Chef of the Week: Silver Saa, Head Chef at Ore, Tallinn
We are thrilled to announce a series of articles showcasing the burgeoning Estonian food scene and we’re starting strong with one of the best Estonian chefs out there.
We’re excited to introduce Silver Saa, Head Chef at Ore, a top-rated restaurant located in the heart of Tallinn’s beautiful old town. Ore has been rated one of Estonia’s best restaurants for several years in a row, which speaks to the mastery and consistency of its head chef.
Chef’s Pencil talked to Silver Saa about his career, Estonian cuisine, and his work at Ore.
1. What inspired you to become a chef?
I used to be a street artist and a part-time dish washer in a pub. After graduating high school I needed to pick a career. I wanted to go for graphic design but I missed the trials, so my second option was to become a chef. I thought I can do design on plates as well. A very childish approach, but it worked for me. I couldn’t see myself sitting in an office all day.
The thing I love the most about being a chef is that it’s a never-ending learning process, which also means every day in the kitchen is going to be different. I feel that’s so empowering.
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 went to cooking school. I can’t knock it. It will give you an edge if you absorb everything they teach you. But the school really didn’t inspire me. The first time I felt really moved by cooking was during my mandatory school stage back then at the best restaurant in Estonia, Ö. Which was led by head chef Roman Zaštšerinski.
His passion, commitment and work ethic really moved something inside me and so from that moment on I was totally committed to learning and refining my skills and approaches to cooking.
So I guess what I learned is that if you want to become a chef, it’s not the school that makes you, it’s your attitude and approach to cooking. You need to be willing to fail and really make the most of your failures, make them work for you. Nobody gets it right all the time, it really comes down to how you approach your failures and what you take away from them. I use them to get insight and figure out why things did not work on how I wanted them to and then make adjustments and try again, until i get what I imagined, wanted.
3. Tell us a bit about Estonian cuisine? What makes it special and what are the top Estonian dishes we absolutely need to try out?
For me Estonian cooking is all about seasonality and simple produce. Our cooking DNA has been altered by different regimes and countries. But for me on an emotional level it’s about celebrating what comes from the farm and the forest. For me, Estonians are drawn to forests, because there is an abundance of it, almost 50% of the country is made up of forests.
So foraging, being seasonal and using old preserving and cooking techniques is what the local kitchen is all about. I guess that goes for many countries, but for me, foraging is something I believe that sets us apart from the pack. Our bogs, lakes, beaches, different forests and landscapes continue to form the most important part of my creative process.
Estonian cooking is all about seasonality and simple produce. Foraging is something I believe that sets us apart from the pack.Silver Saa
I think you need to try “Mulgipuder“, which is boiled potatoes with barley, lard, onions, and crispy pork. It’s a dish on its own, done right it’s a luxury. I’m also a big fan of roasted river lamprey, the town of Narva is famous for it. It’s such a treat with some sourdough, mayonnaise and freshly pickled onions.
And I can’t forget to mention Kama, which is a local thing, a ground mix of dried peas, rye, wheat and barley. You mix it with some kefir (fermented milk product) and add sugar or honey. Some prefer it with salt, but I’m more of a sweet tooth.
4. What do you regard as the quintessential Estonian ingredient and dish?
For me it’s any kind of onions. It’s such a versatile ingredient and plays a key role in most of the classic dishes.
5. What’s the best travel destination for a foodie in Estonia?
Setumaa. It is an experience all of its own.
6. Tell us about your work at Ore? What is the concept and what was the inspiration for the menu?
Being chef/owner means that I run the kitchen and deal with my share of the day-to-day running of the restaurant. I have to be a chef, leader, apprentice, pot washer, computer engineer, marketer etc.
Mostly I try to plan for the future and look for new products, possibilities and really analyze what and how I’m doing things. I really feel I am only at the beginning of my journey; there is so much I have yet to learn. My cooking is very conceptual.
Every dish starts with an idea, I don’t find beauty in just putting things on a plate and serving it, I feel it devalues my work and the experience. So I approach each dish with a vision, it starts as an idea, that can come from literally anywhere.
Then I draw it up and try to make it work on paper. If it works on paper and I know how we can use all the excess that we might have leftover, then i will move on with trying it out.
For me it really needs to be a closed cycle of production, with minimum, if any waste. Ideas are usually driven by season, emotion, ingredient. Creating dishes is really like a form of therapy, the feeling when you get from 0 to 100 is priceless. It’s exciting every time.
7. What’s the most popular item on the menu?
Beetroot tartar with wild garlic, shiso and cured egg yolk. We go through a lot of beets.
8. You worked as a chef at the Savoy in London before moving back to Estonia. What’s the most striking difference between the food scene in London and the one in Tallinn?
The first thing that comes to mind is diversity of cuisines and dishes. London is a melting pot of culture and cuisine. The menus and staff at the Savoy really reflected that. Whereas back then in Estonia only a handful of restaurants was doing something different, most were playing it safe and focusing on what made tourists happy.
I guess the market here was more business and client-driven back then whereas now chefs are playing the leading role. I am very grateful for my time there. I was exposed to so many things at the same time, the steepest learning curve of my career for sure.
9. We’re told that mushrooms are your favorite ingredient. What are the most delicious mushrooms that every foodie needs to try out?
Yeah, that’s very true. It’s one of my passions for sure. The first ones that come to mind are gypsy mushrooms, saffron milk cap and Chaga.
10. You are regarded as one of the best Estonian chefs. What sets a top chef apart from the pack?
I think you need to have experience, a strong work ethic, be knowledgeable and be yourself. For me all these things go hand in hand and don’t happen overnight. It takes time, there is no such thing as an overnight success.
11. Do you have a signature dish or a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking?
I enjoy baking and preparing desserts. The combination of craftsmanship and science is something I really enjoy.
12. Do you follow food trends? If so, what is the top trend for 2020 and what’s next for 2021 and onwards?
Not consciously. I put a lot of hours into looking for new flavors, techniques, ingredients and dishes I have yet to try. But I don’t approach it as looking for new trends, I’m just looking for ways to improve myself and my team.
On that note I predict that we will have more chefs and kitchens driven by the idea of zero waste. We will ditch unhealthy practices and be more mindful about how we approach our work, business and guests.
The keyword for 2020 is adapting and survivingSilver Saa
The keyword for 2020 is adapting and surviving. I really don’t see any time for food trends at the moment, but hopefully after this current health crisis passes we will see more of the things I mentioned.
13. What advice would you give someone who wants to become a chef?
I suggest you dedicate yourself to the craft. Go and work at places where you learn and feel inspired. Don’t worry about the money, it will catch up with you down the line. Move along if you feel you have learned all there is in one place and look for a new challenge. Document EVERYTHING. I mean this.
So many chefs get this wrong, they work hard but don’t write anything up. Notes, recipes, scribbles, doodles will all form great reference points or become a possible source for inspiration down the line. Most of my signature dishes are compressed versions of time, dedication and proper note keeping.
While you are doing all of this don’t forget to stay true to yourself, being yourself is what sets you apart from the pack. Invest money in books and take your time to “stand on the shoulders of giants“. Figure out what makes you tick and don’t copy, forge your own path. Otherwise, you might end up being really confused about who you are as a chef.
Lastly don’t forget to take care of yourself. Strive for a healthy balance in every aspect of your life.