The head chef and co-owner of Amantia, Andrea Tragaj on serving classics with a modern twist, his love of Iberian steak and pork, and hatred of the ready-meal aisle in supermarkets!
Tell us about your cooking
My cooking style is classic but with a modern twist. I love the adrenaline rush of a busy shift and seeing the whole team coming together. What’s most important is translating all that hard work and passion that goes into creating the food across to our customers, so they feel what we do is great value for the money they are paying us.
How did you become a chef?
When I was 18, I got a job as a kitchen porter in a family-run Italian restaurant in Wolverhampton. The chef owner trained me as a chef and I realised I was good at it. I progressed pretty quickly and by the age of 21 I was head chef at a 90-cover restaurant in Birmingham city centre.
What do you eat when at home?
I enjoy simple, homemade comfort food such as roasts and stews.
Who’s the best chef in the world and why? And who’s the best in Brum?
There are too many great chefs in the world to narrow it down to just one, but among my favourites would have to be Juan Mari Arzak – the Basque owner of the three Michelin-starred restaurant bearing his name in San Sebastian. He’s great not just because of his unquestionable skill and success but also his personality. The best in Brum for me would have to be Adam Stokes. What he has achieved in Birmingham in such a short period of time deserves a lot of praise and respect and having tried his food myself I can say it is spectacular.
Is the customer always right?
Haha, well of course they are always right! Either way we prefer to focus on the solution rather than the problem and make sure every customer leaves satisfied.
Share a cooking tip
Cook chorizo in red wine, adding a pinch of sugar to take away the sharpness of the wine, for a simple yet delicious tapas dish.
What was your favourite food as a kid?
I was born in Albania towards the end of the communist regime. After the fall of communism my parents were able to start growing their own vegetables and breed some farm animals. Our diet was always seasonal, fresh and very Mediterranean. Growing up, my mom’s lamb and butter bean stew was my favourite and in the summer I couldn’t get enough of our home-grown watermelons with home-made goat’s cheese.
Food heaven and food hell?
My heaven comes from a road trip across the north of Spain: Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Pais Vasco. Rare steak with vegetables and a massive bowl of tomato and onion salad. Hell is anything served on a buffet, or the ready-meal aisle in the supermarket. Not keen on livers either!
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?
Alligator meat – interesting, but I found it tough and rubbery.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I would have joined the army. I have always been passionate about the military world and the sense of pride and satisfaction of doing something for your country.
What do you recommend from this evening’s menu?
One of my favourites… grilled Iberian pork shoulder with some roasted potatoes and vegetables. This meat, from specially bred Pata Negra pigs from Extremadura in Spain, is renowned worldwide for its luxurious flavour and it is usually cooked medium rare, something you wouldn’t do with traditional pork.