RoChefs: Tell us about the beginnings of your career as a cook and its course until present day.
Chef Lazăr Florian: Since I was a child, I enjoyed spending time in my mother’s kitchen. At the age of 17, I left to Italy, where I worked for two years as a kitchen help, then I returned to Romania and I took my cook diploma, so I could get a job. I remember that I took my first hiring test with a head chef, Mr. Nicu, who gave me three large potato bags and an onion bag to peel them. I did my job well, I peeled the vegetables, I put the potatoes in cold water and I cleaned up my workspace. Mr. Nicu was satisfied, and for me, that was the moment when I promised myself to work as hard as I can and to advance my career as much as possible, because I loved cooking and working in the kitchen.
In Romania, at the beginning, I worked at Viking Steak House – it was a Danish restaurant, where I learned the dishes, but nothing else. Everything that I have learned I taught myself, I went to the Netherlands to specialize in Indonesian cuisine, I read a lot, I get tons of information and I buy specialty books from abroad. Even as we speak, I am waiting for a book by Paul Bocuse, which I consider my role model.
RoChefs: In your opinion, what does it mean to be a good chef/ cook?
Chef Lazăr Florian: I think that cuisine is an art and it should be treated as such. A cook must have imagination, must be ambitious, always wanting to perfect himself and to be aware that all these things depend only of him. Unfortunately, in Romania, we are dealing with a shortage of specialized personnel, and many of the employees are asking for large salaries although they have little experience and even less desire to learn more. I often have to deal with such situations; I meet with job applicants and I cannot choose any of them because they are all just like that. The lack of qualified personnel is acute at all levels: from kitchen help to cook, to head chef and to the head of the waiters. The state also bares part of the guilt because it does nothing to encourage the professional training and education of the personnel; we do not have good culinary schools – not to mention a gastronomy academy. This is unfortunate, because there is potential, we have very well trained chefs, and I know many of them, but they receive no support from the state or from the industry.
RoChefs: Should a gastronomy academy necessarily be a state initiative? The problem is that the industry has almost zero involvement in this aspect. Very rarely an employer sends his employees to trainings or professional courses.
Chef Lazăr Florian: Together with some friends of mine, we intend to access European funding to establish a culinary school, with specialties that last from one to four years – an academy. This is the point where, as I was saying, the state is not getting involved, it offers no support to such initiatives. Instead of easing up the documentation and simplifying the procedures in order to support such initiatives, the state does nothing; on the contrary, it makes things more difficult. I do not want to be harsh, but one learns absolutely nothing in our culinary schools. I went to THR culinary school to take my diploma because it is one of the few renowned schools around here, and I had nothing to learn there. Even my mother at home can make sarmale (cabbage rolls) and chicken terrine.
RoChefs: How do you see the evolution of the modern gastronomy in Romania? What should Romanian chefs do to bring the new cooking style to our plates?
Chef Lazăr Florian: The modern cuisine means quality ingredients cooked properly. For the business lunch menu that I have in this restaurant, I am targeting vegetarians, because I noticed that the chefs are avoiding this segment. It is difficult here to approach the modern gastronomy, because you have to deal with the owners and with the culinary industry. The consumer is also reluctant, and I am speaking here specifically about the Romanian consumer who has no idea about how to eat, he does not consume enough vegetables and almost completely avoids root crop products. I want to work with mini-beet or baby carrots, and I have to import the vegetables from France, because nobody grows them in Romania or they are not at the quality I desire.
RoChefs: The concern for healthy food begins to have an important role in our lives. What are the suggestions of a culinary art professional in this regard?
Chef Lazăr Florian: Romanians are not used yet to consume season fruits and vegetables; they have forgotten many of the vegetables such as root crops, radish – they do not get nutritional information about these ingredients. We are too accustomed with fried potatoes, grated cheese and tomatoes, plus something fried, instead of enjoying the full range of vegetables.
The unhealthy diet habits are caused especially by the busy lifestyle many of us have. I see them in the store, filling their shopping carts with all kinds of crap. They do not have a food culture, to get information about the healthy products. Yesterday I went shopping and I bought cashew nuts, which have some extraordinary properties, but how many people know about them? It is true that they are a bit more expensive, but anybody can afford to buy 200 grams, and eating 20-30 grams per day brings a plus of nutrients, but people prefer chips, because they are tastier. The parents also have an important role, because they should educate their children about the healthy food. I explain to my 10-year-old son about food, I take him with me to the market – I am not simply telling him that I do not want him to eat certain things. As an example, he was not eating beets. But I cooked him some beets ravioli that were looking great. He was delighted and the same happened with spinach. The child must be involved in the process of selecting and cooking the food.
RoChefs: Do you have any preferred culinary techniques or any favorite ingredients?
Chef Lazăr Florian: I love black truffles; to me, they are like diamonds in the food, but you have to know how to use it, how to taste it and appreciate it. I do not have a specific technique, I use a different one every day, I have in my kitchen some Blendtec blenders, I am using all sorts of emulsions and I also use sous-vide technique. In the kitchen, you must have imagination, must have clear thoughts and you must present your dish as best as you can; you must know how to sell it and always tell the truth about your dish. I often leave the kitchen and walk into the restaurant room to talk to the clients.
RoChefs: We know that the Romanians’ appetite for traditional food will not disappear any time soon, and that is not a bad thing. However, what should we change in the way we are seeing and cooking the Romanian traditional dishes?
Chef Lazăr Florian: We do not have to change anything; we must leave them as they are and should keep respecting them. People are forgetting about the Romanian dishes; perhaps in remote areas we could still find a traditional Romanian dish of good quality, but in the cities, they are almost extinct.
Chef Lazăr Florian cooks at the Chez Marie restaurant in Bucharest.