Tomaž Bratovž cuts a sleek figure in the kitchen. Slender and wiry, with a striking set of thick-rimmed black glasses and a shock of hair inevitably spiked up with the toils work, he is most at home in a bustling restaurant kitchen. He dances between licks of flame from the sprawling gas stove, where cutlets are cooking in a behemoth of a pan, while his fellow cooks roll ravioli, dice carrots, reduce sauce, fillet a whole sea bass. A top kitchen is like a football team, with each member given their assigned role by the manager (the head chef), each needing to execute perfectly, repeatedly, and predictably, in a timely fashion, otherwise the whole service can fall to pieces. But when it works, it hums.
Tomaž is a young chef, still in his 20s. He also comes from the finest of pedigrees, which is a great advantage but a tough act to follow. His father is Janez Bratovž, aka JB, a perennial in the Top 100 World Restaurants list (once listed as 10thbest in the world), and the godfather of Slovenian fine dining. His eponymous restaurant in Ljubljana was the first in former Yugoslavia to feature the stalwarts of nouvelle cuisine (fish carpaccio, rare steaks) at a time when such things were revolutionary in this part of the world. (Full disclosure: I co-wrote JB’s new cookbook, and so know the team and restaurant very well).
With a father who rubs shoulders with Ferran Adria, Heinz Beck, Rene Redzepi and the like, cooking is in the blood. But that means that the pressure and expectations can be higher than ever. It doesn’t phase Tomaž, who recently completed his first big stage, at Michelin 3-star restaurant Arzak, in San Sebastian. I met up with Tomaž to ask what it’s like behind-the-scenes at a stage, and life in the kitchen.
Would you go on other stages?
At least one other. I’m choosing where I might go now. I like the Norwegian approach, a bit different.
How do you decide where to go for a stage?
I had a lot of luck, because my father knows Elena Arzak [chef and daughter of the founder], and he set me up. A personal connection is the easiest way. I’ve heard through friends that the best way if you don’t know anyone is through Facebook. There’s a Facebook group for professional chefs, to connect people who work at various restaurants and send personal requests to be accepted for a stage. Very informal.
Is there a minimal quality level that one has to have in order to be considered?
You request and they take you or not. I’m not in that Facebook group, but I’ve heard that it’s all about being recommended by someone on the inside. For instance, now I know a few people in London, a few in Miami, and you hear that someone’s opening a restaurant and you can ask to come along and help out.
Are languages important to being accepted?
I didn’t know any Spanish, English was enough. Kitchens are very international. There were three of us in stages at Arzak at the same time, and we just spoke English. There were 25 in the kitchen. Lots of people come from Latin countries to Spain.
Were you socially in one group, with the other apprentices, or did everyone hang out together?
There was a lot of competition, but if you work hard and stay focused, if you don’t mess with other’s work, you’re welcomed. If you’re trying too hard, then others will put the brakes on for you.
How much did the chefs there show you what to do, teach you? Was there any sort of lesson component?
The chefs showed us how to prepare the dishes. They watched us and as long as we executed our roles well, they left us alone. If they saw we were struggling, they would move us to another station, give us another assignment. There wasn’t really a lesson per se. When I came I began with the amuse-bouches. I was independent at that station, really the only one preparing the amuse-bouches, and I was there for a month. There wasn’t much change. From 11-13 I had to prepare all the amuse-bouches for the whole day, lunch and dinner. Around 150 small portions. I put them in the refrigerator and that was my role. Once I covered all the amuse-bouches, I shifted to the hot food station. I worked on warm appetizers. We had a shrimp dish, a fish dish, and I worked with another chef. He cooked, I plated. It was a two-man operation.
Was this new to you, did you have to teach yourself how things worked, or was it something you’d already handled and were comfortable with?
It was all clear to me how to do all they asked me. If I hadn’t done exactly what they wanted before, I had experience with something similar enough that it was pretty straightforward.
I imagine that the mark of a good stageur is to do what the head chef asks, and do it just the way they want. There’s no room in a stage for creativity.
Yeah, they’re not open to new ideas. They have a recipe they’re happy with, and that’s the way it should be. It’s not our place to offer ideas. They have a lab there, three full-time chefs who just develop new dishes, and our role is to put together their creativity.
How much feedback did you have from other chefs? Was it more about learning or more about experience in the kitchen, just getting into the groove and getting a feel for life in the kitchen?
The chef, Elena, was in charge of fish and meat mains. There was a chef de partie for new dishes, two on hot dishes, one on cold dishes, two on desserts. I always had to cover amuses bouches, but then I rotated through spending time on each other course.
Was there good camaraderie? Did you hang out as a team?
We always had family meal together, just before the dinner service. We’d eat something light for lunch at home, but dinner together. We were free in the morning, and because it was Spain, we had siesta, a two-hour break after lunch. It was a great rhythm. Then back to the kitchen to finish anything that was left to do.
Were you on your own to sort out logistics, like finding an apartment?
They helped me a lot. If they choose you, they make sure to sort you out.
Do you have to pay to be on a stage, or do you receive pay?
You don’t get paid, no. It’s like an internship. You need to save up to cover your expenses. You don’t pay to work, but you have to sort out your own expenses. But that depends on the country, for instance in Germany and Austria, stageurs have to be paid. It’s not allowed to have someone work for you and not be paid.
How will you choose the next stage location?
I’ve got lots of friends in the cooking world. When I find a restaurant that I like, I’ll figure out which colleague or friend has a contact there, and I’ll go through them, It’s much easier with networking. You go for coffee with a fellow cook, and you get all the information you need.
What did you study before you began your career?
I studied cooking in Celje, and then went straight to work. I worked two years at JB. For two years I worked at other restaurants. Then I was in Spain. Then back here. Then I helped to open a restaurant at Glamping Savinja Ljubno—I made the menu, it was a great opportunity for a young chef.
Was there a particular dish there that you were most proud to have developed?
There’s a trout dish served there that’s phenomenal. But you can’t get it anymore. The guy who prepared it got a job in Abu Dhabi and moved there. He had been cold smoking the trout in a special way. He explained how he did it, but no one else could replicate the dish. There were trout being raised about twenty meters away from the restaurant. So we made a lot of different trout-based dishes. I focused on slight variations of traditional Slovenian dishes while there. I made my own fond, I made strukelji. I got an old cookbook of recipes from the region, and I tried to begin with those and make them a bit more refined. The food from that region was heavy and hearty, so I tried to make it lighter.
In my head, making your own dishes and menu must be a great feeling for a chef. Do you most enjoy designing new dishes or executing established ones?
You don’t think of new dishes every day. For me, it feels great when the restaurant is full of people, and I get an adrenaline buzz when things are really moving along. You don’t have time to think too much, so it’s hardcore line cooking. I’m not a chef yet, I’m getting there, but I’m a line cook for now.
It’s about muscle memory, isn’t it? You have to do the same thing over and over, the same way.
It requires a lot of experience, repetitions. If you have to think about what you’re doing, then you get all tangled up, and then we say “you’re swimming.” Not in a good way. Things can back up very quickly and go all wrong. If you forget a component, don’t cook at the right time, and everything falls apart. There a real rhythm to fall into, and when you’re in the rhythm, it feels great.
Do you “swim” anymore, even though you’re quite experienced?
That can always happen. It depends on everyone in the kitchen working well as a team. It’s like a team sport, and each player has to do what they do the best they can for it all to work. You’ve got shifts. Everyone works on the cold dishes, then the hot appetizers, then the mains. If you’re two minutes too late, then everything backs up and everyone’s in trouble. If you’ve got a smoothly-running team, then it all clicks.
Do you bring all your own equipment with you when you cook elsewhere?
I look at knives and equipment as simple tools. I don’t have a favorite. If the knife is sharp enough, then I’m happy. I do bring my own knives when I go abroad. It’s a chef’s etiquette. Bring your own equipment so you don’t inconvenience the hosts.
What would you bring with you?
Knives, tweezers. If you’re making fish, you need boning pliers. If you’re breaking down fish, then you need other tools. Sometimes you even bring pots and pans, it depends.
Do you have a favorite ingredient to work with?
I enjoy filleting a big fish. Always a party. For meat, I really enjoy cold-smoked meats. They develop a really surprising taste, not what you’d expect. The leg of a cow can be transformed into something as delicious as the best filet mignon. Cold smoking works wonders.
How much did you know at the end of cooking school, or did you need restaurant experience to really become a chef?
You need the basics, so you need cooking school.
I’ve heard that a lot, which makes someone like Ana Ros so unique, having never studied cooking formally?
Definitely. Her story is really fantastic. Hat’s off to her and to her team.
Did you help your dad cook at home when you were young?
I think I have this in my system. I wondered what work I would do, but once I got into cooking, it just clicked. My dad and I are friends, we chat in the kitchen, we go for beers. And once you enjoy going to work, you get along with colleagues, then you can really work well.
I imagine that, because of the hours, it’s easiest to hang out with other cooks. I imagine it’d be hard, for example, to be married to someone with a “normal” 9-5 job, because if you work in a restaurant your hours wouldn’t overlap.
It’s really hard. That’s why restaurant people stick together. We cover for each other, if one of us is dating someone from outside the industry. We’ll take over a shift if someone wants to go to the movies with their girlfriend.
Is it a television cliché that chefs like to shout at their staff?
It really depends on the chef. There are some who shout non-stop. To them, it’s part of the fun, it shows their authority, it’s just their way. For me, personally, I don’t like that at all. I’m a chill guy, and I’d rather sort things out quietly. But every once in a while, you need to lose it, but I think you can always solve things better in a collegial way. But I do see some colleagues who are expecting, maybe even need, to be shouted at. They don’t listen until someone shouts at them. So for some cooks, it’s a good way to communicate. They really want to be shouted at. I see some cooks I work with who are really hoping that I’ll behave that way towards them. They’re disappointed when I don’t.
Do you have plans to open your own restaurant?
Some day, but I’m way too young. And I’m having too much fun with what I’m doing now.
Kingdom For a Nice Steak
Kingdom For a Nice Steak