Bledar Kola, Albanian haute cuisine to break down prejudices

His name is Bledar Kola, he is Albanian and today he is a reference name when talking about the Balkan cooking revolution, but for a long time he preferred to say that his name was Ben or Bernardo, and that he was Italian or from Montenegro, because “nobody knows where it is and it sounds good.

He had learned that to survive as an illegal immigrant in London, or simply to pick up in a pub, anything was better than saying he was from Albania. Even in the most refined environments, stereotypes are the order of the day, recalls today Kola, owner of the Mullixhiu restaurant in Tirana, from which he is executing his sweet revenge against so many wrongs.

“I thought Albanians only stole cars!” a French chef snapped at him in London

“I thought Albanians only stole cars!”, he says a French chef snapped at him when he went to work in the kitchen of La Gavroche, one of the best restaurants in the British capital. “No, those are the Poles,” Kola replied to general laughter. Responding with a joke along the same lines “was the only way out of situations like this,” she says.

Born in 1984 in northern Albania, like so many compatriots fed up with hardship and eager to see the world, Kola left his country in the late 1990s. He was 15 years old when he hid in a truck and crossed the English Channel to get to England. The only job he found was as a dishwasher in a restaurant on the outskirts of London. In the kitchen he had a strong discipline, but he wanted to learn and that environment stimulated his competitive nature. His attitude caught the attention of the chef, a Japanese, and his number two, an Austrian. “When I ran out of things to do, I didn’t go out to smoke or look at my phone. I helped them peel potatoes, cleaned their knives, asked them questions… They saw my dedication and pressured me to go to cooking school.”

Bledar Kola, cooking

Manuel Krugg

He told them no, that he didn’t want to end up “as crazy as them”, but he listened to them and signed up for some free classes at the university. “I became obsessed with making things better and better, I became a perfection psychopath,” he admits. On weekends he would go to bookstores to look for information. “The chef told me that he liked my combative nature. In those times it was really the only way to survive in a kitchen, today things have changed a lot. The people are friendly, they play music, they’re allowed to wear tattoos, a T-shirt… Before it was like being in the army. The discipline was very strong ”, he recalls his passing through La Gavroche or Pied à Terre.

Finally, in 2007, he got fed up with London, his “double identities” and having to hide without really having anything to hide. “I couldn’t take the stereotypes anymore. That’s why I came back.” She had a plan and a mission: “To advance the Albanian kitchen, to recover our pride”. The only way to change the opinion of the chef at La Gavroche and others about Albania, she told herself, was to win their hearts through their stomachs.

In Tirana he found that only Italian gastronomy enjoyed prestige, but he continued with his training plan and worked for three seasons at the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. He was impressed with what the Danes had managed to do with such limited raw materials. Heading for another job at the remote Fäviken restaurant in northern Sweden, he once again ran into prejudice against his country. The kind man who met him at dawn on the road, who took him by car to his destination and offered him to sleep a few hours at his house until the business opened, stopped dead when he learned that he was Albanian and reconsidered his offer to give him the car. sofa.

Kola admires the revolution started by Ferrán Adriá and other Spanish chefs to break the hegemony of French cuisine, but his references are different. “All my inspiration and confidence comes from the Nordic countries. I couldn’t do the same as the Spanish because it wouldn’t make sense. I had to go modest, with seasonal ingredients. But if you treat a pumpkin or potato with the same care as a wagyu beef, the result can be similar.”

In 2016 he opened Mullixhiu, where he makes forgotten recipes and flavors of Albanian cuisine shine. Good reviews in the English press attracted Albanians to his Scandinavian-style venue and brought it to the international spotlight. Gastronomy, he says, may be the best industry in Albania, a country that adds Eastern heritage and Mediterranean influence to its Balkan roots. defender of slow food , Kola has taken his cuisine all over the world. “I call him gastrodiplomacy . In the end, it’s about helping people connect around food.”

Bledar Kola, Albanian haute cuisine to break down prejudices