Things are taking a turn for the worse in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. As we speak to chef Tekuna Gachechiladze, a leading voice for Georgian cuisine, the small country on the Black Sea is being dealt a double blow. An inflammatory political situation has worsened as coronavirus cases total over 60,000. "It's big chaos now," she says. "People are afraid and scared, it’s practically not worth it to work."
Tekuna believes the city's current 10pm curfew will turn into another national lockdown in a matter of days, but she plans to shut her restaurants on Monday, regardless. "Even through we have all the regulations, it’s very difficult to control even our own staff. I’m afraid and I don’t want to force my staff to work. I don’t want to have this responsibility."
The impact of the pandemic has been felt throughout the Georgian chef community. Unprotected by government assistance, Tekuna has already seen many friends' restaurants shutter. Cafe Littera, her internationally renowned fine-dining restaurant showcasing modern Georgian cuisine, has also felt the blow since foreign tourism dried up, and with it a dependable customer base.
Photo: Cafe Littera
"This year showed me that the press, tourists and journalists are very good, but your own people are also very important. [It's important] to please them, otherwise, this can happen and then you’ll be empty if you’re only orientated on foreigners and visitors. You have to do something for your own people." By changing the menu to make it simpler and more affordable for the Georgian public, she managed to fill what would otherwise have been an empty restaurant. It's a format they'll keep next year when the restaurant re-opens. "The situation will not get better, economics will slump and people will have less and less money," she warns.
In a country with no state support and a culture of living day-to-day, running a restaurant can be complicated. "The most important thing is to keep your staff alive. Some of the people just live on the salary. We Georgians have a different mentality, we don’t have savings. We live every day like today, we work, we pay the bills, and the profit is very little. These past four months there was not any profit at all."
Cafe Littera was however offered a lifeline by the 50 Best for Recovery Fund providing financial relief for restaurants worldwide in partnership with S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, which came as welcome windfall in September. "This was all for salaries, it was good because the dollar was high and we divided it and was purely for salaries of people who work for us. It was really a delight. We divided it among the staff and they were very happy," she says.
In the meantime, Tekuna has a contingency plan for the future - she's building a farm. She spent the first lockdown on her family's five-hectare farm in the countryside in the wine growing region of Kaheti, where a new way of life unfolded. And it's a life that she has ring-fenced for her retirement - a future full of farming, education and a new farm-to-table restaurant catering more to local people.
For a city girl used to working 18 hours a day, the shift to a new way of life has been immense. Like fellow chefs Dominique Crenn and Mauro Colagreco, she found peace away from the kitchen, working the land with her hands instead. "It helped a lot during the corona. It saved me. Not to work for three months, for me, it’s like I’ve never done that in my life. I always work non-stop. It’s the reason I didn’t go crazy."
Building a small community, and farming fruit, vegetables, chickens and pigs on the 22 hectares at her disposal, she'll also be able to take back control of the quality and prices of her produce used in her restaurants. "The most important thing is to have our own products, to be sure they're all natural, and we want to stand behind our products. If we say the chickens are organic and free range, they have to be. You have to give one hundred percent guarantee and decrease prices."
We first interviewed Tekuna nearly a decade ago, when she acquired the title 'The Queen of Georgian Fusion', a label that has stuck with her ever since, she jokes. But she's happy still leading the movement she inadvertently started. "I am just continuing the tradition of fusion that already existed in our culture. Modernising Georgian cuisine - even if it wasn’t my legacy, it somehow happened."
A lot has changed for the better in her country over the years, and as she enters her fifties, she looks back. "Fifteen years ago when I was coming out of the kitchen in my uniform, some of our guests thought I was the promo girl. They didn’t believe that I was actually the chef. Then I was young and beautiful. There was this stigma - chefs were old, ugly men during Soviet times, or mamas or old women. Not young, blonde girls in the kitchen, it was unbelievable."
Tbilisi has also been released from its Soviet shackles and is now a hub for architecture, fashion, design and music. The food revolution definitely forms part of its renaissance, and now Tekuna believes it's down to the next generation to continue. "It’s in our genes, we are revolutionary people. In the beginning we are afraid of the new, but when we start you can’t stop us."
"I truly believe that the younger generation can do much better than I did. There are more possibilities, they will travel, they are young. Now they don’t have to be scared, it’s much easier. All the work is done, now they need to continue this. We have one of the best cuisines in the world but we need new life to it. When I started in Georgia, all kitchens were underground. Now they’re open, chefs are trendy with tattoos, they’re moving with the times."
This winter she'll hunker down and continue with another lockdown project, penning her first cookbook on New Georgian Cuisine, before planting begins again on the farm. Come the spring, she hopes to welcome the 50 Best team for a postponed visit, when chefs like Clare Smyth and Dominique Crenn will finally get to experience the culinary wealth of her country.
When asked about the future, she jokes: "I'm already the Queen. How can you top that? For this article you can say 'the queen is retiring to agriculture'. That's where I'll be in ten years time." But a decade is a long time in gastronomy, especially for Tekuna Gachechiladze and her ever-evolving Georgian cuisine.