Interview with Mrs. Maria Popa, culinary art master, trainer in food industry and trainer in gastronomy technology.
RoChefs: How did you become a cook? How was the beginning of your culinary career?
Maria Popa: For me, gastronomy is passion. I was cooking for my family every day, and my desire of cooking various dishes turned this passion into a career. I joined the College or Arts and Crafts from Ploiesti City, Prahova County and followed the classes of culinary school. At the same time, I was working as coordinating chef in the kitchen of a psychiatric hospital where I was preparing up to 500 dishes per day. My passion for cooking turned into a career at a fast pace. There was nothing to deter me, because I had an intense desire to do this craft; I wanted to know more, to learn more and to discover the secrets of this art. At the same time, I was also a skilled coordinator, with over 20 cooks under my subordination. After graduating the culinary school, I wanted more, so I discovered THR School and I followed the specialty and retraining classes. I did not stop there, because in the meantime, my mentor engineer Gabriela Berechet “discovered” me, she trusted me and told me I must become a trainer in gastronomy. This is how I started to merge my trainer skills with my chef skills: I started from that hospital galley with 500 portions per day and I coordinated a restaurant in Breaza City. I was going to school from Monday to Friday and I was spending my weekends in that restaurant, where I was coordinating and training a team of six cooks.
RoChefs: Being a cook means lots of passion too; it is not a simple job. How many hours do you spend daily for your passion?
Maria Popa: In the 2004 – 2005, all my colleagues and friends were joking that I will have my own gastronomy statue, because I was working long hours. What I can say is that I never stopped, and under the guidance of Gabriela Berechet, I attended many international gastronomy competitions, winning silver and bronze medals with Romania’s team of chefs. I attended the individual gastronomy contest during the Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany in 2008 and I won the fourth place from a large number of competitors.
RoChefs: What do you enjoy cooking the most?
Maria Popa: I like using all types of ingredients, but my strong point are dinners of over 100 guests – gourmet menus, entrees and lots of tasting dishes.
RoChefs: What is your favorite cuisine? Your favorite cooking style?
Maria Popa: The French cuisine is my favorite. At THR School, I had the opportunity of attending a training class held by a trainer from Alain Ducasse Culinary School from France, and since then, my love for this cuisine grew even stronger.
RoChefs: What are your favorite combinations of ingredients?
Maria Popa: I love combining fruits with various types of meats.
RoChefs: How do you see the evolution of the international gastronomy penetrating the Romanian food industry?
Maria Popa: Gastronomy is like fashion, but I wish we could present the Romanian cuisine in a modern fashion, using also international ingredients, not just the Romanian ones.
RoChefs: A Romanian saying is that one steals a craft, not just learns it. In your career, have you shared the secrets of your trade with your less experienced colleagues?
Maria Popa: It is somehow true that one steals a craft, but without the basics of the culinary technology, one cannot become a professional. I love sharing my knowledge and I love teaching those working next to me. I never fear that someone might steal my recipes. I am proud that I can train culinary professionals and that wherever I go I leave some of my experience there. And I always believe this: nobody can steal my skills and my talent. Nobody will be able to create an exact replica of a dish of mine. Each cook is an artist in his own way.
RoChefs: There is an unbreakable link between the management of a hotel or restaurant and the kitchen. Do you consider that the managers should have a minimum of culinary knowledge?
Maria Popa: Not minimum. I believe that the true restaurant managers should come from among former chefs with experience to back them up.
RoChefs: What efforts do chefs and cooks make to educate the gastronomy consumer? What do you think they should do more in this regard?
Maria Popa: You should know that there have always been some animosities between cooks and waiters. This was happening because years ago, the cook was trained to create dishes silently, behind closed doors. Only the waiter was getting face to face experience with the client to send the cook’s message. When he says to the consumer “bon appetite”, the waiter should say, “WE wish you bon appetite”, because there are many people who contributed to that dish. Nevertheless, nowadays the cook is blooming. He shows up in the restaurant, at the serving table, he recommends dishes directly to the consumer, so I believe that soon we will be able to educate the consumer, to try new ingredients, new cooking methods, combinations, flavors and tastes. I see the chefs doing this, not the waiters.
RoChefs: Speaking of “blooming” cooks, how do you see the training and retraining of a cook?
Maria Popa: The cook must never stop learning. You don’t just get your cook diploma and that is all – you’re a cook. He must research, he must study and accumulate information and he must attend international competitions. It is not so important if he will not win big prizes there from the beginning, but only in this way he will improve his knowledge, will measure his skills and will try to keep perfecting himself.
RoChefs: About our cooks – are they more curious now, more inclined to study? Do they seem to you more interested, more professional than, say, ten years ago?
Maria Popa: The type of trainee from 10 years ago, compared to the present one, is completely different. Now we have eager cooks coming to our classes, sometimes with exuberant passion. They want to learn, to accumulate knowledge. If they could, they would join the specialist cook class before completing the basic training. This can only bring joy to my heart.
RoChefs: Speaking about gastronomic training and education, how many gastronomy books do you have?
Maria Popa: When I was attending international gastronomy competition, I was spending my daily allowance on books and kitchen utensils. If you do not go out and you do not study, you cannot become better. As a gastronomy trainer, I must always bring new information to share with my students, modern technologies, and this makes me study continuously. I buy culinary books as often as I can.
RoChefs: Which aspects of your career make you most proud?
Maria Popa: I am proud of what I have accomplished so far, I am proud that I have had good mentors, and I wish to name here Mrs. Gabriela Berechet and Mrs. Aurora Belous, who stood by my side and guided my steps, and not the least, I wish to name Mr. Burtea, who at my debut as a trainer, was the president of Cooks’ Association, and he believed in me – all of them had a significant impact on my career.
RoChefs: What are your strong points as gastronomy professional?
Maria Popa: Unlike my fellow chefs appearing on the TV shows, I like to say about myself that I kept learning. Even if I am not a very public figure, this does not mean that I am not proud of myself. I am very proud about my medals and diplomas. However, my most important skill is this gift I have of being able to train people, of actually teaching cooks in a school-kitchen with 16 workstations, where I teach every student from the very beginning, from how to hold a knife in their hand, and at the end, they say thank you for the knowledge they obtained.