t mean I just supervise the process, I feel I need to be a part of every step from choosing the ingredient to presenting it on the plate.
Every detail is equally important, from cleaning the fish and finding the best way to use all its parts to developing the idea of presentation until it’s nearly perfect, although it never is and that is a good thing because you never stop to think about improving.
I’m trying to encourage my team to be involved in the process as much as they can and sometimes those ideas are so new and fresh that I decide to let them invent and develop an entire dish for the menu. Their success is my success also, knowing I’m a part of their progress.
What is the concept and what was the inspiration for the menu?
Since I started working in Draga di Lovrana I had a clear vision of the menu I wanted to present and I thought the only right way is to get the best of the unique position of the hotel, placed in the middle between the mountains and the sea.
It was the perfect canvas for my ideas of our traditional cuisine but filtered through all the modern techniques known in haute cuisine.
Having our own fish boats and daily fresh fish and seafood just made it more easy to complete the picture of the menu connected with the nature around the restaurant.
The Mount Učka provides us with spices, wild herbs and vegetables which we handpick, sometimes even in front of our guests to make them feel the generosity of nature, what we sometimes forgot consuming ready to cook food from the supermarket.
4. What’s the most popular item on the menu?
Sometimes the most simple dishes can be a total hit because guests don’t expect such flavour development of the ingredients they already know.
We had some great popular dishes as hake in our special onion and fenner marinade, homemade dumplings with capon and marjoram which was a true flavour explosion, and one special recipe for slowly baked lamb from the island of Plavnik which our guests rate as: complex and mouthwatering.
5. You have received your first Michelin at a very young age. How did that impact your career?
To be honest, I didn’t expect to be awarded so soon although my mind was set to that idea once in the future. I did promise myself not to forget what made my cooking Michelin star worthy and just gave me a stronger wind in the back to persue my ideas and concept.
Of course, It did make me quite noticeable in the media which is a good thing for the restaurant marketing itself.
Innovation is the most important thing for me – never to recycle old ideas and presenting them as new but always respecting the ingredient and the tradition
6. Tell us a bit about Croatian cuisine? What makes it special and what are the top Croatian dishes we absolutely need to try out?
For such a small country, the Croatian cuisine has many varieties completely opposite one from another. It is because of the position of the country which goes from being influenced by Hungarian cuisine and other continental cuisines to typical seafood cuisine and the one I prefer the most, North Mediterranean and Istrian cuisine just because of the variety of ingredients and flavors to combine.
You shouldn’t leave Croatia without trying our most popular dishes as peka (baking bell), lamb on a spit, grilled wild fish, and some continental specialties as sarma and stuffed peppers.
You shouldn’t leave Croatia without trying our most popular dishes as peka (baking bell), lamb on a spit, grilled wild fish, and some continental specialities as sarma and stuffed peppers but I believe there are some very unique dishes not so well known but very traditional in some local areas like krčki presnac and šurlice from my home island of Krk, then soparnik and komiška pogača from Dalmacija and many others.
7. What do you regard as the quintessential Croatian ingredient?
Without too much thinking I would say that Adriatic sea provides so many delicacies as wild fish, Kvarner scampi and lobsters and also let’s not forget high quality truffles from Istria.
8. How does the fine dining scene in Croatia look like?
It is getting better each year. It is always risky to make investments in fine dining restaurants being aware that it is still getting it’s audience, but we see that we have several few very ambitious projects every year and more Michelin star restaurants so I believe the future is very bright.
9. You are regarded as one of the best Croatian chefs. What sets apart a top chef from the pack?
Only innovation, I would say. That is the most important thing for me, never to recycle old ideas and presenting them as new but always respecting the ingredient and the tradition. Constantly improving yourself is never ignored.
10. Do you have a signature dish or a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking?
The simpler, the better. Local Istrian stew called žgvacet was one of the most populars meals we prepared for the restaurant team so we made several changes and transformed it to one of the stars of last years menu. Anything can be a challenge and inspiration.
11. Do you follow food trends? If so, what is the top trend for 2020 and what’s next for 2021 and onwards?
I’m always up to date with all new techniques but I don’t follow trends, especially when experimenting with traditional cuisine. I’m more into setting my own trends and encouraging others to look up some old almost distinct Croatian dishes and transform them in something never seen before in fine dinning restaurants.
12. You have won many awards and achieved so much already. What do your future plans look like?
As said before, my idea is to be a synonym for modern yet very traditional cuisine. Croatian history is very rich with forgotten recipes so I have enough to work with. I’m not thinking about years to come, I still have a lot to master for some future plans that are still just my wild ideas.
13. What advice would you give someone who wants to become a successful chef?
Be realistic about your ideas but don’t easily give up. The most important thing is to find the way you’re most comfortable in and then your talent with develop by itself.
And don’t expect anything to happen over night, because the rarely do. This is hard and exhausting work but can be very awarding If you set your mind to it.
Story put together with the help of the Croatian National Tourist Board.