Musician Bogdan Simion and chef Mihai Toader have launched a Youtube channel, Fragmente (Fragments, in English), to present glimpses of a Romania that are not often revealed: a joint venture encompassing traditional music and food promoting slow, rural tourism. But there is more. The video content presented online is also appearing at a pop-up dinners in random venues across Bucharest with Mihai cooking and Bogdan singing. OZB savoured and listened.
How did you come up with the idea of mixing music with food?
Chef Mihai Toader: It all started with my desire to discover traditional Romanian recipes and to seek inspiration for the menus I was trying to create. It was more a field-research project that I’d had in mind for some time, and then, talking with Bogdan, I discovered that he was already doing something very similar – finding old, traditional Romanian music in rural communities and then presenting his “research” in a performance known as Samanul Mut (Silence Shaman, in English). And this is how the project came alive.
How do you pick the places for this project?
Musician Bogdan Simion: It’s more a negotiation between us. I propose some places, then Mihai, and we both bring arguments. I personally want to “discover” some well-known counties – like Iasi and Cluj, Mihai still wants to seek out smaller communities, not well known. But the last episode of this season will be in Gorj county, north Oltenia.
Mihai Toader: Being also an independent project, we have the liberty to choose whatever place we want. And we also want to present places that aren’t from the same geographical area.
What’s the feedback so far?
Mihai Toader: Although we are not trending on Youtube the chapters we’ve presented so far, have had great feedback. People have started to know about us and the best barometer are the pop-up dinner events, these sell out within a day of the official announcement.
Were the people from these communities willing to share their personal stories with you?
Bogdan Simion: It’s like in any relationship: at first, it was a bit difficult to make them comfortable with us. The traditional communities are conservative, and this is how they should remain. But once they get to know us, they give us stories, jokes, and glimpses into their lives which we need for our project. It’s also a great challenge for us because we spend quite a lot of time with them, getting emotionally attached by their life’s stories.
The music chapter
Bogdan Simion is a one-of-a-kind musician – very passionate about traditions and sounds and one of the youngest cobza players in Romania. Besides his solo music projects, he is well known for his performances of Samanul Mut and his concerts with Romanian pop-singer Loredana. Information about his concerts and performances are available on his Instagram account, @simionbogdanmihai.
How did you start your career as a traditional music seeker?
It’s a very long story, but it all started with my passion for literature when I was an adolescent. That “once upon a time”, which is the base of all great stories across the world, led me to some fascinating worlds where all types of musicians and minstrels were included. And then, I started to ask myself if all these musicians from the books I was reading exist in reality. Moreover, I was curious if those musicians were also in Romania and I started asking what types of instruments they were playing. This is how I discovered the cobza, a multi-stringed instrument of the lute family of folk origin, common to this part of the world.
So you started to play cobra. How did you learn to play it if there weren’t actually cobza players to learn from?
I started to learn by myself, I was feeling very confident about my technique and I was under the impression that I was playing great, due to the fact that the technique was “stolen” from Tudor Gheorghe. A year later, I met the first real cobza-players and I realised that I didn’t basically know anything. So I started over the whole learning process again – actually the “stealing” technique process.
In the era of the internet, do you think that oral traditions will survive?
Sure, this is how the traditions survived thousands of years before the internet. The only difference is that there are less and less people to share the passion for folklore and traditions with. But we still have them. Of course, nowadays we can’t actually find out what is the real definition of “traditional”, “archaic” or “ancestral”. This is my definition of authenticity – true to itself.
The food chapter
Chef Mihai Toader started his career as a chef on Master Chef the TV-show, where he got to the finals. This was how he got to work in a restaurant with professional tools and he learned what it means to organise a professional kitchen. Currently, his signature dishes can be found in Bucharest at Conac Vivolis and in Sibiu, at Kombinat Gastro-Brewery. He also teaches gastronomy at Horeca School, one of the most respected culinary schools from Romania.
Why are you focusing on traditional Romanian food?
I wasn’t necessarily looking for Romanian recipes, but for Romanian techniques for cooking food. Then, I was curious to find out more about tastes and how to bring them forth into the modern world. That was also the driver for research which is currently transforming into Fragmente – both the Youtube series and the pop-up dinners. To resume, first it was the curiosity, now it is the magic.
Can we speak about a food culture in Romania?
Romanian food culture is still in the very early stages. There are more and more chefs preoccupied with reinterpreting Romanian cuisine, starting from the bottom, doing research, talking with people, finding information in old books. It’s also about offering an experience once the client has stepped into your restaurant: paying attention to textures, offering a gastronomic experience, not only food.
How do you describe the traditional Romanian cuisine to a foreigner?
To resume it in only one word, our traditional cuisine is simple. It’s simple because it’s based on the taste of the ingredients. Fortunately, here in Romania we have plenty of places where food grows organically and it’s not just a supermarket label or marketing. Unfortunately, there are not too many people left to take care of this part of the food chain and it’s vital that steps are put in place to preserve this.
It’s a huge debate these days between local stores/traditional flea markets vs supermarkets. What’s your opinion on the matter?
This is a real problem we, as chefs, have. The small entrepreneurs in agriculture do not understand our restaurant business therefore they can’t provide the ingredients for the menu on a regular basis, making it very difficult for us to sustain them. You try to do a seasonal menu, which lasts for three months ideally, but if you don’t have the basic seasoned ingredients for it. Furthermore, most of the supermarkets have implemented some traditional Romanian food – like cheeses for example, and you can buy quality from your local store. But we all agree that further steps should be considered by both sides of this food chain business.
By Oana Vasiliu