Meet John, American chef and writer in love with Dalmatian food culture
I met John a year ago, though not in real space but only virtually – through my Manjada blog, facebook, twitter… It does not happen so often to get a feeling you have known someone for ages just from reading his texts. This is how I felt with John. I was amazed by his insider understanding and deep admiration of Dalmatian food, wine and more than anything – the way of life. A few weeks ago he started to write for Taste of Croatia project, but we missed to introduce him properly. Until now.
You are writer, executive chef and musician. Do you practice all three activities with equal intensity all the time or you switch between them in different life periods?
My aim has always been to practice each with equal intensity, but my current focus is almost completely on writing and literary endeavors. I’ve sort of outgrown the life of the full-time culinary professional, and I feel I can do more and reach more people as a writer. I love cooking and eating – and I’m pretty good at both – but I’d rather practice that passion for family and friends.
What are you writing about?
I’m almost finished editing a book by a very interesting new author back in Portland, and then I’ll put the final touches on my own book, The Art of Self Exile. It’s a fictional work based on the true story of my experiences as a chef in Croatia. I originally conceived the idea for the book as non-fiction, but found myself questioning my own motives for much of what I was writing. It was better to remove myself and my own interests from the material, set the story free, and inject some deeper themes and messages. I’m self-publishing that, and hope to have it available through Amazon by mid-December.
You were traveling by train from Portland to St. Louis last month. Assign a dish to each state you traveled through.
Assigning a dish to each state is tricky! Oregon would have to be braised pork belly or good, old fashioned fried bacon, simply because bacon and pork belly are very popular on Portland menus. Washington might be caramelized apples and sweet onions. Idaho is easy: mashed potatoes. Montana seems like the place to have a nice grilled elk steak, medium rare. There’s a bit of Norwegian influence in North Dakota cooking, so perhaps lutefisk. People in Minnesota commonly make a variety of casseroles collectively known as “hotdish”, which is just about any ground meat and vegetable you have, mixed with canned soup into a baking dish, then baked in the oven. Wisconsin is dairy land, so that would be cheese curds. I would suggest one of my favorites for Illinois: Chicago-style stuffed pizza. And, finally, Missouri… I’m going to say deep-fried ravioli for Missouri.
What happened in the life of a Midwestern guy from St. Louis, living in Portland, Oregon, with no Croatian origin, that one day he decided to come to Dalmatia and work there as executive chef?
I wanted to expand my horizons. I’ve always felt an affinity for Slavic languages and culture, and I was at a point in my personal development where the thing to do was immerse myself in a completely different culture, to really learn a language and experience life through different eyes. I was also very tired of American and Midwestern culture. I got my wish. I don’t even see America the same way after living in Croatia. I love America – and I really love Portland – but the time I spent in Croatia helped me to grow in ways I didn’t know were possible. I saw a new aspect of myself begin to bloom as I became more familiar with the language and culture of Croatia. And I made true friends there. People place a much higher value on friendship and family in Croatia. If I ever have children, I want those sorts of values to be part of their upbringing.
Do you still cure meat in Portland using traditional recipes from the Balkans?
Yes, absolutely. I just shipped some pečenica to a friend in New York. I’ve made a lot of panceta too, but they go crazy for my smoked beef and kobasica.
If it’s not a secret, in which restaurant did you work in Dalmatia?
I was at Hotel Marinska Kula in Marina, a tiny harbor town near Split. That was for the 2007 summer season.
Fried sardines with young potatoes and šalša. Marinated anchovies at Batelina.
What’s your favorite Dalmatian dish?
Skuša na žaru! Grilled mackerel is probably my favorite food of all, but any fish grilled the Dalmatian way is just fine… with lots of fresh olive oil and garlic! But I really love pašticada with gnocchi too.
…and favorite Dalmatian island?
I haven’t really been on too many of the islands, honestly. I spent a little time hiking on Hvar, which is absolutely beautiful, but I prefer more organic, less tourist-oriented experiences. I’m not a nightclub person. Maybe nobody thinks of Čiovo as a true island, but I’ve had a lot of fun there. I guess my final answer would be Korčula. I’ve spent some very special, memorable moments on Korčula, and I love the view of Sv. Ilija across the Pelješac canal.
Does the Adriatic fish taste better than the fish from the ocean?
One of my other reasons for wanting to be in Croatia is the fish. If you’re a true seafood lover, there’s no better place to go. It’s the best fish I’ve eaten anywhere, and Croats fish for absolutely everything, so the variety in the markets is far beyond what you’ll find in America. A “seafood lover” in America typically eats salmon, tuna, halibut, shrimp, crab… and maybe oysters. People don’t eat much blue fish here, like mackerel, sardines and anchovies, and they don’t do much with squid, octopus or cuttlefish. They also tend to buy only filets, rather than whole fish, so that’s usually what’s available in supermarkets. It can be frustrating. I like to get most of my protein from a healthy variety of fish, and unless you have a good Asian seafood market nearby, it can be difficult to get that variety. I served brudet of eel for the last private dinner I did, and had a very difficult time finding eel.
What are you going to write about on Taste of Croatia? Dalmatian food interpreted by an American with American ingredients?
My own interest is in presenting the food and cooking style in its purest, most traditional form for English speaking audiences. I’ve only studied regional Croatian cuisine for six years, so I’m still learning, and approaching the food with a healthy level of respect for tradition. My writing for Taste of Croatia will reflect the attitude of a serious student, however it manifests itself.
I definitely have my own style when I cook Croatian dishes, and my own philosophy about how to develop classic dishes into something new. But my method and approach have very little to do with the audience. I’m more interested in combining history, culture and autochthonous ingredients in new ways, but not to the point that it doesn’t look like food. My method is more hypothetical scenario-oriented.
Mongolian people. Monglian sheep stew. Photo by Mirna Grbac.
I am getting lost… For example?
What if the Mongolian Empire was successful in the Balkans, and the Ottomans never had an influence on the culture? How would local ingredients be utilized? Or, what if the current global climate existed in the 15th century? How would the crops and animal population be different, and how would it influence cooking? These are just examples, but they illustrate possible methods for deconstructing and re-assembling the history, culture and environment of a particular region, then utilizing the results as a way to approach cooking.
Finally, when are you coming back to Croatia?
As soon as possible! I miss Croatia terribly, and I feel a deep need to rekindle my connection with the language and culture. And I have some very special friends whom I miss terribly. I’ve tried to investigate different possibilities for a cultural exchange sponsorship in food, literature or music so that I can stay longer than the tourist visa allows. I have a company registered there so that I can work legally, and I’ve considered starting a commercial copy writing agency there, but my intention at this point is to get book sales going well enough to rely on that income, wherever I live. It’s quite a big transition to make from relying on a paycheck from an employer, but I’ve learned that you can’t really count on an employer to take care of your needs. If the way presents itself, I would come live in Croatia immediately, and contribute whatever I can to Croatian society.