Chef Catalin Petrescu is sushi chef at Argentine Sushi & Steak restaurant in Bucharest, one of the few sushi chefs from Romania.
RoChefs: Tell us about the beginnings of your gastronomic career. How did you become a chef?
Catalin Petrescu: This adventure probably started at the age of 3, when my favorite toy was a wooden spoon… (laughing). I have begun at the age of 17, after attending a private culinary school, while going on fieldwork at Stefan Gheorghiu cafeteria. Later on, I worked in another restaurant until the age of 19. At that time, I was drafted in the Army, and when I returned, I worked for a time as a bodyguard. In 2005, I left for Norway and there I was lucky to work in a Michelin-star restaurant. Since then, cooking has been my only job and I specialized in Asian fusion cuisine – with sushi – and this is what I-m still doing today.
RoChefs: How was your experience in Norway?
Catalin Petrescu: Norway… I worked in a very good restaurant, where members of Norway’s Royal House and other stars were regular clients. Moreover, I loved sushi, and I decided I will do nothing else as a chef. Therefore, I specialized on a sushi style adapted to the Occidental culture – it is by no means a traditional Japanese sushi. I adopted a French fusion, meaning a school of ingredients that are not common to the Japanese traditional cuisine.
RoChefs: What are the most common mistakes the Romanians do when eating sushi?
Catalin Petrescu: I am sorry to say this, but about 90% of them have no idea about eating sushi. The most common mistake would be that they do not know the role of the ginger or wasabi when serving sushi. Almost nobody among the Romanian customers knows this. The same happens with the soy sauce. They all dip the sushi in the soy sauce for several seconds. This is completely wrong – they will not taste anything else other than salty soya. On the extreme side, there were clients who requested bread for sushi, or clients dipping the maki piece into the miso soup. Such clients eat simply to fill their bellies. I try the best I can to educate them and even our waiters are trained to guide them.
RoChefs: In the end, how do we eat sushi properly?
Catalin Petrescu: It depends of the type of sushi you’re having. If that would be a sashimi, it requires only a very brief dip in the soy sauce. The ginger’s role is to clean your taste buds to prepare you for another flavor. If you are eating a single type of fish, the ginger is useless. In the soy sauce, you must put a bit of wasabi to get rid of the possible parasites from the raw fish. In the case of maki, I do not recommend the clients to cut it into pieces with the fork or the knife. The maki is a roll containing certain ingredients, designed with the specific purpose of having a certain final taste generated by the mix of all ingredients used. Maki is already cut into byte-size portions and it should be eaten whole in order to create the taste the chef intended.
RoChefs: Are there differences between Japanese and Romanians regarding the sushi?
Catalin Petrescu: Of course there are, and not necessarily compared to the Romanians, but to all Western people. The Japanese traditional sushi is slightly different from any other sushi – from USA or from Europe. In the Occident, everything is adapted to our taste. The Japanese are preparing the sushi completely differently, using other techniques, focusing on the miso and using a different type of marinating vinegar. We adapted, but our version was good because there are plenty of Michelin-star restaurants on this sushi niche.
RoChefs: In your opinion, which is the most important ingredient in sushi?
Catalin Petrescu: It is not just one. First of all – the rice, which must be a good quality one, cooked to perfection. The soy sauce must have a balance of taste; not the least, the chef’s hand.
RoChefs: In USA sushi is highly appreciated and sought after. We could even say that in America, sushi continued to evolve and develop. How is it regarded in Romania?
Catalin Petrescu: In Romania it is regarded as an expensive dish. It is true that we also have cheaper restaurants, with questionable ingredients quality, but in our country too we could eat well and rather cheap. The sushi trend is growing here too, but it still is regarded as an expensive dish.
RoChefs: Expensive, exotic or just raw?
Catalin Petrescu: No, most clients are not reluctant because the fish is raw, because one could have a cooked sushi as well. Most clients see sushi as something exotic and definitely expensive.
RoChefs: Is it expensive?
Catalin Petrescu: Not necessarily. It is true that there are some expensive dishes, using very expensive ingredients such as foie gras, Kobe or Wagyu. However, there are also cheaper ingredients – salmon is not expensive at all. I consider salmon one of the least expensive fishes.
RoChefs: Speaking of ingredients, they are the key to a successful sushi. How do you procure yours? We know that Romania does not have access to plenty of fresh ingredients.
Catalin Petrescu: It is true; we do not have such great access, especially because of our geographical location. Some 80% of the ingredients, especially the grocery ones, we import from Austria. They have a very large supplier who delivers all over Europe. There are also domestic suppliers, but their commercial additions are triple, so we prefer to import directly.
RoChefs: Tell us something about your Norway experience. We recently heard Chef Nico Lontras saying that Norway succeeded, with the few culinary resources it has, to reach the top of world’s cuisines. How did they manage that?
Catalin Petrescu: They have lots of money there and almost everybody eats at a diner – very few or none at all cook at home. Let’s not forget that their fish market is impeccable. At 10 AM, we were receiving in our restaurant salmon that was fished at 6 AM in the same morning. It smelled of melon – that’s how fresh it was. I repeat, they have lots of money and there you can have whatever ingredient you desire. Their restaurant industry is about 40 years ahead of ours. They also have very good chefs.
RoChefs: Are their chefs Norwegians only?
Catalin Petrescu: Not on this Asian food segment. There are very few Norwegian chefs specialized in Asian cuisine.
RoChefs: Somebody was saying that behind every great chef from the West is a huge team of cooks, among which many migrants, many Romanians.
Catalin Petrescu: Yes, there are many Romanian cooks there, and in UK too. Anyhow, in order to become a famous chef, you need a team, without which you get nowhere, and we have sent lots of good cooks abroad. Unfortunately, they are still leaving. There is a crisis of cooks in Romania. We posted a hiring add and nobody came – they are all gone abroad.
RoChefs: Traditional cuisine vs. international cuisine. Which side are you on?
Catalin Petrescu: International, without a doubt. I am not a fan of the Romanian traditional cuisine, I rarely eat such dishes, especially sarmale (cabbage rolls), and it is not my area of expertise.
RoChefs: Do you believe we have a chance of evolving, of turning our traditional cuisine into something better that could be sold?
Catalin Petrescu: We do, especially with chefs such as Nico Lontras. He actually enjoys this cuisine and is great at it. Leaving aside the fact that we are good friends, he is one of the best chefs in Romania. Unfortunately, at the international culinary events, as it happened recently, we are represented by…
RoChefs: Are you referring to the recent culinary exposition in Milan?
Catalin Petrescu: Yes. Those could not be considered representative dishes. It was embarrassing. If Nico Lontras would have attended, with his reinterpreted sarmale (cabbage rolls) and his reinterpreted mici (grilled minced meat rolls), we most certainly would have had a place on the podium.
RoChefs: Are you implying that we should update a bit our traditions and present them to the world?
Catalin Petrescu: Yes, most definitely, and they would certainly be successful. Although I personally do not like the Romanian traditional cuisine, the foreigners would certainly love it.
RoChefs: Please recommend us a chef or cook for a future interview with our magazine.
Catalin Petrescu: I have a very dear childhood friend, who now became a chef and is an excellent cook. His name is Lazar Florin Constantin. Unfortunately, he is not that visible in the social media, although he had great achievements and inaugurated plenty of fine restaurants. He is an excellent chef on international cuisine, especially fusion cuisine. He is now head chef at Chez Marie restaurant in Bucharest.
RoChefs: If there are any other aspects that we did not cover, please feel free to add them now.
Catalin Petrescu: Most people ask me about the same things regarding the sushi. In this restaurant, we tried, and succeeded, to create a fusion of South-American gastronomy with sushi. In other countries, this niche is very successful. For the moment, we are regarded as a restaurant that has not found its niche yet, but we are trying to get it on the right track, to preset the clients certain foreign ingredients, such as the ones from South America combined with Japanese ingredients. A Peruvian – Japanese combination – a rather bold fusion, the only one of its kind in Romania so far.
RoChefs: Do you have something to tell the Romanian cooks through our magazine?
Catalin Petrescu: They should stay in the country. I know it is very difficult and that their income would be much larger abroad, but there still is room for improvement here – to create famous restaurants. It is difficult to speak of Michelin stars at the moment, and perhaps we could not dream of this even in 20 years. But we should stay here and make ourselves known to the world. There are many tourists coming to Romania and they are disappointed by our restaurant industry. This is why I am saying that the cooks should stay in the country and allocate more time to a project, start it from scratch and develop it, rather than work abroad for more money but being simple executants.