Student Life Series: Chef Mihai Rat, B.H.M.S. Switzerland
Mihai is currently residing in London, UK and is looking to start his first pastry business. Let’s hear it from Mihai.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your passion for food.
My name is Mihai Andrei Rat and I love cooking more than anything in the world. I have lots of different passions from sports, such as basketball, swimming, mountaineering, to gardening and architecture.
I’ve always liked cooking, but I would say I became truly passionate about it in my second year of college.
I started out in the kitchen at a very young age, just 5 years old, helping my mother and grandmother with whatever necessary. Over the years, I developed my own cooking style, trying out recipes, but I didn’t quite have the techniques for creating beautiful, tasty dishes.
In my second year in college, I wanted to make some money on the side so I got a job at a vegan restaurant in Timisoara, a city in western Romania. I was hooked from the get-go and felt incredibly happy that I had stumbled upon this job.
Then came years of hard work, long hours, leg pain, days of doubt, tears, and beer at the end of the work day. My passion has now become a work, lifestyle, and therapy.
Why did you choose BHMS and what line of course did you attend?
It was July 2018 and I was in Cluj-Napoca, a city in the heart of Transylvania, working at a local restaurant (i.e. Livada). It’s a big restaurant and the kitchen was like a pirate ship. The chefs working there at the time were a bit crazy and obnoxious and the atmosphere in the kitchen was terrible. At the end of the month, I decided this was not a place for me.
I then decided to get my culinary education and searched for a school abroad to get out of my comfort zone. I turned to Google and my first option was BHMS. I was contacted by a school representative, who explained everything about the classes, tuition fees, and documents and soon enough I was on my way to Switzerland.
I chose to study Post Graduate Culinary arts, which lasted 1 year: 6 months of study and 6 months of internship.
What cooking experience did you have before entering the program?
Before studying, my culinary experience was beautiful, interesting but chaotic. I jumped from one workplace to another and changed jobs on a whim.
The truth was that I was scared of the work itself, the inevitable kitchen quarrels and other responsibilities in the kitchen. All I wanted was to do fine dining, without having the required experience and know how. Needless to say that was an impossible task.
It was a beautiful experience because I had the chance to work with some incredible chefs and people who taught me more than just simple recipes. They taught me about responsibility, dedication to work, and how to stay cool at times of pressure.
I got taught many interesting things, but two chefs made a lasting impression on me. One of them was the Chef at L ‘alchimiste, a restaurant in Cluj-Napoca, who taught me to be calm, calculated, and to approach the food with seriousness and delicacy.
The second one was Serghei Macovei (operations manager at Livada), who in spite of being incredibly though on me, has made me develop into the chef that I am today.
How was your experience at the school?
I could characterize my experience at BHMS as an extraordinarily constructive one. Besides the meticulous classes, hard exams, and severe teachers, there were so many great activities, fantastic internships, and work opportunities all over the world.
It’s a place where your teachers can become friends and school colleagues your family. If you want to get deeply involved in school activities, you will be appreciated and rewarded for it. Because I volunteered a lot at the school restaurant, I had the chance to work every weekend in Zurich at the Kameha Hotel, making some extra cash.
This allowed me to study in Switzerland, but also to visit the beautiful country with the money earned during some of the weekend shifts. I had the chance to meet many different people and see some amazing places.
How would you rate the working atmosphere where 1) is highly stressful and 10) is relaxed and fun?
I would give it a 6, as from my point of view, if you study hard at a top culinary institution, the atmosphere and people will tend to be become more relaxed than they perhaps appear to be.
It is true that the teachers were very demanding, they always wore a business suit at the table and at classes and used a formal, academic language, but they were understanding with the students that were passionate and highly involved.
I personally enjoyed it and developed some great connections with my teachers.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned there?
In the Contemporary Cuisine class we had to think outside the box. We had to approach ingredients in a new and surprising way, reinvent classic recipes and turn vegetables into foams, emulsions, or essences. I was impressed by the way we managed to combine ingredients, spices, and cooking techniques.
Tell us a bit about your work after graduating and your next goals?
After graduation, I returned to Romania for a short vacation and then I got my first post-graduation job at a restaurant in an upbeat neighborhood in Aarhus, Denmark. I hated it.
We were four people in the kitchen, plus the (crazy) chef. Organization was poor and it was very chaotic. I got yelled a lot and got very frustrated, although I can thank the sous chef for being kind and teaching me a lot of things.
After a while I decided to return home to Baia Mare and I got a job at a local place dubbed the Buffet. It is a brewery run by an old friend of mine with a simple and light menu.
I evolved a lot during my time at the Buffet. I was the sous chef, had to cook all the dishes, keep an eye on the kitchen staff, do the plating, organize the orders, and even washing the dishes.
Now I have moved to London, UK, where I plan to open a small pastry business.
Who’s your favorite chef?
I have two or three favorite chefs. Chef Alex Atala from Brazil is a hero to me because from a punker he transitioned to an extraordinary father and a phenomenal cook. Considered a titan of the kitchen, Alex Atala succeeded by his actions to save enormously large parts of the Amazon jungle simply because he discovered tribes and different species of chili peppers and herbs.
Another chef would be Sean Brock from Virginia in America. I adore this man because he knows the garden and his surroundings better than anyone I know. I really like him and his conceptual because he discovers long-lost recipes and ingredients of Virginia and adapts them to the requirements of today’s cuisine.
He exploits food so much that he takes it to an unprecedented level. Another favorite chef of mine is Alain Passard, who owns the restaurant L’arpege, one of the most expensive restaurants in Paris, France. For me this man is a hero for the simple fact that he always comes out of his comfort zone.
By this I mean that his restaurant currently has 3 Michelin stars and serves only vegetable dishes. Before making this decision, it served meat dishes. Of course he didn’t completely give up meat, fish, or seafood, but 90% of his menu is made up of vegetables. When he made this decision, people were outraged. Some stopped going there but he stayed on top and still owns the 3 stars. He’s a kitchen god.
What is your favorite ingredient?
I don’t have a favorite ingredient. This month, for example, I really like thyme, but next month I might be obsessed with sesame oil and then I dream of dishes that contain sumak or basil.
But perhaps flour is my soul ingredient, because I love pastry, especially French baguettes. I really like working with flour and yeast. I like the idea of working with an ingredient that is alive, like dough, that’s why I dream of my own shop selling unusual baguettes.
What cuisines would you really like to master and why
I would like to develop my know how of Indian and Asian cuisines. I love strong spices and I find myself at home in these cuisines. I love these cuisines because they resemble who I am as person: I have a strong personality, can be very volcanic (i.e. spicy) at times, but I can be also very calm, true to these cuisines.
I really want to know these cuisines because at some point I would like to mix them in Romanian cuisine.