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Elmārs Tannis

By Darius J. Ross . 29.09.2008

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A local restaurateur speaks to RigaNOW! about what it takes to keep the heat on in the kitchen and what he loves about the city.

Born in Canada to Latvian parents, Elmārs Tannis arrived in Riga 17 years ago with a diploma from a top chef's school and heaps of know-how accumulated over years of hard slogging on the Toronto restaurant circuit (he started out as a dishwasher at 14). In Latvia, he entered a market that was still in its infancy, managing a bumpy but swift assent to the A-list of local dining establishments. His signature restaurant, Charlestons on Blaumaņa St, maintains a loyal following among locals and expats. He owns two fun-spots, flying under the Iguana flag, where guests can drink, eat soul-food and even take a pirts-break (sauna-break). The man himself is a fixture of the city's now bustling dining scene who hosts a popular cooking show on local television. He's also recently launched Garšu Laboratorija (which roughly equates to 'Taste Lab') a bold new culinary venture where guests get to roll up their sleeves and learn some hands-on tricks from the 43-year-old restaurateur extraordinaire. Tannis spoke to RigaNOW! about his new venture and also took us on a trip down memory lane, reminiscing about his early experiences of the city and, in passing, sharing his recommendations on how to spend a fun night in Riga.

  What's your latest venture, Garšu Laboratorija, all about?

It's not like a standard walk-in restaurant; it's a studio-kitchen where I hold cooking seminars in Latvian and English. I host private and corporate functions which usually have themes – Italian, French, Tex-Mex, Asian, and so on. I do team-building through cooking, where I split a group into teams that, for example, plan a menu, put a meal together, design a restaurant concept, and come up with a TV commercial. It has a fully equipped, brand new Electrolux kitchen and it has a great atmosphere which makes it feel like a party in someone's kitchen at home. Tourist groups are welcome too but they need to book ahead of time. And I use the space to train my staff at Charlestons – it gives me a chance to philosophise with them.

Are you still having fun cooking for local television?

Sure, but I've toned it down a little. I'm a little more business-like. This is now my fourth series of shows. Back in 1993, during my first show, I was a lot younger and took more risks. I once did an entire show with my baby perched on my shoulders. I had a stronger North American accent back then which led to accidental humour at times. I have a very professional crew these days who keep me on the ball – it's a 30-minute show which, unless I'm doing a roast, I can tape in about thirty minutes. 

Are you hatching other plans? 

I've thought about an English version of the show. And I have plans to put a book together. Stay tuned.

You were at the forefront of bringing western dining ideas to Latvia with your other Canadian and local partners with Fredies pub. How hard was it to get that project off the ground back in 1993?
It was very difficult. Actually, that was not the concept we came to Latvia with. We originally wanted to open up a pizza restaurant, which we finally did, called Pica Lulu, but at that time it was really hard to find locations; not only because of the space that was available but also the electrical and gas needs.

So, we found this excellent location in the Old Town, but it didn't have any electrical or gas which we needed for the pizza idea. We persevered with our idea to open a restaurant or a place where locals and foreigners could hang out, because basically there was nothing else at the time.
There was a kind of more upscale place owned by the German beer company, Jever, but it attracted a strange clientele, if you get my drift.
Once opened we had a lot of fun; it got pretty crazy at times, the place was quite small so the people would just spill out onto the street, like in Spain or Italy, just with snow on the ground. Well, the local police did not know what to make of this – they weren't used to people having a good time, I guess. What probably saved us was that it was a place frequented by many foreigners and diplomats. At times you would find a backpacker sitting next to a UN diplomat, just having a great time.

Back then Riga was notorious for giving the visitor quite a few strange restaurant dining experiences. What was the worst dining experience you've ever had in Riga?
I would probably have to say it was before I moved here to live, in the summer of '92 when I was working on a movie doing catering called Red Hot, starring Donald Sutherland, and going to a restaurant with the crew where the wait staff were so rude, basically asking why are you here, what do you want from us and then offering everything under the sun on the menu but only having one dish. They wouldn't tell you this of course, so you would have to go through the menu game until they said, yep, we got that one. It was kind of like that game you played as a kid where you think of a number and the other person has to guess what it is – nope, nope, guess again!

And what has been your best dining experience in Riga?
Oh, without a doubt the ribs here at Charlestons, for 11.30! But seriously, I would have to say being outdoors with people in the country during the solstice celebrations of Jāņi, just enjoying home cooked food. Latvians like to eat a lot of things when they are at their peak of freshness, like mushrooms, wild berries and strawberries, which I think are the best in the world here.

I would also have to say sitting down and dining over at your relatives to have dinner. It is very different than maybe what you are used to in North America. Everything is home-made; you've got three or four glasses in front of you, everyone is scrunched together, you've got fresh potatoes, maybe five different kinds of salads, herring, pickles of all types and meat cutlets – it's a real feast. And of course you can't get out of there if you haven't had a few helpings of everything. It is all very sincere; you might also find yourself over at a person's house who is not so well off, but they will set a table fit for a king, from all the home-made goods they have stored throughout the year.

You went on to open Pica Lulu with your partners; did you see a lack of good pizza in Latvia?
Actually, at the time there was no one serving pizza or what we think of as pizza; there were these thick sweet buns with ketchup and a glob of dill.
So we kind of started educating the public on what a pizza could be, and we started selling it by the slice, which I believe no one even does today – grab a slice and go. This is a hard concept for Latvians even now; they like to sit down and eat and use knives and forks, very
civilised. It was amazing back in the Fredies days, you would give someone a sub-sandwich and they would open it up and eat it with a knife and fork. I believe things taste better with your hands – of course, both systems work.

What is something you have introduced in Latvia as a food item that did not go over that well due to cultural differences?
Well, back to the pizza experience, we not only had to introduce a new type of food but also had to show how to eat it; but pizza is so universal you would have to be a moron not to get it.
There are things that are popular all over the world that we took for granted would work here but didn't. One example is the Caesar salad; it took a while for that to catch on, but now you see it everywhere. Some spices took a while for the locals to get used to just because they had never tasted them before. Take coriander or cilantro; I grew up with these as a kid in North America, but some Latvians think they smell like "blakts", which is a bug that grows in birch trees, so that doesn't go over that well.

I have heard that to make it in the restaurant business you have to be a half-businessman, half-restauranteur. How much time do you spend in the kitchen these days?
I would like to be more, but there has to be a time where you have to have the confidence to delegate.
I miss being in the kitchen, because you can't just go in for an hour or two, you can't get anything really done and you are also interrupting the flow of the chefs who are on duty.
When I am in there, though, I like to rein in the chefs, kind of calm them down. Maybe I'm old-fashioned but I like to keep the dishes simple, if you've got a good product as a base, don't mess with it – let it shine through in the dish. When you start doing all this fusion-cooking it sometimes comes out as confusion-cooking. I wanted to do a soup with our chef; I suggested a hearty solyanka soup, but our chef said, no, no, that is not restaurant food. Of course it's restaurant food – every food is restaurant food – but he was used to having it at home, I guess. I told him, look, if you made the best solyanka in Latvia, or the Baltics or even the whole Eastern Europe, don't you think this restaurant would be jam-packed; he had to agree.

When you have buddies from Canada come over to visit you, where do you like to take them for a fun night out?
Oh, I guess a night out on the town in the Old Town would be the first place to start, drink a lot of beer, and just go bar hopping. Then if things get out of hand you might find yourselves at Pulkvedis, and then realize in the morning you probably should not have been there.

If they have never been to Riga, what are the must-sees?
They would have to see the Open Air Museum, Old Town, Jūrmala and, of course, my restaurant Charlestons. One thing that you should do, though, when you are in Riga is to look up whenever possible. There is a lot going on up there, statues, just the whole architecture thing is amazing.

What do you believe this town is lacking as far as the next big culinary
experience?

What this town lacks is the complete dining experience, which is a more relaxed sort of atmosphere where you go with your friends; you see this more in North America. Where the dining experience is more of an event, not just a place where you go out to eat and complain about the service.
I think we are also lacking small funky restaurants that are chef-owned and that create good and exciting food. I don't necessarily think we need any particular ethnic-style food to come here, but we do need a more relaxed atmosphere, and I guess this will only come over time. I also like it when your waiter has character; I mean he should be more than just the person who brings and takes away your plates. Whatever happened to waiters introducing themselves, "Hi, I'm Ieva and today's daily specials are glazed duck, sword fish and a terrific Quiche" – you just don't get that in Riga.

I know you have three kids, and you spend a lot of time with them; where most likely would we find you on the weekends?
Well, it can be a number of places but what I would like to recommend is the wildlife reserve in Līgatne. It's about a half hour drive from Riga.
They've got bears and a whole slew of other animals to look at, and the nature out there is also gorgeous.

When you cook for yourself, where do you go for those specialty
items?

For meat there is a good butcher on Brīvības Street called Heartvik, just past the VEF bridge; for fish I would have to say the central market or MC2 (on Krasta Street), and for spices and sauces I like to go to SKY (on Duntes) or Stockmann.

 

www.viagrabelgiquefr.com 24.03.2015 05:32

Simply checked out a few of your pictures (: i'm really glad i obtained to job darkness you. You're wonderful!

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