After learning to cook in Italy, I’m bringing this experience to my Albania

Bleri Dervishi opens his restaurant in Tirana. In his own words, the story of a migrant child who became a chef

29-05-2019
Young Albanian chef Bleri Dervishi is about to o

Young Albanian chef Bleri Dervishi is about to open his restaurant in Tirana, after he learnt to cook in Italy (photo by kind concession of Clara Mennella)

Bleri Dervishi arrived in Italy from Albania on a rubber dinghy, with his parents, when he was only four years old. In Italy he attended catering school and he became a cook, working with important people like Terry Giacomello in Parma and Eneko Atxa in Spain. He was the (young) chef in restaurants in Sicily and in Milan. He’s now back in Tirana and is about to open (end of May, beginning of June) his first restaurant. Its name will be Gzona, which is the Albanian word for happiness. He’ll present the fine products of his country, through the techniques and experiences acquired in Italy. Bleri tells us about his project: as for us, we wish him good luck. (Carlo Passera)

Here I am. It’s been a year since I last wrote for you at Identità Golose.

At the time, I was in my restaurant in Milan. But as we know, things don’t always go as we’d like. It doesn’t matter: what’s important is doing always one’s best, believing in what you do, never losing sight of the goal. I won’t deny it was a very hard moment for me. It’s like when your favourite toy breaks, and you must replace it with another one. It’s hard to find something that will have the same value.

Dervishi a few years ago with Terry Giacomello and Gaetano Trovato. «Terry showed me a new world, he made me understand the importance of raw materials and their valorisation»

Dervishi a few years ago with Terry Giacomello and Gaetano Trovato. «Terry showed me a new world, he made me understand the importance of raw materials and their valorisation»

In the brigade at Eneko Atxa’s Azurmendi . «A very important experience for me, especially from a human and organisational perspective. We were like a big family, we all worked for the same goal». 

In the brigade at Eneko Atxa’s Azurmendi . «A very important experience for me, especially from a human and organisational perspective. We were like a big family, we all worked for the same goal». 

When the experience in Milan ended, I decided to travel around, cooking here and there, without too many thoughts and expectations. In other words, I allowed myself some time to do what I love the most: cooking and travelling. It didn’t matter where I was, I just needed to light a fire and prepare a meal. Once I dined with a 90-year-old lady, or with a shepherd I had just met, or with a fisherman, while I was looking for excellent products. Or I cooked for some VIPs, on the other side of Europe.

With professor Davide Cassi. «It was the most significant experience in my life: at the University of Parma, in the laboratory of Gastronomic Physics, where every day, with professor Cassi and doctor Razzano we just worked on research and development. We experimented techniques, textures and much more, every day! Every day I couldn’t wait to get into the lab and start researching. I’ll continue to collaborate with them from Tirana too, so as to give stronger technical foundations to the new Albanian cuisine. I would like to call it

With professor Davide Cassi. «It was the most significant experience in my life: at the University of Parma, in the laboratory of Gastronomic Physics, where every day, with professor Cassi and doctor Razzano we just worked on research and development. We experimented techniques, textures and much more, every day! Every day I couldn’t wait to get into the lab and start researching. I’ll continue to collaborate with them from Tirana too, so as to give stronger technical foundations to the new Albanian cuisine. I would like to call it "memory in evolution". I’m honoured to continue to collaborate with a genius like Davide Cassi, because he showed be a different gastronomic vision. Then when you add the artistic and design contribution given by doctor Razzano, it all becomes exceptional, unique» 

This went on for a few months: until a very dear friend of mine, chef Bledar Kola, asked me to come to Albania. It was mid-September, he wanted to organise an event focused on the new Albanian cuisine, the “new take”, so to speak, on Albanian cuisine. So I ended up participating in this very important culinary event for Tirana. I decided to give my personal take on meatballs, in fact, the famous meatballs of my hometown, Korça, made with veal, onion and oregano, and served with beer. It was a fantastic experience and it truly touched me. I’m very proud of my country. 

I remember I arrived in Tirana with a return ticket; I was planning to stay in Tirana only 4 days. I never took the return flight. I stayed.

At the event in September in Tirana

At the event in September in Tirana

At the event where Bledar Kola invited me, I started to feel the first vibrations. Strong, very strong vibrations. Inside my head, during those three intense days, I kept asking myself the same question, over and over: "Has the time come, perhaps, for me to return to Albania? Is it perhaps time that I start doing something different?". I wondered what it would be like to cook for my people… I wondered: "How would they react if I cooked something traditional but, for instance, totally de-structured?". And then: "Why not risk it, and stay here? Start something new?".

That’s what I did. I’ll never forget those days, never. I spent the nights eating, drinking, speaking about cooking, about food. The atmosphere was incredible, the energy was crazy. I spoke with my colleagues, with friends, and family: "I don’t think I’ll return to Italy. I want to open a restaurant here. I want to cook in Albania, I want to cook for my people, I want to honour my nation". Everyone looked at me, bewildered. They almost couldn’t believe it. "Bleri, are you crazy? Are you sure? What came over you?". Their advise was: "You must return to Italy, it’s too early", and so on.

At event in Sicily in 2017

At event in Sicily in 2017

I didn’t listen to them. I didn’t fly back.

I want to take all of the Albanian tradition and make it contemporary. I want to innovate. My cuisine will be strongly based on territory, on its products. Nothing will come from abroad, in terms of products. At first, I’ll only have two fish dishes in the menu, and it will be freshwater fish! The first will be wild koran, a very good fish from Lake Ocri. The other will be a freshwater sardine.

Of course: I will add other influences. My foundations will be the techniques learnt in Italy and abroad. The cultural influences. What I learnt form my great masters. But I’ll always use this heritage to enhance and give value to the great products of Albania. I’m even testing very poor types of flour, I’m experimenting bread-making; some only using the sourdough I’m growing myself; others with yogurt, hence very acid.

Gzona’s logo

Gzona’s logo

The new restaurant...

The new restaurant...

...and what it will look like inside

...and what it will look like inside

There will be lots of tubers, roots, wild herbs. My suppliers will be small farmers from all across Albania, from north to south. The brigade will be mostly Albanian, young, smiling and energetic people. The kitchen will be completely open view: I want guests to see what we’re doing.

As for vegetables, there won’t be a definite offer, because I want to base myself on what farmers will bring me each day. I want to make dishes mostly with poor raw materials, but also with a strong identity and sound techniques. I will also play with memory a lot. I want to create something unique, intense; that will make guests go back in time but will also surprise them through its strong flavours.

The restaurant will also have its laboratory, a space specifically meant for experiments, research, tastings, fermentations and so on.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

SEE ALSO:
Albania: zafferano e altre bontà, by Carlo Passera (in Italian)
Rrno për me gatue. Ovvero, i protagonisti del rinascimento albanese, by Luciana Squadrilli (in Italian)
Riscrivere la nuova cucina albanese, by Luciana Squadrilli (in Italian)


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