Last Wednesday I gave up enjoying my morning coffee at home because Chef Foa told me if I wanted to catch him for a chat we would have to meet at 8:30 at Steam, in Aviatorilor.
Note: I wrote this article in September 2017 as part of an editorial project to present Bucharest. The English-language brochure called #translatingBucharest is an innovative concept by Casa de Traduceri, a Romanian language services provider, meant to present the company and Bucharest in a readable, likable and useful way to visitors on short business or leisure trips to Bucharest.
First presented during an event organized by the European Language Industry Association (ELIA), gathering together 150 people from 25 countries, the brochure was a total success and left everyone wondering why they only booked a few days in this fresh and vibrant city.
Chef Foa is one of the most energetic new wave chefs in Bucharest now. His reputation rocketed from TV shows, where he touched the heart of Romanians with his strong and spontaneous personality. Google him, he is quite a character!
Steam, our meeting place, is maybe the smallest coffee shop in Bucharest – imagine a room the size of your home bathroom where you’ve crammed a counter, an espresso machine, a sink and two wooden benches. Pretty tight, right? Well, fit in some 7-8 locals with sleepy eyes, dragging their feet and reaching out their hands, hypnotized, to saviour a hot cappuccino cup with thick and creamy foam. Coffee shops like Steam spawn all around Bucharest – crammed, with just a few products on their menu, but serving excellent coffee – these are the places where many employees take their first energy shot of the day.
The Big Bang
“The Bucharest restaurant market grew enormously in the past years. Remember the boom in the Old City Centre?” asks Chef Foa sipping from his coffee. “It all started back there, basically”.
Everybody wanted to be there – the old district with historic houses, typical to any decent European city, which started to come out of the numbness that was drawn over it by the communist regime; people with entrepreneurial instincts immediately “sniffed” the potential in the area and this is how the most vibrant place in Bucharest came to life. This was the vial which gave life to many concept venues, because every entrepreneur had to come up with something different, to stand out in the crowded area. Meanwhile, the past ten years boom slowed down, things settled a bit, but the Old City is still point zero of a night’s fun.
New ideas spread throughout the city. Gourmet restaurants, gastropubs, cocktail bars or concept coffee shops are now literally everywhere. “It was in the Old City Centre that we started to make the first real burgers in Bucharest”, remembers Chef Foa. “We insisted on it, and then, gradually, the idea became popular with venues throughout Bucharest”.
Burger’s Golden Era
Indeed, the burger was, in recent years, the prodigy of Bucharest gastronomy, finding a place in all menus, from street food vans to gourmet restaurants. Many chefs placed their bets on this humble dish, treating it with all due consideration and turning it perhaps into the most popular dish in the city (of course, after “mici”, the local minced meat burger). Classic, gourmet, vegetarian, with truffles or deconstructed/naked – we could almost say that no edible option was left unexplored. For two years now, the burger has had its own food festival, called what other than Burger Fest, with thousands of festival goers each year.
In fact, comfort food culinary festivals paradoxically turned into a habit for Bucharest, a city with no street food tradition whatsoever, if you don’t count the pseudo-Turkish shawarma places that boomed over the last 20 years. “Street food is one of our points of interest as well. The company I run, Flavours, together with Why Not, our partners from Cluj, organizes the Street Food Festival, which travelled to nine cities this year and will travel to 15 next year. In addition to what we do, there are many other similar movements which tend to create a trend, a consistent movement towards the development of food culture”.
Bucharest is a blank page
“The city is a bit divided right now”, assesses Chef Foa. “Hot spots tend to move around, first there was the Dorobanți area, Herăstrău Park, then the Old City Centre, Floreasca area is next in line, there are always new hip areas, the dynamics is fantastic. Bucharest has no culinary history like other cities, but I take it for a good thing. You can always have a nice surprise, you can run into things. New venues, new concepts, either local ones or imported and improved ones, this is a time of maximum creativity we are living right now”.
That’s why Chef Foa doesn’t recommend travellers to blindly trust websites like Trip Advisor or others, which he thinks are for the lazy ones. If you’re in for an authentic experience, you need to work up some sweat, get info from other more credible sources, take it step by step, discover the city yourself. “This is the only way to find the hidden gems that are usually discriminated by popular travel guides. Bucharest has a lot to offer, fine dining places, ethnic restaurants, craft food vans, sandwich or coffee shops, but you have to make an effort and look for them”, adds Chef Foa.
“Food-wise, Bucharest is like a blank page you can write anything on”, he continues. “The city is still trying to find its own identity, it’s an amalgam. If you want to do something in the food industry, it is here and now that you get a chance to innovate. Get documented, think hard, build harder, allow yourself to make mistakes, correct them and ultimately obtain something new, innovating, impactful. This is the advantage of Bucharest – It’s a work in progress. Sorry for the inconvenience!”
If you want to get a hard copy of #translatingBucharest, send me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will get back to you, or simply pay a visit to Casa de Traduceri in Str. Teodor Stefanescu nr. 7.