All my desserts have a story in the background. The menus I make are always theme-bound. They are inspired by my childhood memories, dedicated to Istria seen through my eyes, to Meneghetti that inspires me with its energy and to ordinary people and events - grandma Maria from Buzet who selflessly gives a stranger a freshly picked fragrant apple or a story from the rich history of Istria..
We peeked into the pastry philosophy of probably the most innovative pastry chef in Croatia, Dragana Kovačević. Dragana works at the renowned boutique hotel and winery Meneghetti and is the mentor to Kul IN students who intern at the hotel. She draws inspiration for her interactive desserts from Istria and the stories that Istria tells, from everyday people and events. Dragana shared with us details from her professional path, the definition of interactive desserts, and we discussed the impact of the background story that her desserts convey to guests and the relationship between creativity and top ingredients. Read the interview to take your day to a sweeter level!
Kul IN: When did you realize you wanted to be a (pastry)chef?
- You could say that I stumbled upon a professional kitchen 16 years ago. I was carried away by that world, I fell in love with the magic and here I am today, swimming in those waters. Sometimes it's like swimming against the current, and sometimes it's a cruise. If you love what you do as much as I do, you mostly enjoy every one of those situations and don’t even think about doing any other job. The stress that comes with this job is either the reason why you quit or the "fuel" for going even stronger. I have become addicted to this dynamic way of life, trying new things, so now I can no longer imagine doing anything else.
Kul IN: Where have you worked so far?
- My starting point was the restaurant "Amfora" in Volosko and it was a first-row ticket to this magical world. I worked in more and less demanding restaurant kitchens around Zagreb and Velika Gorica. Each one has contributed to where I am now, as I emerged richer for an invaluable experience. Either I’ve gathered knowledge of new techniques, new ideas, or seen what I don’t want to do and how I don’t want to cook. I do not consider any day spent in these restaurants a waste of time, each one has enriched me and I am grateful for every experience I have gained because each experience has led me to the place where I am now and where I am happy. I went through all possible positions in the kitchen, from doing the dishes to heading the pastry department. I gained some experience from each position, every situation I experienced has built me, and I appreciate the people who do the least glamorous work in the kitchen the most.
Kul IN: When did you decide to specialize in desserts?
- I grew up with a mother who loved to make cakes and all my life I have had my fingers in creams in a way. Eight years ago, the pastry chef position was opened in the restaurant Dobra vina. At the time, I had no professional experience as a pastry chef, but I had years of working as a chef, and years of trying recipes by famous pastry chefs at home behind me. I love that moment when I turn on the mixer and time just seems to stop. I decided to go for it and applied for the job. I got the opportunity to further my knowledge and play with ideas, and stayed there until the restaurant closed, full 4 years. In the meantime, I completed all the professional training programs I could find, and became addicted to gathering new knowledge without which I cannot imagine this job.
Kul IN: Which pastry chefs have you worked with?
- Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to learn from a mentor or work side by side with the pastry Hall of Famers. All my savings went to books, education, masterclasses, silicone molds, cooking equipment instead of trips and fancy things. I can say that I came to every insight of where I am wrong, every recipe, every technique in a harder way, by learning and gathering knowledge wherever I could.
Kul IN: Who did you learn the most from?
- I learned from anonymous chefs, people who inspired me with their pastry style, perseverance, and even stubbornness. I learned from people who never complained about fatigue. From people who somehow managed to get the most out of me, to make me not stay in my comfort zone. In short, I learned from people who do their job with passion. When I come across such people in the kitchen, they become my mentors. For life.
Kul IN: Do you have role models in the world of pastry?
- I have no role models per se but I love the perseverance, diligence and boundless knowledge that Petra Jelenić possesses and the selflessness with which she shares her knowledge with others, I respect her humility. I love the playfulness of Robert Bašić. I love when I feel that a person is doing this job with love.
Kul IN: You are said to be one of the most innovative Croatian pastry chefs. What does that title mean to you?
- I don't believe in titles of that kind. Titles are like a nickname. People give them to you, so either you’re lucky and get a nice one or you’re not. I just love doing this job and making people happy.
Kul IN: Do your desserts have a story behind them?
- All my desserts have a story in the background. The menus I make are always theme-bound. They are inspired by my childhood memories, dedicated to Istria seen through my eyes, to Meneghetti that inspires me with its energy and to ordinary people and events - grandma Maria from Buzet who selflessly gives a stranger a freshly picked fragrant apple or a story from the rich history of Istria ..
Kul IN: What are interactive desserts?
- The term appeared out of nowhere and got to be associated with some of my desserts. Basically, it’s about loving when guests participate in dessert in some way. I like to include them in my story, and make them have fun and play because it is not a pleasure for me to enjoy the process on my own.
Kul IN: How would you explain the relationship between the quality of ingredients and the story behind the dessert, what is more important and how this practical and idyllic side complement each other in your desserts?
- There is no compromise when it comes to quality. I am lucky and blessed to work in a place where you can find the highest quality olive oil, homemade strawberries, the sweetest figs, the highest quality cheese, where I can walk and pick pine flowers. It is also a privilege to work at a place where I have the opportunity to get the highest quality butter, chocolate, homemade goat milk. It is a privilege that not everyone has and I try, out of respect for Meneghetti and our guests, to work with the highest quality and freshest ingredients I can get. The story is important, but it fails if it’s not built on those honest and fair foundations. This love, like any other, requires two things - honesty through the quality of the food and imagination through the story we use to build a dessert.
Kul IN: Can you get to know Istria through desserts and how?
- Ooo yes !! One of my desserts "Parenzana" is a story about an old railway that connected Istria and Italy and the dessert was inspired by a wonderful trip with dear friends to the inland of Istria. It was also inspired by tasting local parenzana brandy in a tavern. A wonderful gathering enriched me with a story about history , and I tried to convey that story to guests through this dessert. The dessert "Uz ognjišće" is a story about fireplace, the place where Istrian families gathered, rejoiced, sang, mourned. It is served on an olive board, and the main ingredient is roasted chestnuts. The dessert "Welcome to paradise" is a story about a fairytale entrance to the Meneghetti estate through a pine tree avenue, and it was made with pine nuts and a pine flower. The "Četiri zemlje" dessert is a story about the search for truffles, about Bale, a place where there are 390 different species of butterflies, or - as I like to say - a place where all the most tender and beautiful butterflies found their home. Every dessert has its story ... .
Kul IN: Your favorite dessert to prepare in Meneghetti and at home is?
- Those are two different worlds. I love making and creating desserts at Meneghetti where the pleasure lies in that creative process. The desserts are all my babies and I love them equally. The desserts I make at home for myself are another world. The taste of my mother's Plasma cake, rice pudding, apple pie that she prepared for me cannot be surpassed by any dessert or all the Michelin stars. It’s all a matter of emotion that a dessert can evoke.
Kul IN: Where do you get inspiration for your desserts?
- Inspiration is all around me. Dear people, happy moments, painful farewells, a person’s energy, a sunny day, the sound of waves, the crackling of a fire in a fireplace — everything can be inspiration if you open your heart.
Kul IN: What is a successful dessert for you?
- The one that makes the guest happy and manages to provoke emotion in him. Only those desserts are successful for me!
Kul IN: Which of your desserts is your favorite?
- That dessert has a special place in my heart and a special meaning to me. It's the "Četiri zemlje" dessert, and it's special to me because it was co-designed by my son, who is a chef, and has been working with me in Meneghetti's pastry department for a year. It’s an interesting concept, the funniest dessert I’ve ever made and guests love it. It is special to me because it marked the beginning of a wonderful business collaboration with the most important person in my life, with whom I have the privilege of sharing the passion for this world and that is why it will always be my The Dessert!