Indre Armalyte: Food – a special expression of love

Indre Armalyte: “If you don’t eat or eat little – you love little.”

 

Dossier:

Name: Indre Armalyte

Place of Birth: Telsiai, Lithuania

Date of Birth: 1984.08.25

Occupation: chef and director of the restaurant Toli Toli (Druskininkai, Lithuania)

 

What is food for you?

From the early days for all women in my family food was a special expression of love.  If you don’t eat or eat little – you love little.

Has the home cooking always been a part of your life? Did you grow up in a home where “the meal” was considered kind of sacred? What was the role of  food in your family, when you were a child?

Memories from grandmother and all the meals she cooked provided me with foundation for my close relation with gastronomy and food culture. Every meal prepared by the women in our family was a transfer of love. I remember when I was a student, and my mother used to send me some home-made food of hers, I could not throw even a bite of it away – it was sacred, it was an emotional charger for me. Until today, we communicate with my mother through food. She comes here to help me cook, some recipes in the menu roots back to my mother as well.

Which food transports you to the past? 

My mom’s curd pie and cabbage rissoles. In festive season, during Christmas and New Year we decorate the plates with  special moon-shaped cookies made from puff-pastry with evaporated milk and almonds that my grandmother used to bake. Baking it requires time, love an attention, but it is true meditation for me. I connect with my grandmother when making it.

How did you come up with the idea to open the restaurant? Was it difficult?

In my early teenage years I worked as waitress in various dining  places and at that time I had dreams about opening my own restaurant one day, or creating recipes of my own, however, those dreams remained hiden somewhere deep inside of me for many years. I am an architect by profession. I also started photographing, but had little time for it. When I turned 30, I felt the need to shake my life to the core, to change something. And it was then or never. It’s quite hard and costly to start everything from the beginning in Vilnius, so I decided to move to Druskininkai, where I also had some friends. My first goal – was to indulge myself in photography more, but naturally my teenage dreams started to knock on the door. And I didn’t have time to think about my fears, my ex-colleague pop-ed the idea and I did not have a choice but to be thankful for the support. I didn’t have entrepreneurship skills, but I dived deep into it. I have never had written a business plan before!

What is the concept of the restaurant? How did you develop the menu? What are your customers like?

When we were preparing for the establishment of the restaurant, I helped my friends with administration in the hostel, and explored the people visiting Druskininkai. I saw they were mostly young, creative and open people, usually escaping big city life and coming here for peace of mind. I thought this could be my future customers. And that’s exactly what majority of people who come to dine in Toli Toli is. Local people were somewhat sceptical, I bet some of them though: “what a stranger in town? and what is the strange “falafels” she is serving”. The great influence on the menu came from my trip to Palestine, where I went to explore the real roots of the historian national conflict. In Palestine you can’t simply be immune to daily suffering lives of the people. But in it, I also experienced this particular role of food in each of the palestinian families, serving dinner for family and friends is a great honour and there families even compete for that. I helped local women cook and experienced that emotional relation to food and the importance of sharing it. When I came back to Lithuania, I felt the need to transfer that particular emotion to Lithuanian people by introducing some new meals from middle east to Lithuanian gastronomy, as well as by transferring a cultural message.

Our menu is always changing, since we have a lot of ideas. All staff members are very creative and open for new discoveries.

What is going through your mind when you’re in your kitchen?

Every moment when I cook, I wish love and happiness to all alive creatures (laughs)! However, I catch myself when I am cutting meat – if it were all under my spell, the restaurant would be vegetarian. But I am trying to use more and more vegetarian ingredients to prepare the meals. In any case, you have to adapt to the local market. But I am happy that we are moving step by step toward this direction.

As the Hindu scripture says, if  there are doubts to go to the battle or not, sometimes there are situations that you just need to go, because some things just have to happen for a reason. Currently we don’t have much choiceSo I am not wasting much energy on this.

Is it important to know how to cook in order to be a successful owner/manager of a restaurant?

I may not be the best example to advise on this. I am the exception of the rule (laughs). I think that I lack principles of entrepreneurship, I indulge myself a lot, sometimes I get tired and grumpy. I wish that entrepreneurship could also bring as much peace and love as cooking does. However, you need to find the good balance of everything in order to succeed.

How do you balance between making business and keeping your special attitude to cooking?

It is hard for me to think about cooking only as a source of money, but of course I think about the future, what the restaurant will look after few years, what results do I expect in few years time. Where I want to be. But I promised to be honest with myself, whatever happens.

What is the most important element of your cooking?

I feel the real dilettante, when I touch the food in a bad mood. Therefore, the most important element for me is feeling good and calm inside when cooking. And there are many elements contributing to this, such as happy staff, good teamwork, sufficient storage of ingredients, clean kitchen, happy customers, etc.

Do you have and are you yourself a bossy chef in your kitchen?

I got lucky with chef. He is local, who came back from Norway 1 year before. His name is  Petras Scerba. He is the opposite of the “big angry chef” – he makes me calm while we cook together, he doesn’t want to waste energy on things you can’t change. I am happy we share the the same passion and attitude to food, care about the quality of it.

How do you accomplish beauty on the plate?

I like precision on the plate. How I like to say, there are tasty and non-tasty plates. I pay a lot of attention to the aesthetics of the meal on a plate. I love a lot to puzzle food on the plate myself. Having to taste Indonesian meals with dark hair in it – was a real disaster!

Is cooking more of an art or a science for you?

From the very opening of the restaurant, I didn’t have big pretensions for the extra gourmet food or molecule kitchen. The idea was to cook the way you cook at home or with friends. I also had an idea to invite my friends to cook in the restaurant once per month. It is stupid to neglect it. The comfy food is the one I cook at home. I cook the same way here as well. We discover new ideas through travel or meeting new cultures, people. For example in summer, we had a guest chef from Jordan to cook at Toli Toli. It was fantastic. We also had a woman from Bali cooking here. How did I do it? I just released a thought when opening a restaurant to have those multi-cultural people passing through this place,  and they come here naturally without big effort!. For example the Jordanian Chef was just a visiting friend of a local woman, who brought him to me. I wish to keep this tradition.

What was the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten? Where? What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten? What is your favourite kitchen?

The strangest meal that I used to like when I was a child (and the strangest to all my eastern Lithuanian friends) – is kraujinis vedaras (certain type of blood sausage filled with pig’s blood, cooked or dried and mixed with a filler until they are thick enough to solidify when cooled), which is the traditional dish of Western Lithuania (ethnographic region of Samogitia). As for weird meals, Palestinian rice puddings were quite strange. Also my stomach can’t digest all the diary french cheeses. Now I am on a vegetarian path.

I do love the middle eastern cuisine, especially for it’s great variety of spices. Also Indian one. I love the combination of sweet and sour. The spice that I could smell forever is Ferula Asafoetida (indian spice), I overdo it often (laughs). I also love cayenne pepper, turmeric and sumac (essential spice in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking). I buy those spices when I travel or my friends brings it from abroad. We even had an idea to import those wonderful spices and sell it in the restaurant.

Where are you now and what do you think about the future?

I try not to use words “good” or “bad”. It is what it is now. The first year at Toli Toli was the year of change, the year which brought a high concentration of lessons that I had to learn, starting from communication with customers, self-assessment, dealing with my own ego, communication with family,  re-estimation of my own values, relation of my activity to my own self and other. It was a very prosperous year by all means, however – not an easy one. Speaking about the future and expansion, I would really like to open a restaurant in Vilnius, no only because we have a lot of customers coming from there, but also for wider selection of ingredients (gluten-free, dairy free), bigger flows of people, easier time management, openness to vegetarian/vegan meals.

What do you think about Lithuanian gastronomy? What is your favourite place for dining?

I remember once Tomas Ramanauskas put it:  “we are tired of this food splashes on the plate. We miss homemade food”. I so do agree with him. Comfy and home-made food is the concept of this restaurant. I am a little allergic to chic food. I would like more real life, dingy chairs and concentration on the quality of food rather than chic serving on the plate.

My favourite place? When I go to Vilnius – I often visit Vegafe (3 Totoriu street, Vilnius). I also like Sue’s Indian Raja restaurant (3 Odminiu street, Vilnius).

What happens to you when you taste something heavenly?

I close my eyes. For me the esthetics is important as well. I eat with pleasure when I feel a happy chef prepared the meal. I believe that you transfer your mood/energy to the food you make. It is very powerful.

What is the craziest things you’ve done in your life/career?

Quitting Vilnius and moving to Druskininkai. My trips to Palestine. My recent crazy experience was taking vipassana meditation classes in Bali. I would like to pack all the wonderful feelings experienced there and bring it to Lithuania. I am still ‘digesting’ it.

What inspires you?

Other cultures. Travel. People, who are striving for life, finding ways to survive, finding small simple things in their modest lives that bring happiness. Also nature. I love woods, I go to the forest often with my dog.

What would you wish for the people?

To have less stereotypes, less fear. To be more tolerant. To experience that interest and wonder to sometimes explore life from other’s belfry. In the end, we all just want to be happy. We only have different ways to reach it. Not everything begins and ends within the limits of one’s small egoistic world. I wish people try to see a wider world, build less walls. That is the way to discover new wonderful things in life.

More about Toli Toli: http://www.agneeats.com/blog/2016/09/21/too-close-to-be-far-toli-toli/

Photo credit:  Giedre Rozmanaite Photography

 

 

 

 

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