I got to know about young Maltese chef Kurt Micallef in the least expected place. I was at In De Wulf, a restaurant on the border of Belgium and France when after an excellent meal I stopped to speak to chef Kobe Desramaults. He told me a Maltese chef had visited a few weeks before for dinner and had trained there before.
I tracked him down and wanted to meet him while in Malta not only to see why he chose to go and train twice at Belgian restaurant, In De Wulf, but also to see what inspires him and how he is trying to reinvent Maltese cuisine.
Kurt is a chef in transition. As a chef who studied and worked in top quality restaurants abroad, he is limited in his creativity by his work in his home country. “It is disheartening to come back to Malta and feel that your work is not appreciated. Unfortunately many people still prefer quantity over quality.”
“I don’t want to sound negative but you have to face reality and you have to go through it. You try to push to make the scene better. In the three years that I have been back, I see a ray of light. People are getting more and more interested in food. Maybe they are not yet willing to spend much but there are a few interesting concepts that are working. We have a food truck revolution. There are baby steps taking place but it is a step in the right direction,” Kurt says.
“Producers are also realising that there is a demand for new things. Why should we have just one carrot instead of more varieties? I was excited when I discovered someone making different types of honey. There is a ray of light. You need to try and educate, though I don’t like using the word, but people need to know that there is something better than what we know,” he said.
Kurt has got most of his influence from Kobe Desramaults and the chef’s team at In De Wulf. The restaurant closes its doors at the end of this year but the legacy of that experience will be something that he will retain for ever.
The first time he went he had read a blog of a chef who was working in Texas but had trained at In De Wulf. He contacted him because he was worried about where he would stay if he went to Dranouter, the village in the middle of nowhere on the border with France.
“I learned that they were one of the few restaurants in the world which offered accommodation which was a major factor for me as I was stopping work to go and train for free for three months. “If I had to also pay for accommodation it would have been very difficult for me at the time.”
On his return, he worked in a restaurant where the focus was more on quantity than quality so he decided to go back. “I could have gone to another restaurant but the experience left a mark and I also wanted to see how the restaurant had evolved because at this level, restaurants are constantly changing.”
The first time at In De Wulf, he was impressed by the produce, the concept, the ideas and the team. “There were concepts like fermentation which were completely new to me. I knew fermentation in bread, wine and alcohol but not much else. What really impressed me was the quality of the produce. When I was in London I had worked with great produce but here, I understood freshness. Vegetables would be freshly cut from the fields and delivered to the restaurant. You could see the freshness and the quality. It was a revelation to me.”
In his first experience, he worked in the cold section and also did pastry. During his second stint at In De Wulf, he worked on the garnish section which meant more cooking, more use of technique and also more responsibility. “It was great to learn and grow as a chef,” he said.
What makes In De Wulf so special according to Kurt is the sense of family. “Kobe calls the team the Wulf Pack. It is a family and we are connected for life. He is also humble as a head chef. He is the owner but is there from morning till evening. If you are cleaning the floor, he is there doing the same thing. I have not seen this in other places I have worked in which is a bit disheartening,” he says. “He’s a driven person who knows what he wants and sticks to it. The evolution I saw in one year was incredible. And when I went to eat there in January, it was one of the best meals in my life and I have eaten in a number of great places.”
Among the lessons learnt was the work ethic but also the humility. “There is no beating around the bush. If you do not work hard in this job you cannot make it,” he says. “He was constantly pushing us to get better which is not something may people do. He wants you to be better than him. That it not something you can say of many people,” he said.
Kurt has since worked in a number of restaurants in Malta all more or less of the same level though there are some where he has had a freer hand to be creative which is something he really appreciates.
Coming from a family of butchers his food memories centre around his grandmother’s cooking who he says used to pick up vegetables directly from her garden outside the kitchen. Although he was interested in food, he did not go to the local culinary school (Institute of Tourism Studies) but instead found an office job. After working for four years, he decided to take the plunge by going to London to study at the Cordon Bleu and it is here that his career took off. He had a mentor at school who was the former sous-chef of Alain Ducasse, he also trained in Michelin star restaurant L’Autre Pied and after coming back to Malta was called to work there which he did for 6 months before he sustained a knee injury and returned back.
He tries to be creative even on his days off. Given there is not a lot of space for creativity in a very traditional kitchen he works in, he finds his inspiration going to the market and trying to cook something either gastronomic or even a home dish. “At the moment, I am working on reinventing Maltese dishes. To be honest, it is not something that interested me in the past and I always used to run away from Maltese food. But as you grow older and mature, you realise that this is your heritage. I am Maltese and I have to be proud of what I am doing so I am trying to take inspiration from there.”
“If one day I am to have my own restaurant, this will certainly be one of my main focuses. It will not be the only focus because I have lots of other interests but that is where I am getting most inspiration at the moment.”
He is looking at old recipes of Maltese food and looking at what his grandmother used to cook and give it his twist on the basis of what he has learned to date. “I think this is also interesting for people because they can see something they know and are familiar with. This is not something I invented but the big names in food today are reinventing cuisine on the basis of their childhood memories.”
Memories play a very important part in food. “At the end of the day it makes sense. I believe that memories take you somewhere. it has a powerful connection to our past but also to the future, definitely my future,” he says.
One of the dishes he is transforming (though it is still in the early stages) is the ‘soppa tal-armla’, a traditional vegetable soup served with cheese and a poached egg. “I was never a fan of overcooked vegetables, over poached egg and cheese in a hot broth. It is something that did not appeal to me. I took inspiration from this dish and gave it my own twist. So far, it does transport you in terms of taste but that is something I am working on. This is still the first version of the dish.”
Kurt is looking forward to what comes next. “Creativity forces you to push yourself. It is a challenge. You cannot be complacent. Chefs have a responsibility to show there is another way of working. We might have had successful restaurants in Malta in the past but there is more, much more we can do,” he said.
He tells me that the mainstream in Malta will always be the same but while today, the focus is on Nordic cuisine, it is something that cannot be done in Malta even if we can draw inspiration from it. “Take what Noma and Redzepi has done with foraging. We have done it for many years with capers and olives in Malta though people don’t necessarily call it foraging. But there are many interesting things in the countryside that can be used. For example, I never believed that there could be wild mushrooms in Malta. In October, I went out and helped pick up over 20 kilos of mushrooms that grow under pine trees and which are very similar to porcini. If you look, you can find great things.”
He also believes that Maltese need to look to the sea much more. “Why do we have to use only four or five types of fish. It all comes back to what clients want. But there is delicious fish like mackarel and bonito which nobody uses. We need to face reality that we cannot continue to eat fancy fish. If we are not careful it will die out like what happened with cod in the UK. We need to learn that there are other delicious fish and there is nothing to be scared of.”
Kurt says that trust between chefs and diners is essential. “There needs to be trust at both ends. As a chef, I will give you quality but you also have to trust me. I know it is a business but first and foremost, it has to be about good food,” he says.
This is clearly a young Maltese chef worth watching.