My Dream Restaurant by Casey Angelova

Casey is a writer, farmer, chef (Culinary Institute of America),a mother, wife and ex-pat. On her facebook page in Bulgaria she shares her discoveries and adventures with an ever-growing audience. Here she shares with Sofia Restaurant Week her vision of the perfect restaurant.

Home grown asparagus
Home grown asparagus

I have been fantasizing about my dream restaurant for many years, while the exact details tend to alter slightly, some elements remain the same. In the past 8 years, since I have been working on Eating, Gardening and Living in Bulgaria, my life revolves around food from my farm to my extracurricular activities. Those that follow my culinary pursuits have asked me why don’t I open a restaurant in Sofia. Back in the day, I definitely entertained the idea, but training as a chef in New York taught me a very valuable lesson, which is I don’t want to cook in my own restaurant. Many factors contributed to this revelation, but I still have a mental folder with all the ideas for my ideal place, if financial considerations were not an issue; reality on the other hand contradicts this notion. To start I will mentions some American chefs and restaurateurs that have inspired me first hand; slow food, finesse and the recipe for the recipe.

My love of Slow Food began upon discovering Alice Waters, considered the Godmother of the farmers market movement in Northern California in the 1970’s and owner of the famed Chez Panisse restaurant, which is the mecca for real, clean food in the United States, and the birthplace of California cuisine. The food is not groundbreaking or molecular in its gastronomic efforts, but the ingredients are selected according to the season from local farmers and the French-inspired cooking style aims to bring out the very essence of the ingredients in every bite. At Chez Panisse, you can often find a single peach at the epitome of ripeness on a plate as dessert.

While she was to be found in the kitchen back in the early days of Chez Panisse, regardless of her location nowadays, her philosophical influence is felt in every aspect of the restaurant. When I worked at a charity event in her kitchen, with the Chez Panisse staff, I was given the important task of preparing the salad leaves, which arrived straight from the farmers market. The specific instructions were just how Alice liked her lettuce and greens. ‘How to wash it and swirl it in the water bath’, ‘which leaves to select’ and how ‘large pieces were never cut, but torn into bite sizes’. A salad should never need a knife, unless it is an iceberg wedge. Till that point, I never gave such thought to my salad, but the reverence that was given to the humble leaves made an impact on my food goals.

One of the first cookbooks that I received was the French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller. I had no idea how to cook real food at the time and the majority of the ingredients and methods were completely foreign to me. It wasn’t until years later that I understood the artistry and “finesse” that is Thomas Keller. Having read numerous books about chef life and becoming a chef, his ideas about cooking were brilliant in their simplicity, but focus on precision and attention to detail. I did a stage in his famed kitchen in New York, Per Se, while vying for an internship, which they offered me, but unfortunately I had to decline. I have never been so nervous in a kitchen, in my best effort to strive for perfection. I spent 18 hours laboriously prepping baby carrots and shelling fava beans, with each nimble move of my fingers consciously imagining Mr. Keller looking over my shoulder.

The basic elements of cooking are grounded in science, for any food nerds that have had the chance to read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking (all serious chefs should read it, at least once from cover to cover). Food and science go hand and hand. There are specific reactions that happen to food when applied to heat, cold salt, kneading…
The basic knowledge of the cooking process, aside from the artistry aspect is essential to success. You can be a creative chef, as well as a scientific chef, the two are not mutually exclusive. In some areas you can wing it and let your instinct guide you but in other areas of cooking, you need precision and attention to detail to achieve consistently delicious food.

If I had to chose a place that most closely embodies my dream restaurant, it would be Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Not only do you have a Michelin starred restaurant, but it is also part of the Stone Barns center for Agriculture. The chefs work directly with the farm in a harmonious collaboration, pushing the boundaries for the ‘farm to table’ movement. Of all the kitchen experiences I had in New York, Blue Hill filled me with a sense of wonder and awe. Unlike most kitchens, this was bright and airy, with windows that looked out onto the gardens, every element of the food waste was composted on the premises and used by Stone Barns in the garden. The architecture of the building was a repurposed dairy farm, made of stone. Just thinking about this place fills me with a sense of bliss.
My secret longing is to create a restaurant, which is not only a place but a destination, where my customers have the opportunity, not only to consume food, but to comprehend where it came from and engage in active discussion, to roam the grounds as I have done at Stone Barns, enjoy the connection between the soil and what is on your plate. I want a menu to reflect the environment, but also be creative and above all delicious. I want the restaurant to be unpretentious and accessible to all levels of gourmands. Regardless of your level of passion for food, if you leave having had a pleasurable dining experience, then I have done my job.