Radishes cooked in smoked butter, charred leeks, pickled mustard seeds, fermented radish, sauce made from dried ham
I like getting to know new people, especially chefs; their ability to turn the simplest ingredients into complex, layered dishes is truly inspirational. For me, this kind of knowledge is almost sacred. There’s nothing more enjoyable than meeting people who have a passion for food, who are continuously searching for the best flavour combinations and ways to take their ingredients to the next level.
When I first came across Kurt’s profile on a social network, his plating and choice of ingredients immediately caught my eye. Obviously, I had to start following him. After enjoying several his posts, I finally had the opportunity to visit him and find out what makes him tick.
Even though he initially veered away from local cuisine when he started cooking, this talented young chef eventually found his identity in Maltese food. Inspired by his grandmother’s recipes, Kurt went back to his roots and decided to shake them up a little, reinventing traditional Maltese dishes using locally produced, seasonal ingredients. What’s more, he uses different cooking techniques from around the world to really give his local dishes some global flair.
“At the beginning of summer, I got some baby figs and I took inspiration from a Japanese fermented plum. Really salty and fruity at the same time. So I did something similar with those baby figs and it turned out really great!” I can’t think of a better way to summarize Kurt’s creative approach to food- he’s already done it for me!
I strongly believe that Kurt’s approach should be encouraged more: reinventing, developing and improving Malta’s great local produce in order to truly bring out the best of what this island has to offer gastronomically. This is a story of a local chef, Kurt Micallef, who makes use of established recipes in a modern way; who searches and finds a balance between tradition and creativity. Getting to know about Kurt and his culinary vision was a truly fascinating experience, which I am happy to write about today. Currently working at The Arches restaurant, Kurt gladly shared his story with me, talked about his inspiration and plans for the future, as well as some predictions for the local food scene.
Like most teenagers finishing school at the age of sixteen, Kurt was forced to make some serious decisions about his next steps into the world. Though he always knew he wanted to be involved in the catering industry, spending 4 years studying at the Institute of Tourism Studies in Malta sounded less than appealing to a teenager. Instead, Kurt decided to start working at the Westin Dragonara Hotel as a purchasing manager. He spent the next four years gaining on-the-job experience, meeting chefs and becoming familiar with the food and hospitality business. Even though the easy routine of this 9-to-5 office job was comforting, his mind was made up: he wanted to become a chef.
Not one to do things by halves, Kurt left Malta and enrolled in a nine-month course at one of the best European cooking schools: Le Cordon Bleu in London.
“Everybody was telling me not to do it. Everybody knows that kitchen jobs don’t get paid well. You really need to struggle for the first ten years of your career and reach a higher level,” Kurt recalls- but it wasn’t enough to put him off his dream. Despite the warnings from his family and friends, he successfully finished his studies, mentored by a former sous chef to Alain Ducasse, and completed his training at L’Autre Pied, Marylebone.
Talking about his career experience, Kurt strongly emphasised the impactful value of training gained at In De Wulf, the Michelin star restaurant owned by Kobe Desramaults in Dranouter, Belgium. The restaurant focused on high-end food, using local produce from the neighbouring village, and that is precisely what caught Kurt’s attention and influenced him the most. In De Wulf offered an old-style cooking presented in a modern way- that same balance between tradition and creativity that Kurt now strives for in his work. Achieving this balance isn’t as straightforward as it might seem; one has to keep it as simple and classic as possible, building the dish around a couple of main ingredients, yet keeping the flavours that patrons are familiar with.
“It is easy to get misled today”, Kurt argues. The food industry is developing at an enormous speed and people are being influenced by social media and new trends, which makes it harder to sustain one’s personal identity.
Kurt has found his identity in Maltese cuisine, which he also calls his heritage.
“It makes sense”, he says, “there is a foundation that you can build on, rather than starting something completely new”. Being inspired by his grandmother, Kurt tries to make her recipes lighter and more “restaurant-friendly”. Essentially, he deconstructs the traditional plates, taking the dishes and giving them a modern twist, while trying, as much as possible, to retain the classic elements.
“In Malta it’s difficult to make people eat something if they don’t know what it is. In general, they are not that adventurous when it comes to food. You give them something they can relate to, like a local dish or a childhood memory.”, explains Kurt.
When reinventing Maltese dishes, Kurt uses seasonal ingredients that are produced locally and, fortunately, Malta is rich with seafood and vegetable varieties. Although the food scene in Malta is experiencing a steady improvement nowadays, things may not be moving as quickly as they seem.
“There are not a lot of local producers pushing it forward. Unfortunately, there are only a couple of guys who try to introduce new varieties of vegetables and herbs”, says Kurt. He argues that schools should introduce food education in their curriculum, at least to teach children about where certain ingredients come from. “One time I met this guy in the restaurant and he was surprised to find out that chips come from potatoes”, he laughs.
When creating his dishes, Kurt tries to keep them as natural and as classic as possible.
“I try to find two ingredients that go really well together. I want to bring something that people might be familiar with and at the same time unfamiliar, but nothing completely crazy”, he says.
When cooking for a group of people or friends, Kurt carefully considers their allergies and taste preferences. “I usually focus my meal around six dishes. I start with a couple of snacks, the first bite that wakes you up. Usually it’s something acidic. Then I drop it down a bit, like a vegetable course or fish, to keep it light. Then follow it up with some meat, game birds maybe, smoke…” It’s clear from the way he speaks that coming up with his menus is a particularly passionate subject for Kurt- “That’s the interesting thing. You can’t keep it one note, that’s the beauty of the tasting menu. You have different dishes. I don’t believe that you should have five senses in one dish. If you a have a tasting menu with all that in one course, it’s going to be too much. When I do the desserts, I do two usually – first of all, I always do a fruit desert, right after the main, something fresh and light. Then I do something a bit more powerful.”
The conversation took a decidedly futuristic turn as we discussed the possible forecast for the food world in general, as well as the local food scene. In Kurt’s opinion, the Maltese food scene is improving at a steady rate.
“The younger generations opening up new places, perhaps even casual ones, the food truck revolution that we are currently witnessing in Malta are proof that changes are taking place in the local food industry,” argues Kurt. He also thinks that South American and Asian food-related movements are going to experience a boom in the very near future.
Having said that, I couldn’t agree with him more when he expressed his concerns regarding other important issues: “We have to adjust food waste soon and be sustainable, support local producers, take care of the environment.”
Kurt argues that we should use not only prime cuts of meat but others too: the internal parts of the animal, for instance, which are not that popular today “They are very tasty if you prepare them right. It needs a little bit more work, but the final product is amazing. I’d rather have that than a prime cut. I don’t find it interesting”.
When it comes to fish – “Recently I’ve tried a new fish, it’s called Rosette in Maltese. Small fish. Delicious. One of the best fish I’ve ever tried. You have to look for and try new things. When it comes to fish, you should use local fish. Even though it’s expensive, the taste is far better…”
Foraging is another thing which Kurt appreciates a lot. Three times a month he meets up with his friend, who is something of an expert in the field and they search for fresh ingredients. “I was one of those people who was sceptical that mushrooms grow in Malta, but last year we gathered 20 kilos of mushrooms”.
Kurt’s dream is to open his own restaurant, offering a delectable tasting menu to its customers. Meanwhile, he is working diligently towards making his dream come true, gathering feedback from his clients and friends. All I know for certain is that we’ll hear about Kurt’s success in the nearest future. I wish him all the best of luck with his bright career!