CHEF TALKS: An interview with Chef Kaido Metsa from JUUR
Silverspoon 2017 winner: Best Estonian cuisine
Juur is an interesting establishment. Located in the Ülemiste City, it is a little off from the beaten track when it comes to high-end restaurants. On the other hand, when you are famous, people will come to you. The amount of space required for Juur’s unorthodox methods of cooking turns the place huge. Standing in amazement I am caught by the commander-in-chief of the Juur’s kitchen, Kaido Metsa.
Down to earth, yet innovating
Kaido shows me around the restaurant. A lot of peculiar equipment is stored on the shelves. Some of which you find in a laboratory and some, I imagine, my grandmother used when she was tending her garden.
Chef Metsa explains: “We grow here a lot of ingredients by ourselves. Now we want to have everything in one room. That’s why the office has to move outside”. The office room, which Kaido points at, is going to become a greenhouse for herbs and fermentation projects.
We sit down at a table in the dining room. A waitress, Angela, comes to ask if we’d like some coffee. I nod the affirmative. Kaido crosses his arms on the table. The sleeves of the chef’s jacket rolled up reveal several scars and burn marks on the arms. His signature kitchen hardware, the little tongs, are hanging on the apron. Crew-cut hair and physiques of an ox provide a respectable appearance. No wonder people listen to him despite his young age.
The coffee is brought. A glass object resembling a wine decanter, and held by the waitress, delivers the soothing bean infusion into the wine goblets covering for my usual patinated steel mug I use in the mornings.
We start talking about Juur and chef Metsa himself. He has made a reputable career since his graduations from culinary school in 2012. Metsa started his career in “the good old” Egoist in Tallinn. The restaurant is closed nowadays. Kaido then moved around different restaurants. 2016 he came second in the Chef of the Year (Aasta Kokk) competition, losing only to Alexander Kolomar. Since chef Metsa established himself in Juur, the restaurant took the award of the best Estonian cuisine. Metsa says he has had some guests over whom were interested in the best Estonian cuisine on the market. The thing is, defining Estonian cuisine has been a bit of a problem.
What is the Estonian cuisine?
“I don’t know what that is”, exclaims Metsa. “We want to use local products as far as we can but does it make us an Estonian cuisine restaurant?” Chef Metsa is asking. Speaking of local products, Juur also has two gardens near Tallinn where they grow their legumes. Foraging for berries and mushrooms is done by several individual people. The lamb meat, Juur uses, also comes from a single farmer.
Kaido goes on and shows us a lamb skull he plans to hang on the wall.
I glance at my vegetarian colleague on my left: “I told you it’s a vegetarian-friendly place.”
Kaido smiles: “The thing is, I want to honor the animal with this. If we kill it for food everything has to be used. There is too much bio-waste in Estonia.”
It is a funny controversy to understand. While the average restaurant is serving the traditionally most expensive cuts of meat, the fine-dining restaurants focus on making use of the less expensive and, perhaps more demanding, parts of the carcass. In skilled hands these cuts and parts turn into an culinary experience, we refer as ‘fine-dining’. Creating that culinary experience is what institutional restaurants are looking into.
Recreating the old
But what about the Estonian cuisine issue? The discussion goes on.
Along the past years the young chefs in Estonia have sort of rediscovered their backyard. As Kaido points out, the problem is not dealing with the small producers themselves, but in obtaining the required quantity. The season for foraging is short, so it requires a lot of manpower to collect and store everything before it goes bad in the woods. Then there are the strict health regulations. Metsa explains how he was unable to get certain meat at one point when the producer couldn’t keep up with the laboratory tests required for the meat served in restaurants. When this is the case with a single restaurant, like Juur, the issue is much worse with bigger establishments employing a retailer in the middle. The retailers simply don’t have enough supplies.
Another thing is the cuisine itself. What constitutes traditional Estonian cuisine? Metsa tells us how the chefs of the restoran Ö were dining at Juur some time ago. “They just told me to cook something for them. I made slightly tuned-up “Kartulid ja hakklihakaste” (Potatoes and minced-meat gravy) out of fermented potatoes and pork. The taste of the fermented potatoes is quite exquisite.” That should be very traditional! Sometimes the head-chefs of the institutional restaurant need to order a few bars of dynamite, along with their usual daily orders, and blow up the shackles of traditional frames in order to re-create the dishes our grandmothers used to serve us with.
Showing the way forward
When we walk through the Juur’s kitchen, I see this recreation in process. The kitchen does not look at all like a chaotic structure of hot pans, shouting sous-chefs and cooks, burdened by the never-ending slip of paper coming out from the ticket machine. Instead, a tranquil atmosphere is looming over the tables where chefs prepare one ingredient at a time and polish it to its perfection. This is what the life of a culinary institution looks like. The cooking is experimental.
Juur uses high-tech equipment to control temperatures and pays extra attention to the quality of ingredients to be able to reproduce that combination of flavors the mind of the chef once came up with. Later the guests and critics find value in some of the experiments that the restaurant served. These are instantly copied by other restaurants.
“One of my sous chefs went to eat in a restaurant in southern Estonia. They had an almost exact copy of one of our old desserts in their menu,” Metsa points out. This is how it works and that is what separates Juur from a large number of other restaurants. Their job is to innovate. Kaido compresses his thoughts when he says: “It seems that some people would like if I created the Estonian cuisine now, since we won the award.”
I guess it means chef Metsa should definitely go to work tomorrow as well.
Chef Talks is a new Silverspoon Awards story series dedicated to introducing the hearts of every restaurants kitchen, the Chef’s and giving the readers a chance to learn more about the Top Chefs in Estonia.
The author, Juho Kääriäinen: a yesterday’s chef and a today’s hedonist, who consumes gastronomy in all it’s forms. He likes his steak “as kitchen sees fit”, and prefers Global-knives instead of MACs.”