Ana GRGIĆ, Head of the Kitchen, Esplanade Zagreb
The Esplanade Zagreb Hotel has for many years, in fact since it was built, been synonymous with fine cuisine, a high quality of food and ingredients used and exceptional service. The Hotel Esplanade is today also known for its culinary delights and is, I dare say, always a step ahead of the rest. In preparation of delicacies that connect Zagreb with Mediterranean and continental Europe I try selecting and combining flavours that are fresh and creative. In addition to the preparation of meals in restaurants, at the bar and for the room service, as the main chef I am in charge of creating the menus for smaller and larger events, conferences, seminars and weddings. This is comprehensive business that is very demanding and responsible, but it really is a delight to make guests at events happy. When guests are happy, the greatest satisfaction is actually seen on the expression of the event organiser. Months of organisation, stress and sleep deprivation, immediately disappear.
We propose different food choices to event organisers, depending on what type of event we are talking about, but of course always in accordance with the wishes of the organiser. There are many factors that influence the creation of menus. For example, if the event is taking place in the morning, it is always good to have a supply of freshly squeezed orange juice to awaken the participants, then sliced fresh fruit, yogurts and cereal to promote energy and better efficiency. What we put into the body quickly reflects on us, so if you are planning to resume the conference or meeting, you should not overdo it with heavy meals, because then the body focuses on digestion and concentration trails off. Generally I am a supporter of not exaggerating with the food, but it’s always good to have a diverse range that can satisfy all tastes.
The selection of ingredients depends on the season and availability in the market. Of course, one can always find strawberries in winter, but we certainly suggest them in any combination in May and June when they actually ripen and when they are most delicious and full of flavour, vitamins and minerals. I am very picky and I always choose only fresh and healthy ingredients, because there is a drastic difference in the quality of dishes if the food is prepared with lower quality ingredients. It’s one of the reasons why some menus, restaurants and hotels are more expensive than others, and the guests have to choose.
The offer of ingredients and spices is getting more varied in the domestic market. There is a great competition and everyone is competing to offer something new, because with a little imagination it is always possible to serve something special to the guests. For example, for those who are coming back and have been holding meetings continually we always suggest some different themed coffee breaks or something tailored to their needs. But lately healthy, and only healthy, has been on the top of demands that we receive, and of course I gladly support this. Awareness of healthy eating with foreign guests is still more noticeable than with domestic guests, but the situation is changing for the better.
In creating the menu, in addition to the above, it is very important to follow global trends, especially if you work in a high-class hotel, where the guests’ expectations are much higher. There are many guests who come from world capitals and are familiar with what is currently ‘in’. I could have summarised it in a few words – simplicity (in the serving and in the use of ingredients), freshness, seasonality and creativity.
Following global trends does not only include innovations in the use of ingredients or in the decorations, but also means adapting to guests and their lifestyle. As guests today are coming from different parts of the world, it is important to be flexible and offer them meals acceptable to their culture. So the hotel a few years ago invested in a Kosher certificate, which for Jewish guests provides meals prepared according to their customs and standards. Given the increasing number of visitors from Arab countries, a Halal certificate is also secured. For those who opted for the vegetarian, vegan or macrobiotic diet, we can always easily offer this option and personalise the menus.
Offer guests a culinary story!
Besides blindly following trends, it is very important to listen to guests, who with their praise and criticism can greatly affect the quality of the food. Of course, tastes differ and you will not always be able to satisfy everyone’s palate – but tasty food is a unique experience that can cheer you up, or spoil your day if it is the reverse.
I believe that one should invest in a quality selection of food at the events, whether it is food that is served, food on the buffet table or at coffee breaks. Today’s guests are very educated, they travel a lot and have the money and will easily notice if you try to ‘prank’ them with something inappropriate. They expect a lot, and with good reason.
In a sea of similar conference catering offers guests have to be offered something different, something that will intrigue them and something they will remember you by. Value for money is not enough anymore, it is necessary to exceed the expectations of our guests and delight them with a new idea. We can not all be like Heston Blumenthal and perform miracles in the kitchen and in front of guests, but there’s always something special that sets you apart from the rest – a short course in preparing a specialty in breaks between meetings or conferences, for example, or courses for making your favourite cocktails with a jolly bartender, premium wine tasting with a short course by a sommelier, the story of gingerbread, tea, or your favourite coffee, little secrets of cooking, dinner with a fun quiz or theatre … there’s a lot that from our perspective may seem common, but to the guests it can be offered as something interesting to make their work become a pleasure.
With a little imagination a room lamp, a special picture frame, or a designer mirror from an empty room or a remote hallway placed among the dishes on the buffet table can act very effectively. Interesting signs next to dishes, the nutritional value of the food or some nice wishes and sayings can further freshen up dishes. Beautifully preserved and quality cookware and cutlery, cloth napkins, clean tablecloths and carefully selected music give food an added value and a better taste.
It is very important to also offer to guests some story and connect it with the destination or the tradition, since the guests will then know to appreciate what they are served. The Hotel Sacher in Vienna is a very good example of this and it excellently flagged its yummy chocolate cake as their specialty and a must-try treat. From this fact we can conclude that a good part of what guests want to experience and try out is in marketing, which of course must monitor the quality of the product.
Speaking of stories, I cannot not mention what the Esplanade has managed to achieve with the famous ‘Štrukli’. This traditional specialty of Croatian Zagorje, derived from the hilly region of picturesque fields and pastures, took an important place in the hotel offer from the first day, especially at events and conferences.
‘Štrukli’ were launched back in 1951, when they were found on the hotel menu for the first time, which to this day has kept the tradition of preparing and serving this irresistible delicacy. The idea that this traditional – and maybe someone would think quite simple – delicacy is served in a top hotel was inconceivable. However, gastronomic gurus back then already recognised the importance of national dishes and of the maintenance of their traditions, because this is the most beautiful invitation for guests who want to enjoy culinary magic. Most interestingly, ‘štrukli’ still receive the greatest fame and popularity ahead of all the other delicacies – the majority of event participants immediately rally toward them and they disappear in a flash. It is really nice to hear how the guests are delighted and they are returning to the Esplanade preciselybecause of ‘štrukli’.
Recipe for 50 pieces of “štrukli”
500g plain flour
1 dl oil
Water as needed
2.5kg of fresh cow cheese
From the flour, eggs, oil and warm water knead smooth dough. Shape it into a ball, coat it with oil and leave it to sit at room temperature for about 20 mins.Cover the table with a clean cloth, sprinkle it with flour and place the dough in the middle. With palms stretch the dough across the table, so that it is very thin, no thicker than a few millimetres. On one side of the table (length-wise) deploy a mixture of cheese, eggs and salt. Spread the mix evenly over the dough to obtain two strips (length-wise of the table), at a height of about a centimetre, cut off the edges of the dough that are falling across the table and roll the dough on each side toward the centre of the table, so that the mixture is found in the middle of the dough. Using a saucer cut ‘štrukli’ to dimensions around 5 centimetres so that the edges remain sealed.
Put the ‘štrukli’ in water to cook, to which is added a little vinegar and salt. When they rise to the surface, remove them, arrange in a baking pan and pour over cooking cream.
Bake ‘štrukli’ in preheated oven at 195 *C for approx. 25 min.
At only 32 years old Ana Grgic is already head of the kitchen of the prestigious hotel Esplanade, responsible for ‘Zinfandel’ and ‘Le Bistro’ as well as Esplanade catering. She came to this position from being deputy chef of a hotel where she began her career immediately after completing catering school. Ana continues to follow the Esplanade tradition of haute cuisine, but with her selection and combination of flavours in creating menus she gives her own signature to dishes on a daily basis.