Nestled firmly between Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia – the relatively small country of Georgia has a rich culture and culinary tradition that until recently, has been mostly overlooked. The capital city of Tbilisi in particular is perfectly located on the crossroads between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, and provides an ideal backdrop for an exciting fusion of culinary traditions.
To learn more about the exciting new foodie culture developing in Tbilisi, we spoke to Alexander Gonzales, chef at one of Tbilisi’s hottest restaurants – Umami. Originally from Bulacan in the Philippines, Gonzales is now working in Umami’s distinctive open kitchen that allows their customers an up close and personal view on this restaurant’s exciting culinary creations.
Life as a chef is never easy. What made you pursue a career in the culinary arts?
I started cooking in my family’s catering business when I was about 14 years old. When I wasn’t in school, I was helping my family out and my passion for cooking really started there.
Many are familiar with the Asian-style cooking, but why bring Asian flavours to Georgia?
For me, it was an exciting new opportunity. Georgia has a really extensive and authentic food culture, as well as fantastic produce, and the flavours of Asia can really compliment this. The challenge for me is how to combine Asian and Georgian cuisine that is interesting but still palatable for the people here.
What is the food scene like in Georgia?
Georgians take their food seriously. For them, food is a huge part of their history and culture, and the flavours and spices they like to use are usually very powerful. There are several different types of herbs and cheeses here that are literally breath-taking – that’s how strong they are. It’s amazing how these flavours, that can sometimes be overwhelming, are transformed into mouth-watering dishes in the right recipes.
This may be akin to asking a parent who their favorite child is but, what is your favorite dish to cook at UMAMI and why?
Without a doubt, my favorite dish to prepare is the Beef Teriyaki.
I love making this dish for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I specialize in Teppanyaki dishes and it is truly a great pleasure for me to cook in this style. I always feel especially creative and connected to the plates I prepare whenever I cook this way. Second, there is a performance component to this style of cooking that is unlike any other type of cuisine. I love watching the guests’ faces light up as they watch me juggle and craft their food. You can see and feel the excitement building as they watch, and I love that I can immediately see the guests’ satisfaction as they take their first bite.
For me, Teppanyaki isn't just cooking – it’s truly being a chef.
Why is Georgia the next big thing for foodies?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work in several countries and with several chefs, but I think here in Georgia you can find some of the world’s most passionate chefs. Chefs here are really interested in pushing the boundaries of cooking with new styles, flavours, recipes – really anything to improve their skills and dishes.
UMAMI has only been open for a few months now, and our reception so far has been very positive, but I am still looking for new techniques or new approaches I can bring to our food. The chefs here really push me to be the best chef that I can be so that I can bring the most exciting and delicious Asian food possible to our guests.