When you learn one technique you can upgrade it and improvise endlessly - even if you make a mistake, you can tweak it and get the perfect dish in the end!
Which is the key ingredient of every good chef, inspiration or knowledge? Damir Ljubičić says both are crucial! Damir is a Kul IN alumni whose career had not been oriented towards culinary arts in the beginning. However, having realized he wanted to dedicate his life to culinary arts, he did not hesitate, instead he took the necessary steps and today he is the executive chef at Hotel Osam, and he was heading the kitchen at the illusive restaurant Zori for years. If you are hesitant about your career plans or don’t know the necessary steps and ingredients for a career in gastronomy, read Damir’s story!
FROM CAREER BEGINNINGS TO Kul IN
Tell us something about your professional beginnings
- I first enrolled at a high school for technicians, but changed my mind in the second grade and transferred to a high school for cooks. I liked the idea of working in the kitchen from the very beginning but vocational professions are often stigmatized here. However, I realized that with vocational education I had the opportunity to become who I truly wanted to be. My first job was in Baška Voda, but I first encountered a truly professional atmosphere when I started working in Palmižana. At 18, I went to Zadvarje where I was running the kitchen at a small restaurant called “San”. There, I learned a lot about meat, and I perfected my organizational skills because I had to bear responsibility for the whole kitchen. Later, I decided to return to Palmižana where I worked as a sous chef, and after a year they asked me if I wanted to take over the kitchen. I spent eight seasons there. During these eight years I also became aware of Kul IN, I found you guys on the Internet and I was interested in the Culinary Arts program.
When did you realize that you wanted to pursue culinary arts on a more advanced level?
- When I was working at the small restaurant in Zadvarje, I realized that I wanted to pursue this career at the highest possible level. High echelons of gastronomy intrigued me and I did not want to confine myself to a small town, so I went to the Zori restaurant because they get exclusive guests. By working in that restaurant I got the opportunity to visit the Caribbean, Paris. Also, we built a butchery that was certified by the Rhug Estate. It really was a special story and it motivated me to continue to grow professionally. At Kul IN I have further upgraded my perception of the profession, laid the foundations and refined my skills.
What made you the chef you are today?
- Probably my willpower because I am a person that does not give up, when I set my eyes on a goal, it does not matter how much time I have to work to accomplish it or how much it will cost me, I will do it. I am resourceful, and I am not afraid of challenges, I have the necessary confidence. I was shy when I started, I did not know how to write a recipe, it was nuclear physics to me. Now I have a lot more theoretical knowledge, I read more and invest in myself. In the beginning, I loved to talk a lot, and I did not know how to listen to advice but over time I noticed this mistake and corrected it. After each mistake we have to ask ourselves what we can learn from the situation and how it can make us a better person, we should not give up and despair.
You are an executive chef, what are your duties and what does your week day look like?
- The first thing to do when you take over the kitchen is to make the schedule for your team, then you educate the staff, create the menu, plan your kitchen – decide how many people you will need, what equipment you will need etc. Eventually, when I found the team I assessed the abilities of each person and assigned them different duties. Today, there are 12 people in the kitchen. We have a pastry chef, commis chefs, a guy who does washing up, shift manager, chefs who only do breakfast etc. I personally like having a lot of responsibility, and I thrive when I have everything under control. In essence, every plate that comes out of the kitchen is my responsibility, as well as every mistake anyone of my chefs make. I mange storage, make lists for grocery shopping, and I consider all this work my responsibility. Also, I stay in touch and communicate with the suppliers. This is a job that keeps you busy for 24 hours a day, but I love what I do.
What skills are essential for an executive chef?
- Executive chef needs to be flexible, reasonable with people, a good listener, at times, a good psychologist because they need to know when to raise their voice and when to stay calm. Also, a good chef should have a healthy dose of self-confidence, be well-versed in knowledge because authority comes from the right attitude and knowledge, and you automatically get more respect you when you know everything. When we do daily offers, we put everything on the paper and I take suggestions from the team, collect ideas, e.g. how to arrange colors and contrasts on the plate, that way all of us participate in creating the concept and the dish. When the customer compliments our work, the entire team feels proud and motivated. On one hand, I share absolutely everything with them, if I need to clean the fish, I clean the fish, if someone needs me to cover their shift, I do that too. On the other hand, I expect perfection in the kitchen, everything needs to be clean and tidy, and I always remind them of that.
What is your main concern when drafting a menu and where do you look for inspiration, i.e. what is more important, inspiration or knowledge?
- Both are important because knowledge without inspiration leads to nothing, and inspiration without knowledge leads to a chef who will sometimes make a delicious meal, and the next time everything will go wrong because they did not know why they made a mistake or succeeded in the first place. I draw inspiration from social media - I save photos and then re-create it in my own style. I would even visit different restaurants and write down the techniques I liked.
How many menus does the hotel have and what is the concept of the kitchen?
- We have the snack menu (salads, etc.), and the main menu which is very elaborate. Preparing dishes on the main menu is quite demanding because we only use fresh foods, we clean and bone the fish ourselves. The concept of the menu is focused on food with Mediterranean character, based on French cuisine, but with a more modern serving style and I also like to incorporate molecular cuisine in my dishes.
How much has knowledge gained at Kul IN helped you in your career?
- Education has put me on the right path. I could not find my style before, I could not understand what and where are the basics of the profession, and I did not know how to make a recipe, find the foundations of culinary arts. I perfected my theoretical knowledge at Kul IN, and that is important for getting respect from your team and having authority. However, the techniques you master at Kul IN will be crucial for your future career because when you learn one technique you can upgrade it and improvise endlessly. Even if you make a mistake, you can tweak it and get the perfect dish in the end, you will have the confidence and knowledge to do that.
How important is education in the life of a chef?
- Suffice it to say that I am currently thinking of going back to school. You should never stop learning and growing, otherwise you get stuck in a rut. Sometimes after a masterclass I can’t help but wonder how didn’t I think of that? You need inspiration to light up your creative spark. I think it's important to always meet new people and colleagues, to go to restaurants, and invest in education.
For more information about our Culinary Arts program, click here.
TO SUM UP
Can you list the mentors and chefs you learned a lot from, with whom you had the opportunity to work or cooperate in some way?
- Stephan Macchi is my friend and mentor, I learned a lot from him, as we did a two-month presentation, some kind of counseling together. I went to Gordon Ramsey’s masterclass, then Massimo Bottura. I learned a lot from ŠKMER (Heads of Mediterranean and European cuisine), and I stay in contact with the chef Jadran Grančić.
What advice would you give to young people who are just starting their career in hospitality industry?
- You have to tirelessly work on your character, learn to listen and embrace theoretical knowledge. Always take advantage of the opportunity to work with a top chef, if you get it, and do not be discouraged if your salary is not high at the beginning, you will gain so much experience and that will be crucial for your future jobs. This is a job without creative boundaries, learn, try and live culinary arts.
What was your greatest success so far?
- People do consider me successful, they say I have achieved a lot and I am not even 30 yet. I think I am a workaholic who does not give up. What does "successful" even mean, you know. My success is being in charge of the whole kitchen, I ran the kitchen at the Zori, a restaurant that gets very exclusive guests. People have more respect when you have worked in such an important restaurant.
Where do you find motivation?
- Satisfied guest is my main motivation. I am filled with joy when the guests greet us in the kitchen. It is not a matter of money, although this really is a well-paid job, it is about the creative freedom this industry offers to all who are willing to work hard.
What are your plans for the future?
- I honestly do not know, I sometimes feel like I want to go to America and work there, sometimes I want to stay in Croatia and open my own restaurant, for example, a street food place with a story, organic but fast, where people could eat every day and know they are eating healthy food and that the price is acceptable. I do not have a specific plan except to keep investing in my education. I go wherever the opportunities take me, and I don’t mind my workplace being far from my home because I like challenges.
Program: Culinary Arts