Bledar Kola, the Albanian slow-food chef who is impressing the world
Bledar Kola is a young Albanian chef who returned home after years of studying apprenticeships in London, Denmark and Sweden. He opened Mullixhiu, a restaurant that soon became one of the best in Tirana and Albania. All the restaurant’s products come from its own farm which is located just a few kilometers from the Albanian capital. Even its flour is ground in a mill situated inside the restaurant. All its dishes are reinterpretations of traditional Albanian recipes.
Today, many things have changed for Bledar as he has started to receive international media recognition. In June for example, he participated in Al Mèni, in Rimini, where he prepared “dromsa”: Balkan pasta strained with masa, a sort of flavoured butter, and sheep’s cheese. He organized an incredible festival in Tirana where he invited Albanian chefs from all over the world to come and cook with Albanian grandmothers. He is now about to publish his first book and has just opened a street food stall.
The Sita (Albanian for refined) stall was set up behind Piazza Scanderberg, in the recently redeveloped and modernised beating heart of the city of Tirana. The concept according to Bledar is this: “Re-imagine traditional Albanian dishes, such as pasta, and serve them at an affordable price. We feel everyone should have access to good quality food. In Tirana, takeaways are usually limited to burgers or at best low-quality Greek food.” Bledar characterises his food as “earthy” or comfortable: petka, is an Albanian pasta similar to Maltagliati pasta but is cooked in a frying pan; dromsa; rosnica, a pasta which is “grated” and then rolled in to vermicelli by hand; orahana (a sort of porridge); kokoreç (like lamb sweetbreads) or ferges (pepper and tomato) sandwiches. Everything is sourced from local and organic producers. None of the drinks are manufactured, they only serve fresh fruit juice. And, crucially, nothing is served using plastic containers. “We want to show people that plastic is not cool and therefore we only use wooden plates and cutlery and paper straws. When we stopped using it, there was a drop in sales of around 25%. So we created t-shirts and other merchandise, and glass bottles, with the word PlastIK printed on them. IK is an Albanian suffix meaning ‘out’ or ‘away’.”
When he opened the food stall, Bledar had a specific target market in mind: young people. “In recent years, obesity in Albania has increased dramatically. You see, in rural areas they still cook very simply because they have no choice, but in cities, after years of communism, they are embracing international food, and everyone eats fast food.” In 2016, Bledar started Buka Ne Strajce (translated as ‘Backpack Diet’), a movement which teaches children how to eat well: “Some children felt embarrassed to take their lunch to school, they were afraid of richer children looking down at their food. And schools didn’t have canteens. Today things have improved but we want to continue working with children, to make them think about what they are eating. For example, encouraging them to not use their mobiles whilst sat at the dinner table.”
Meanwhile, Mullixhiu is growing. “Many Albanians who live abroad come to my restaurant. In the past they believed that traditional Albanian food was not very good, whereas now they are proud of it, they see it mentioned in newspaper and online articles. I don’t want to sound presumptuous: I don’t know if I can say I inspired this new wave, but we certainly ignited a spark.”