The life of a passionate chef is not always easy, particularly when he or she needs to fight against tradition and a dining scene that is not necessarily ready for a new approach.
Tradition and habit may be the hardest things to fight against because few people may understand what you are trying to do. Then there is also the business side of running a restaurant. Do you follow the crowd or do you try to persist in creating something different even if that comes at a huge expense?
Andrew Borg, the chef patron of Black Pig Restaurant in Valletta, the capital city of Malta, not only had to fight tradition and habits, but also against a bank manager in order to convince him that he did not want to open a takeaway instead of a fine dining restaurant.
That restaurant, unfortunately closed last month. A few days ago, Andrew announced that he had closed his restaurant and that he would be taking a sabbatical before coming back with a new exciting project next year.
The intention to close the restaurant was already in the air when I met him over a coffee in Malta in August. He had told me that he did not know how long he could sustain 14-hour work days and he had an interesting project in mind but Black Pig had been created with him as the centre and he would prefer to close the restaurant than get another chef to replace him at the restaurant when he was not there.
What I did not realise at the time was the fact that the closing of the restaurant was so imminent. At Andrew’s restaurant this summer, I enjoyed the first meal in Malta in many years that approached the level of great restaurants abroad. There was respect for great produce, excellent presentation, innovation and a certain element of courage in the face of resistance.
The restaurant Black Pig was considered to be one of the best kept secrets of ‘foodies’ in Malta and as Andrew himself told Food and Wine Gazette in August, he was starting to get reservations to his restaurant from foreigners one month or two months in advance, which was something completely unheard of for the island of Malta.
‘I refused opportunities that would have put me in a comfort zone’
“I opened Black Pig when I had nearly given up on opening a restaurant. I always dreamed that I would have my own restaurant one day. Along the way, I have refused many opportunities that would have put me in a comfort zone. I refused to work in 5 star hotels as a head chef twice. I refused going to work in large companies. As soon as I would see the payslip, I would quit. It was too nice, too comfortable. For me, as a chef, I could not think of going to work in a clean uniform and coming out in a clean uniform. That’s not cooking for me,” Andrew told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
The opening of Black Pig was not easy, as he himself says and he has had to fight to impose his style on a clientele who was not necessarily ready for his approach to food. Before that he had worked in different positions including stints at Mange Tout in Xemxija, Corinthia and Il-Horza in Valletta.
“When I went to Il-Horza after a month and a half at Corinthia, I took a pay cut of EUR2,300 a month to go and work there, but I knew that this would be a great learning experience for me. There I learned to manage a restaurant as a chef, to take decisions, to see what people wanted, to deal with suppliers. When I reached the stage that I could not learn any more I started looking to try and find a restaurant and quit my job. I looked for nine months but it was starting to get demotivating because I could not find anything. I also needed to start looking for another job since I was not working at the time. Out of the blue, I was having lunch at Ambrosia when an estate agent called me to go and see a place in Old Bakery street. I thought that it was going to be a waste of time.”
When he saw the place, he saw that the two rooms were empty and the kitchen was in a very bad state so it was a bit of a reality check. But he liked it even if the asking price was ridiculous. Maybe I was a bit drunk as I had been drinking wine so I stopped the landlord and told him this is what I have and this is what I can offer. I told him to tell me yes or no so I could go to sleep. After a bit of thinking, the landlord said ok and shook my hands. I got shivers,” he recalls.
‘I spent 70 to 80 per cent of the budget on the kitchen’
Andrew and his girlfriend took over the restaurant on 1 March and opened on 1 September 2012. “We had an extremely low budget to open the restaurant and I spent 70 to 80 per cent of the budget on the kitchen. At the time, I thought that if the place was not nice but the food was good we would still be able to attract people. We bought comfortable chairs and did not even have money for table clothes,” he says. “We bought some paintings and opened the restaurant and said we would see what will happen from there.”
The chef, having experience abroad and also being one who travels specifically to visit restaurants believed that the location was of little importance. “Many people nowadays travel for food and sometimes the more you travel to a remote place or a part of the city that is not known, the better the experience is. Sometimes you see queues in the least expected places. We were not expecting queues but we were expecting a better reaction,” he tells me.
They say that you learn from your mistakes but some can be very costly as Andrew acknowledges. “It took me three years to arrive to where I wanted to arrive with a complete surprise menu (called the carte blanche menu) and a handful of starters and main courses which change nearly on a daily basis.”
‘I found resistance. People had a culture shock, some tried the restaurant never to return’
“I should have done what we wanted to do immediately. But I found a lot of resistance. People had a culture shock, some tried the restaurant never to return. Some would come, take a look at the menu and walk out. Others would order a drink and then just leave. It was insulting and it hurt even though it was better that way. We were asking what was happening, it was not like we were cheating our clients.”
The resistance he found did not only come from his customers. On the day he was to sign the lease, his bank manager insisted that he should open a casual place or a takeaway because that was where money was. He even changed the terms of the loan.
“When things were looking bleak, we decided to make the restaurant a bit warmer and I decided to do what I wanted without any compromises. Of course, we still have a meat main course and a pasta dish because we are in Malta and this is not Brussels, the UK or France. “But at the same time, there are ways of introducing changes and I am doing my best,” he said.
Andrew used to create the menu on the basis of what he found from his suppliers. “I had a small menu so when I shopped I would check what was available. When I go to the butcher, I might choose different cuts of meat which would mean that even if everyone is having the carte blanche menu at the restaurant they will not eat the same dishes because it depends on the produce I find. This has also meant criticism from some clients who could not understand how he could not have beef on the menu. The reaction was as if I had offended someone’s mother,” he tells me disappointedly.
“When I decided to change my approach, I moved away from social media. I wanted to be out of the loop otherwise I would be doing the same thing as others. People might think that what I do is different but for me it is not different. It is a question of logic.”
He complains that fresh ingredients in Malta are ridiculously expensive. “The price that we pay for fish is incredible. I cannot understand how a fish caught in Malta can cost 24 euros a kilo while the same fish that comes from Saudi Arabia costs 16 euros and has travelled thousands of miles. Unfortunately, good produce as well as the staples are extremely expensive here,” he says.
Is a local cuisine possible with your style I ask him. Andrew says that to have a fully local cuisine, you would need to work without a menu. “We are already struggling with a small menu to find the produce we want, it would be impossible to have no menu. A butcher may call me and tell me that there is Charolais beef. I know it is a bit tough as it has lots of fibres and muscles and I have had complaints for serving it even though I love it. Unfortunately, I need to change because people prefer grain-fed beef with lots of marbling instead.”
Andrew knew that he wanted to be a chef from the age of 12 or 13 years. “I loved food and was never thin. I always wanted to eat well even though at the time I did not know if I wanted to do it professionally. At around 16 I started to take it seriously. I wanted to go to eat in restaurants, I tried cooking at home and then I no longer had any doubts.”
The first book that really inspired him to cook was the one by Anton Mossimann. “It was the first time I saw minimalist cuisine. The food did not look real. I said that this is what I wanted to do even if I didn’t know what it was. I went to the Institute for Tourism Studies (Malta) though I was very disappointed. Unfortunately, I had already learned most skills in kitchens I had worked in. But I needed to work abroad so I needed to go there. They sent me to Belgium to work at the Holiday Inn airport hotel and after my induction I returned back after 2 days because it was not for me. When I returned to Malta, I found a hotel myself and went to work at the Lanesborough hotel in Hyde Park in London. They had an à la carte restaurant. It was not at its peak but it was a great introduction to fine dining. Moreover, I was also in London which made it easier for me.”
At the time, Andrew could not get a work permit so he would work in Malta for a few months to make money and then go and follow a traineeship for a month abroad. “I had a meal at Gordon Ramsay when he still had two stars. People were telling me to go and train there but I did not want to because a restaurant with a brigade of staff like that would never work in Malta. I wanted to find small restaurants where the chef was always cooking and who was hands on. I was lucky to find Hibiscus of French chef Claude Bosi in Ludlow, border with Wales.
“He had worked with my hero, the French chef Alain Passard but because of the popularity of that place and the language barrier, I thought this would be the closest I could get to Passard. I used to go and train there for three weeks. He would work with his assistant and maybe three students. He would be doing everything. I did not spend years there but the few times I went there I started to question everything.”
Andrew no longer goes to train in restaurant kitchens because he says that ‘at my age, they would think I am a wierdo’ but he still tries to go to as many restaurants abroad as possible to broaden his horizons.
‘It is disheartening to go to restaurants and find that the quality is really poor’
Is he tired of the uphill struggle I ask him. “It is disheartening to go to restaurants locally and find that the quality is really poor. But I am not tired. I have a million ideas even if I don’t know how I can continue to live like this, I cannot imagine having a family and working the way I am working,” he told me.
He can get frustrated when it comes to finding produce. “We have lost seasonality. I used to buy asparagus from Gozo for five weeks during April/May. I was recently told by the supplier that he can provide it to me all year round because a restaurant put it on the menu and wanted to have it all year round. I now refuse to buy it. Seasonality is finished. Chefs should be ashamed of themselves. How can you create a menu in summer which you can keep on serving in February or March,” he says.
He tells me seasonality and produce are a very important source of inspiration for a chef. “Inspiration starts with shopping. This is how a menu is formed. Sometimes, I realise I don’t have all the necessary ingredients and will need to go out and shop again. Despite the fact that fermentation is the trend, I don’t do it because I am afraid of humidity and the heat. Also it is not something that is part of our culture. Of course, given cucumbers are in season I will make kimchi but I will not store it,” he says.
Andrew uses a lot of Asian ingredients even though these are not necessarily visible in the end result. He tells me that they change everything. “I don’t mention it because I don’t want to create confusion. Of course, if people ask, we are happy to explain,” he tells me.
‘There is a limit to what you can impose on customers’
His cuisine is also vegetable driven and he dreams of being able to decrease protein from the menu. “Unfortunately I cannot. This is Malta and it is difficult. I would wish to offer more food but with less protein but unfortunately it cannot be done. There is a limit to how much you can impose on reluctant customers,” he tells me.
But there is a ray of hope. He tells me that before he closed the restaurant he was serving between 40 to 45 per cent of customers with the carte blanche menu though these are mainly foreigners. And foreigners tend to ask if they needed to come earlier for the first seating. “I wish the Maltese were more disciplined with time and respected restaurants particularly when it came to no shows and cancelling reservations at the last minute,” he says.
It is an uphill struggle but Andrew is also optimistic that there are other passionate chefs and food lovers who can slowly turn the scene.
Note: The interview with Andrew was carried out towards the end of August before the announcement that Black Pig would close. We will follow Andrew’s next project because we are sure it will be worthy of the wait.