It may be fitting that the last head chef to show us who’s boss in Season 2 of The Chefs’ Line is also the youngest. Maria Kabal, from Melbourne's Añada restaurant, ushers in a new generation of chefs who are taking charge early on and bringing fresh ideas to the kitchen. The 28-year-old Estonian native’s inspired take on Spanish cuisine showcases her pragmatic Northern European sensibilities, mixed with a keen sense for the way Melbourne diners want to eat.
Asking people about their first food memories can be illuminating. Kabal recalls this: "my grandmother feeding me a meal of raw sardines and black bread." Kabal was only six or so, and her Nan got "so angry" at her granddaughter's refusal to eat it. Which was understandable: her grandmother had lived through the Soviet occupation of Estonia: "she has that extreme Soviet attitude towards food – you had to be grateful for everything you had to eat. She gave me a proper hiding that day!”
She laughs at the memory.
“Growing up, most of my early memories were of my grandparents: my grandmother basically brought me up. I remember the food we ate was quite simple.”
And while many people have fond memories of grandmothers who cook like saints, “my grandmother was a terrible cook!”
“She would douse everything in vegetable oil for no apparent reason and would never let you leave without eating. I’ve never met anyone like her, she would literally bar you from leaving until she fed you,” Kabal recalls.
Her grandmother may not have been a good cook, but her very Eastern European tradition of being resourceful in the curing, preserving and fermenting of foods still made an impression on Kabal's professional cooking life.
“In my grandmother’s country home, there are shelves full of jars of fermented and cured things. In the winter, apart from potatoes, nothing grows. So you had to eat preserved things to be properly nourished,” she adds.
Around the age of 10, something changed.
“My grandmother was a terrible cook! She would douse everything in vegetable oil for no apparent reason."
“All of a sudden, we became a food family,” Kabal says. “It might have something to do with being able to travel a little more, and becoming more aware of health, but my parents became excellent cooks. I would read my mother’s cookbooks when I was home by myself and started baking cakes.” The chef's first attempt was “some kind of weird zebra cake, where the batters are swirled together”, she recalls.
“Mum’s signature dish was one of braised pig tails. It’s a cut that’s so cheap and a lot of people turn their noses up at it, but it’s rich and fatty and delicious like pork belly. She’d braise it in bay leaves, thyme, garlic, onion, then roast them in the oven to crisp them up.”
Reflecting on her northern European upbringing and the Spanish-influenced food she cooks now at her restaurant Añada in Melbourne, the connection for the chef is obvious. “At the core of all European cuisine is peasant food. The only people who ate extravagant food were rich people, so the main parts of these cuisines are about peasant cooking. The connection is being resourceful – you have to make do with whatever ingredients you have, make them last.”
“Mum’s signature dish was one of braised pig tails. It’s a cut that’s so cheap and a lot of people turn their noses up at it, but it’s rich and fatty and delicious like pork belly.”
Kabal chose professional cooking reasonably late in the game, at 18. “For the longest time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. But when I thought about cooking, I realised it was the only thing that made sense to me, and it makes me happy.”
And when she goes home to Estonia, what does she eat? “I love all the tinned fish we have, [so I enjoy] smoked Baltic herring in oil, straight out [of] the tin, with some black bread and butter.”
It seems like our first food memories, no matter how unpleasant, often end up making their way into our hearts anyway.
Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? The Chefs’ Line airs every weeknight at 6pm on SBS followed by an encore screening at 9.30pm on SBS Food Network. Episodes will be available after broadcast via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #TheChefsLine on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBS_Food. Check out sbs.com.au/thechefsline for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more!