MARIA KABAL | ANADA
By Jo Rittey
I walked into Añada in the middle of a photo shoot of some of the dishes on head chef, Maria Kabal’s new menu. The dishes looked incredible. Having worked in the Gertrude Street Kitchen over the past three years, Maria recently stepped into the head chef role and now leads an all female kitchen creating delicious food and working towards minimising waste and making sustainable choices.
Hi Maria. Let’s start off with what made you become a chef in the first place?
It all started when I was a young person. It was a big deal in my family. My parents are great cooks; we love to travel all the time. To be honest, to this day they probably know more about some things than I do. I quite often ring my dad to ask him how to ferment things or whatever. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I was growing up and then I thought I’d look up what I can do and I saw there was culinary arts and management and I could study in London. I thought, wonderful, that’s what I’ll do. It progressed from there.
How old were you when you left Estonia to work in London?
I was 18. In Estonia I worked for free for six months, like a stage. It was a time just after the market crash. I thought I wanted to try my hand as a chef but everybody was looking for jobs so why would you hire someone with zero experience? I was living with my parents at the time and finishing high school so it wasn’t too bad and I did get the experience I needed to move on from there.
I’ve talked a lot with chefs here about the old hierarchy and the yelling, abusive approach that used to happen in kitchens. Was it like that in Estonia as well?
No. I feel as though it wasn’t that hard-core in Estonia. But when I moved to London I did get that hard-core chef. But without that experience, I wouldn’t be the person I am now. I don’t want to be the kind of person he was, but these days you do see that people are very sensitive in the kitchen environment and sometimes the job doesn’t get done and you can’t say anything because they will get upset and walk away. Whereas where I come from, the job had to get done, or you were done.
I understand what you’re saying. Some chefs have described the old way in the kitchen as quite military, but that it provided a sense of discipline. I guess it’s about finding the balance and allowing your staff to discover the intrinsic motivation they need to want to do the job and do it well.
Exactly. You have to be understanding of people’s psychology to know what motivates them. At least in the old days you could just yell and people would sink or swim but these days you need to figure out how to get the best out of everyone.
Did you have chefs you worked for who you would model yourself on? Maybe not just foodwise, but also in their practice.
I grew up watching a lot of Anthony Bourdain. I thought he was very laidback and didn’t have the wankiness a lot of big names do. I think now he has got a little bit more of that but when I was growing up he didn’t have that and he was really about life and enjoyment and happiness. Food brought him happiness and I wanted that in my life as well.
And has it brought you happiness?
Yes. Absolutely. I’m all about that.
What brought you to Melbourne?
Well I hate to say I was tired of London because they say if you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life. But I had been there for five years and it was hard work; I had been going to Uni and working at he same time and I suppose I wanted to travel for a bit. A friend of mine was in New Zealand and wanted a change as well. She suggested moving to Melbourne as it’s the food capital of Australia and she said I’d have a really good time here. I was apprehensive to begin with but after six months I knew that one year of a working holiday wouldn’t be enough. I got sponsored by Anada and three years, on, the rest is history.
It’s Spanish food at Anada and I guess that’s now the food you’re embracing. Do you include anything from your Estonian background?
A little bit. I guess in a way all European food is similar because it’s very peasant food. There’s a lot of making something out of nothing and trying to be really creative in times of famine and war. People had to be super creative and that’s where a lot of European traditional culture comes from. I suppose all European countries have that in common. That’s what I try to do here as well; really see what we are wasting and what we can do with stuff that would normally go in the bin. I want to try and be a little bit more creative with that. Sometimes you can make an orange peel sorbet and add flavour to other things to get the last bit from it. And I’m doing a bit of fermenting and using offal and stuff like that.
That would take some research; where do you go to answer your questions? Are you a book person or internet?
I really like Books for Cooks which used to be on this street but has moved to Queen Victoria Market. I really love the guy there. You can just walk in and say what you’re looking for and he’ll find it. The internet these days is pretty good as well.
Have you been to Spain?
Before I went to Uni, I stayed in Barcelona for four months.
Perfect. You were saying before about food being part of life and you really need to taste the food in the context it was created to understand the flavours.
For sure. If you’ve been there before you can understand the flavours and that means you can do something that will fit in a new context. For example if you take Spanish food to Australia, Australians might not a hundred per cent understand traditional Spanish food. If you google Spanish food, it’s all brown and a bit sloppy looking and if you serve it here, even if you tell them that it’s wonderful and every tapas place serves it, people might not get it. So what you can do is think about the flavours and ingredients you use and translate that into a form that people might like here.
That’s interesting because when I came in today and saw the photographer with your dishes, they are so beautifully plated they are like works of art. I hadn’t really thought of it before, but just because you can cook and create beautiful food, you might not necessarily be artistic. Do you have to learn that or is it an instinctive thing?
I think it’s half and half. You have to have good hands; not every one is a painter, for example. I really appreciate when people are delicate with their hands. I have a couple of girls in the kitchen here who are really good with their hands. You need that finesse to put it on the plate. Some people visually don’t see the difference. It’s hard to explain how you can’t see the difference between plates. There might be the same ingredients but he way it’s plated is so different.
The look of the dish and then the aromas of the food; it’s really multi-sensory. Someone famous said that you eat with your eyes and when I saw your food I really wanted to eat it.
Is this is your first role as head chef?
Yes, it blows my mind.
There’s so much more to think about. You’re the leader of the team now. What qualities do you need to be a good head chef, do you think?
I think you need a big capacity to take criticism from other people under you, to make sure they feel heard and you don’t take it personally. People have opinions and you need to be able to filter what is actually important and what is just someone trying to show you your place. I suppose you need to understand what people around you are feeling and the kind of environment they want to work in.
You have a band of girls in the kitchen. Is that by design or by accident?
It was by accident. The sous chef and I were already working in the kitchen and when I was asked to be head chef, I said to her that I was happy for her to step up and take my job. Then the kitchen hand was already here so the three of us have been together for a while. Then I trialled a lot of people and 90 per cent didn’t show up for the trial. It was a nightmare. I trialled a couple of guys and they were visually uncomfortable with four chicks around them and telling them what to do. I thought it would just be too hard for them and for me.
But often there’s one girl in a male kitchen. Interesting. Is it different working with all women, as opposed to with all men?
I think so. It’s only my personal experience but I find that women take other peoples’ authority more easily. Women tend to get on with the job and think, it’s fine, I don’t need to be above anyone; this is the position I’m in and if I have to answer to someone I will, whereas, in the past when I have worked with men, if there is anyone on the same level, they always have to get into a competition. That’s only my experience. I can’t speak for anyone else.
Now you’ve brought out a new menu at Anada with your stamp on it.
I’m still working on it, really. You might have a lot of ideas in your head but when you put it all together, there might be an imbalance so you always want to tweak it a little bit. It’s my second month full time so I feel as though there is still work to do. But there always is. No one is ever there.
Do you have a favourite dish on the menu?
My favourite things are quite offaly things, like duck heart torrija; it’s duck hearts and duck livers with a Spanish French toast, so old bread soaked in a cinnamon, orang egg mix. Then you deep fry that and it goes with duck liver pate, duck hearts and crispy pork cheek. It’s intense.
With some of the new things, it has been a challenge for old customers and in the beginning they were not sure, but when they try it, they realise it works and the front of house manager has been saying some weird compliments and it sounds as though they are making things up.
197 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
Jo Rittey is a freelance writer who wants to live in a world where apostrophes are used correctly and smiles are genuine. When she’s not roaming the streets of the northside in search of great food, she likes getting lost in beautiful films and having wildly enthusiastic discussions with chefs.