Chef of the Week: Chef Peeter Pihel, Sustainability Meets Culinary Art
We’re thrilled to feature this week an Estonian chef who is making this world a better place, not only through fantastic cookery, but by also embracing sustainability and a zero-waste mentality.
Meet Chef Peeter Pihel, Head Chef at Fotografiska, a restaurant in an internationally recognized museum of photography in Tallinn, Estonia.
Peeter has an impressive resume, with a global experience from top restaurants in Estonia, Sweden and France. In his home country, he was the head chef at Alexander restaurant on Muhu Island, a restaurant that’s been nominated as the no 1 restaurant in Estonia for several years.
Back to his current stint at Fotografiska, Peeter is making an impact through food and an eco-friendly mindset. “Fotografiska uses the power of photography to unite, spread awareness and create a positive impact in society. This mindset is well integrated in everything we do. By following our vision of inspiring a more conscious world, we aim to raise the level of awareness and question what we eat, drink and take for granted – nudging society towards more sustainable habits,” says Chef Peeter Pihel.
Chef’s Pencil has sat down with Peeter to discuss his career, Estonian food, Fotografiska, and sustainable food.
1. What inspired you to become a chef?
There is no great story to how it happened really. I had to find a profession that would be decent and bring food to the table and being a chef literally does that.
But on a more serious note, it was after high school when I had to decide whether to continue playing football or to become a chef and I have never regretted my decision.
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 think that school is important for the base-knowledge, getting the fundamentals, although I have quite a lot of friends who have never been to cooking school and have learnt through working and that often is the best way.
When you are young, it is important to work in different places to learn varied techniques and different signatures of head chefs. Later you can choose what you like.Chef Peeter Pihel
3. Tell us a bit about Estonian cuisine? What makes it special and what are the top Estonian dishes we absolutely need to try?
Estonian cuisine is largely based on seasons. I am sure it comes as no surprise that I am very happy about the fact that we are climatically situated the way we are.
Another important influence has come through the foreign rule throughout our history – Russian and German – and so that is part of our food culture and we cannot change the history.
4. What’s the best travel destination for a foodie in Estonia?
Well, being from Saaremaa then I would obviously recommend going there, especially in the summer.
As Estonia is small enough and each place has its traits of characteristic tastes, I would also recommend a visit to Lake Peipsi to meet the Old Believers and get to know their traditions. Southern Estonia and the food culture of Setos is also a must!
5. Tell us about your work at the Fineart photography centre Fotografiska? What is the concept and what was the inspiration for the menu?
Yes, Fotografiska is a modern photographic art center with a restaurant for almost 100 guests on its top floor with a view of Tallinn’s old town.
I hope that being under the same roof with contemporary photography opens up the visitor’s senses and shows the world from different perspectives – inspiring a more conscious world.
This is something we also follow in our restaurant – creating as little waste as possible with how we operate.
We also have our own composter where the little leftovers that still exist go and the compost we make goes back to our farmers who bring us our vegetables.
The menu focuses largely on vegetables and forest herbs and plants and for those who wish to add some protein there are options of organic fish and meat to add to your dish. We also have a roof terrace where we grow our own herbs.
6. The restaurant works with a zero-waste mindset. Why is this important to you and can you give us a few examples of how you achieve this (i.e. zero-waste)
What I like about the zero-waste mentality is that there is still so much to discover and work on.
We do not use cling film, vacuum bags nor foil – covers for pots and boxes were invented already centuries ago.
I think this joy of discovery is what drives us. As some examples, we do not use cling film, vacuum bags nor foil – covers for pots and boxes were invented already centuries ago.
We try to get our produce in with as little packaging as possible. We use organic vegetables and sustainably caught fish.
7. What’s the most popular item on the menu?
That is easy – onion from Southern Estonia baked in compost, served with jerusalem artichoke and sourdough miso cream and jerusalem artichoke crisps to add texture.
8. You have an international food experience working in France and Sweden. What’s the most striking difference between the food scene in France and Sweden compared to Estonia?
Our way of thinking and the tastes we use show definite signs of Scandinavian influence. When working in Fäviken in Sweden, the seasons and the produce were mostly the same as in Estonia.
And working in Paris you always learn new classical techniques and soak up on the whole atmosphere and vibes of Paris.
9. You are regarded as one of the best Estonian chefs. What sets a top chef apart from the pack?
It is hard for me to assess that. I just try to focus on my own things/topics/ niche and do what I do and deliver as well as I can.
I find it the hardest when you cannot execute your ideas in a desired way although in time you also learn to get over that more easily and you should never lose the fun factor when cooking.
10. Do you have a signature dish or a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking?
Not really…it changes in time and with seasons.
11. Do you follow food trends? If so, what is the top trend for 2020 and what’s next for 2021 and onward?
Not particularly as I am quite set with my focus on zero-waste and it seems like a great path of discovery for now, so I am not actively following new trends.
As I mentioned there is a strong focus on vegetables on the menu and that also offers a good deal of rediscovering.
I believe that after this crises, good old comfort food will make an even stronger comeback than we have witnessed so far. I also see an increase in using Asian and Japanese techniques in Europe.
12. What advice would you give someone who wants to become a chef?
Set your concept and become the best in the world in it. Figure out your niche, your thing and become the best at it in the world!Chef Peeter Pihel