Gëzim Musliaka is an artist. Just as happy wielding a paintbrush as he is a chef’s knife, seated behind a blank canvas or standing in front of a hot stove. It’s at the chef-artist’s family-run restaurant Gourmet Restaurant Marchesi in Tirana, Albania, where his two passions live in harmony.
Based in the green countryside, some 20 minutes drive south of the Albanian capital, Musliaka conceived of his creative space almost a decade ago: a destination restaurant and vegetable garden, which has since become the beloved go-to of the Albanian elite, artists, musicians, business, diplomatic corps and politicians.
Photo courtesy of Gëzim Musliaka
Step inside the restaurant and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d happened upon an exhibition. The part-gallery-part-restaurant that he runs with his family has walls peppered with examples of Musliaka’s artwork, featuring landscapes and large still-life depictions of food. “Every detail in the interior and exterior of our restaurant is created by me and my family and is naturally connected with the food being served,” he explains.
While the chef grew up with a passion for painting, and graduated with a diploma in mechanical engineering, his early interest in the arts naturally led him to the kitchen. A student of the Italian maestro, Guiltero Marchesi, he found his calling in the culinary arts, feeling great inspiration from and empathy with both the sensitivity of the man and the chef known as the godfather of modern Italian cuisine. “He used to talk so quietly, simple, friendly and true. I find myself similar to him,” he says.
Grilled Veal fillet with smoked mashed potatoes with beetroot cream (Photo courtesy of chef Gëzim Musliaka)
In 2012, Musliaka named his then new restaurant in honour of the great Italian chef whose love of art curated his cooking. "Marchesi was not only a chef but a person who combines art with cooking, knowledge with practicality, technical discipline and artistic narration."
Art and nature are intertwined with Musliaka's culinary approach. “My way of thinking and acting in the transformation of the product through cooking is naturally affected by artistic dimensions, visuals and literature. Nature is detected by the genes, my family and ancestors in a geographical, historical and cultural context. The matter is the collection of dishes I have tasted and liked. My style is individual but treated in a way to be liked by people," he says.
Both inside and outside of his restaurant, Musliaka is an ambassador for the country's cuisine. The restaurant was voted Albania’s best restaurant in 2020, and the chef is a visible force for the good of the country's aspiring chefs as a judge on Masterchef. "With my judgement I try to be fair and to promote the love for our profession," he says. He’s also hopeful a respected guide like Michelin might land in the country soon. “Today in Albania there are a lot of good restaurants and wine makers, food industry establishments, dedicated farmers and qualified staff. It is true that in the Balkan region, Albanian fine dining leads. I would be happy for Albania to become part of international prestigious guides."
Homemade Pasta with tomato sauce and shrimps (Photo courtesy of chef Gëzim Musliaka)
Musliaka also works with Slow Food to help preserve the heritage of the country’s traditional cuisine, which he describes as an ‘organic’ extension of Mediterranean cuisine with an emphasis on produce. What defines the cuisine is the dishes "connected with the indigenous products and techniques inherited as a consequence of economic, social and cultural exchanges in the whole region,” he explains.
Two such Albanian dishes, 'narden' and 'pekmez', have already been saved in the Slow Food Ark of Taste, a living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction. Narden is a centuries-old dish made from slowly boiled varieties of half-wild plums with a by-product of pistil, and honey-like pekmez is an ancient sugar substitute used in delicious pre-desserts like sweet pekmez pie with milk and eggs, made from 72-hour fermented and slow-boiled grapes.
Courtesy of chef Gëzim Musliak
While the chef says the pandemic bought the sector to its knees, he has found the re-opening of his restaurant and garden as cathartic, a means "to defeat the fear and to give birth to hope and getting back to normality". For now, at least, he says they’ll keep doing what they do best - investing in the region's best products, in good ideas, new projects and dishes, and no doubt capturing it all with a paintbrush.