We start our interview series with Chef Mihai Neacșu.
RoChefs: How did you become a cook?
Mihai Neacşu: For me it was clear what I wanted to be way back when I was only 6 years old.
When someone would ask me what I wanted to become when I grew up , I would answer: cook on a ship. Now, the ship part did not really stick but the cooking did. The beginning…honestly, I don-t enjoy looking back at those times. Who would want to remember sitting on his knees and cleaning refrigerators, sweeping and mopping the floors at 3 a.m. knowing that at 8 a.m. he has to start all over again ? I was just a kitchen appliance at the time, working as a cook aid in a small restaurant in Oneşti. The people I worked with were mean to me and I thank them for that. They determined me to learn really hard in order to never mop the floors again. Even today I am still allergic to the mop. Ha ha!
RoChefs: Describe cooking in five words ?
Mihai Neacşu: Discipline, stubbornness, character, knowledge and a touch of madness.
RoChefs: Cooking takes passion, it is not just ‘another job’. How many hours a day do you put in?
Mihai Neacşu: Well, let’s solve this mystery once and for all. Cooking means 24/7, it can-t be a hobby. You wake up and go to bed with it. Sometimes I find myself thinking about spices for a dish while talking to someone. Not very polite, I know but once you have an idea for a recipe you will never rest until you see it on a plate. So, to sum up: cooking is a way of life and there are only a lucky few who can cope with it.
RoChefs: What about the learning process ?
Mihai Neacşu: You need to be open minded and to be able to constantly learn in order to evolve but, at the same time, you also need to learn how to say ‘No!’. The more often you say ‘No!’, the more you are able to grow.
An example. Question : Chef, we have a party this week, can you take care of it ? Answer : No! No, because there-s not enough time to find the right ingredients hence you will be forced to reduce quality which, at least for me, is out of the question.
Another example. Q: Chef, can I have tomatoes on my starter plate ? A. No! No, because the menu is representative of the cook and not the client. The client can either enjoy it or not but he does not have the knowledge to take the decisions in your stead. If he or she insists on it then they can cook for themselves.
RoChefs: What is your favorite cuisine, your favorite style ?
Mihai Neacşu: The chef that I will always admire is the one who has no favorite cuisine but a style of his own. There is much to learn from every cuisine and only by creating your own style you can stand out from the crowd.
RoChefs: Modern international gastronomy tendencies are spreading throughout Romania. Where do you think they will take Romanian cuisine ?
Mihai Neacşu: It-s a tough question and perhaps a bit premature to ask at this point. We have always borrowed so much from international cuisine that it-s like a culinary Tower of Babel here. We will probably take all this and evolve into the biggest fusion in the history of gastronomy.
RoChefs: How important is plating for the Romanian consumer ?
Mihai Neacşu: Plating, from my point of view, is important for the consumers no matter where they come from. But it is most important for the chef because this is how he or she stands out and furthermore, this is how you can add value to your products. Cooking takes a lot of learning and you can manage to do it, if you-re a hard working person. Plating, however, takes talent. It-s an art. This is where the madness I mentioned earlier comes in.
RoChefs: ‘Our first taste is with the eyes.’ How much does the Romanian chef follow this principle?
Mihai Neacşu: None of the senses can be ignored in gastronomy. When you take a knife to a melon and you hear it crackle that tells you that it-s ripe. A plate should have as many stimuli as possible for every sense. If a plating is very hard to make and you get 200 of them done in a single evening, then you-re the hero of the event. This is why chefs are called the kitchen gods, because they have tried the impossible and have succeeded. Small, easy things will give you satisfaction, impossible things will bring you glory.
RoChefs: What can and should a chef do to educate the consumer?
Mihai Neacşu: This is a lot of work. First of all, the chef needs to educate himself properly before moving on to the consumer. I have noticed that very often the consumer is better informed than the chef. Luckily, there is a bunch of people in Romania who wear the chef coat proudly and work hard every day to keep us afloat and I am grateful for their effort. I think a solution, at the moment, would be to create a self financed televised school. That way, the information can reach fast both chefs and customers. It would be mass education and the domain is so vast that they would never run out of topics.
RoChefs: In Romania we say that craft is stolen, not learned. In your career, have you shared the secrets you have learned or discovered with younger or less experienced chefs ?
Mihai Neacşu: I think the truth is in between. I have often tried to teach as many people as possible. My guiding principle is that I will not take my recipes to the grave. This is my contribution to my country’s cuisine and even if someone steals a recipe from me, I am not mad because I know I can always create others.
RoChefs: Speaking of Romanian chefs, are they more curious, more diligent these days than, say, ten years ago ? What changed?
Mihai Neacşu: Absolutely. We see a growing interest for learning and improving their skills. This is also due to the increasing number of TV culinary shows which made them realize that they can reach a certain status within the community. Ten years ago the press and as a consequence the public showed little interest in the domain. This also changed because of a ‘wave’ of chefs coming back from abroad, bringing with them a wider range of techniques and knowledge.
RoChefs: How do you see the relationship between the chef and the restaurant manager ? Should the manager also possess a minimum baggage of culinary information ?
Mihai Neacşu: Minimum, to say the least. Every restaurant manager should have a minimum of 200 hours spent in a kitchen to qualify for the job. How can you sell something that you know very little about? The same goes for the chefs.
RoChefs: What, in your career, makes you most proud ?
Mihai Neacşu: First of all, I am proud of being Romanian. I am proud of making it on my own and being able, through hard work, to acquire the respect of my fellow colleagues.
RoChefs: What are your strengths as a chef ?
Mihai Neacşu: Loving what I do gives me a great boost and the fact that I have never neglected any part of the cooking process. I love everything related to it and I have tried over the years to leave no dark corners.
RoChefs: Your platings are genuine works of art. How much study and how much inspiration does it take to achieve this level?
Mihai Neacşu: I am particularly happy when everything goes as planned. This gives me great satisfaction. This is my fuel and I couldn’t leave without it. What lies behind them? Years of sacrifices, sleepless nights, nerve recking experiences and countless studio sessions. By now, my wife has gotten used to listening to me at 3 a.m. talking about how I dreamt of creating rice curtains being blown away by a salty cookie. It may sound odd but this is how I am.
RoChefs: Talk to us a bit about your current and future projects.
Mihai Neacşu: At the moment I travel a lot around the country lending a helping hand to those who need it. It-s great to meet new people every day and share experiences. As for future projects, we are working on a book about life as a chef, tips and tricks, creating good, efficient menus for Romanian clients and, of course, new plating ideas to help boost the industry.
RoChefs: Can you become a chef in Romania without the experience abroad ?
Mihai Neacşu: Yes, you can, if you take your time, learn hard and don’t skip any steps, especially the apprenticeship years. But nothing can replace the experiences you can accumulate all over the world.
RoChefs: Is the HORECA industry in Romania taking the necessary steps to promote Romanian gastronomy abroad ?
Mihai Neacşu: Slowly and very slowly, I would say. We are still numb but I hope this will not last much longer. First of all, we need a lot of support from the media but this attention comes only when you create exceptional things. Mediocrity does not raise people’s interest.
RoChefs: We are living extraordinary times when the chef is not only important but more and more visible. The chef has become an asset in the restaurant business and brings in customers. Will this trend last or is it just a fling?
Mihai Neacşu: In every culture the chef is placed on a pedestal and adored for his or her creations and revolutionary ideas. I think a good chef creates great memories and not just food on a plate. This can only be a plus for any restaurant. Abroad this has been happening for decades, in Romania it is just beginning but I think it will last for years to come.