Food & Wine
Secret Chef Table – a feast for all the senses
The entrance to Secret Chef Table, a restaurant that serves 22 dishes in a modern chef's table service, is located on an ordinary street in Sofia, Bulgaria between a charity shop and a clothing shop.
A narrow door opens to reveal an equally narrow hallway, and a few steps lead us up to the restaurant, where we meet chef Boris Petrov for the first time. At the end of the evening, both the photographer and I hope it was not the last time we will enter through that narrow door.
A total of 22 dishes are about to be consumed, but we'll return to that soon...
A Communist-era cooking genius
Boris is eccentric, lively and very engaged when talking about his journey into the culinary universe. His career started when he was 14, growing up in communist Bulgaria.
"My mother was a doctor, so I was often alone with my dad, so I had to start cooking. At first, I burned the food, but I eventually figured it out".
His cooking skills meant that Boris's friends would often stop by, and he really began experimenting.
"I wanted to cook the old fashioned way."
When he says old fashioned, Boris means the historical, ancient way.
"I caught pigeons, cooked them under the ground and made first class meals out of them. I was then like, 'Wow, I can actually cook.'"
From pigeons to politics
Boris said everything changed in the 80s. If you wanted to make money, you either had to work as a taxi driver or in a restaurant. The money was mostly off the books.
"And I wanted to make money," Boris says honestly. "I wanted to be independent and not depend on my father."
In the communist period, there were almost no men in the kitchen. The old-fashioned idea that the kitchen was reserved for women remained in place.
"But an old lady gave me a job in a barbecue restaurant. So, in the summers when I wasn't studying, I worked at the restaurant and made kebabs. Later, I started studying in the evenings, and continued to cook during the day."
A new hotel, fancy cars and a way out of the communist kitchen
Towards the end of communist rule in Bulgaria, a completely new hotel opened in the city. The Sheraton chain brought with it a modern flavour and a restaurant that did not have to adhere to the traditional rules, i.e., stick to the communist cookbook that so limited restaurants.
"You weren't allowed to cook in any other way than what was in the book. The chops were to be prepared in this way, with this weight, and with this topping. Nothing else. The old regime did not like change and did not want any creativity in the population. Everything should be the same.
Those were the rules of the old gastronomy."
Boris said the chefs at the Sheraton had good contacts with both the old government and those who everyone knew would soon be in power in the new Bulgaria. They were allowed to cook outside the famous red communist cooking book.
"The chefs drove around in nice American cars and made good money. Three times as much as my mom who was a doctor. I wanted to be a piccolo at first, but then everything turned around when I saw the chefs and the life they lived. I want to drive the same nice cars as the them."
Boris says that during the last year Bulgaria was under communist rule, it was a bit free-for-all.
"There was black money everywhere. The restaurant staff were well paid and thus stole money from the regime."
In 1988, he joined several other chefs from Sheraton and began working in a private restaurant that was visited by all the major politicians, both international and Bulgarian. They could explore and be creative. Orange and duck were an unthinkable combination to try — until now.
From there, he journeyed abroad to learn more about cooking, and, not least, experience the world.
"Previously, if you wanted to learn something new as a chef, you had to see and experience things. There was no written information, at least not in Bulgaria," says Boris.
The closest Boris came to foreign influences were some old German magazines with pictures of food.
"I was hungry for knowledge, that's what drove me. Today, the young chefs aren't as hungry. The information comes easily. Before, you had to travel to Mexico to learn how to make guacamole."
His travels took him to Mexico, Cyprus, and finally to Spain – where Boris lived for many years.
"At a time when most Bulgarians washed the dishes in the kitchen, I was a chef. They paid me a lot. I drove a Jaguar!" he says with a chuckle.
The star chef achieved great success in Spain, driving around in the finest cars. Just like he had dreamed of as a youngster. But then he felt the call of his homeland.
"My parents were getting old, and I wanted to spend more time with them."
TV celebrity and a food revolution in Bulgaria
Boris, who also has three sons, returned home to Bulgaria. During all the years he had been away, time had stood perfectly still in his home country's culinary world. Nothing had happened on the food front in Bulgaria. It was the same old same old. One day Boris was asked if he wanted to help start Bulgaria's first version of Masterchef, and he did.
"We called it 'War of the Chefs'. Before the show, 7/10 of those who attended cooking school were women. After the program aired, there half of the students were men.
Boris continued to appear on TV screens after the show. As many as 400 live episodes of cooking led him to celebrity Big Brother, for which he was paid a handsome sum to take part. The sum would be the start of the restaurant adventure Secret Chef Table.
Two very different chefs in a good balance
In 2015, Boris met Kalin Savov, who was born in 1988. Kalin had also previously travelled and worked at well-known restaurants such as The Fat Duck in the UK, The Ledbury, Château St. Gerlach, and more. Together, they wanted to create something new in Bulgaria. The pair opened a couple of restaurants together before the love of their life was created in the Secret Chef Table.
Drawing inspiration from the 3-Michelin-star-starred Brooklyn Fare restaurant in New York, they wanted to bring guests up close to history and cooking.
"Kalin is in on my madness. And we have extreme trust in each other, which is hard to find in this industry. He's extremely talented and curious, and he's the same age as my son, which is nice."
The duo wanted to create an atmosphere of intimate and personal cooking, right in front of you. A lot of new things, but some old, too.
"Usually, you have no contact with the kitchen, other than through the food. It's the waiters you meet, but here the contact is between the chefs and the guests," says Kalin.
Foreign guests saved the restaurant
When Kalin and Boris first opened the restaurant, it was heavy going. In fact, almost no Bulgarians visited the restaurant in the beginning.
"There was a Bulgarian couple who came through the door, saw how the seating was arranged, and turned around right away. They did not want to dine like that."
Initially, Boris and Kalin estimate that about 90% of the guests were foreign. Danes and Italians kept the restaurant going. Fortunately, the local Bulgarians also eventually opened their eyes to this way of enjoying food, and there is now a good mix of different guests.
The meal – a journey through history and modern cuisine
We sit down with four other guests. The ceiling is decorated in Roman style. In the centre of the room stand a large table, and it is there the chefs work.
"The concept of the "Chef's Table" goes back 2,500 years, all the way to Pompeii, the city that was founded 79 years before the Common Era," says Boris.
"Think local, Bulgarian flavours, served in modern and inventive ways."
There are 22 dishes to be enjoyed. Our menu is presented as a series of emojis, which will help tell the story of the dishes. Boris presents and Kalin puts it together.
The food we are served is a historical journey into Bulgaria's history, which we quickly discover is large and wide.
We enter a journey of food and history, involving all of our senses. We hear about a love story between birds, how pig fat was used in the old days, about fermented walnuts, and the Black Sea.
When we're at dish number 18, I announce that my stomach is full.
"No, no, you can do this. Everyone can learn to cook, but not everyone can learn how to eat. I have faith in you," says Boris enthusiastically.
I give it everything I've got, and we were soon done. Happy and well fed.
We have a final chat after the other guests have left the restaurant. Boris and Kalin show us the small garden they have behind the restaurant.
"The plan is to expand it," says Kalin.
Keeping the restaurant going requires a lot of work, and they are still in uncharted territory for many in Bulgaria. They work hard and allow themselves 10 days of vacation a year.
"But it's the first time in 37 years that I love my job," says Boris.
I ask him what it is about food that inspires him so much.
"We have five senses, but I think the sixth is the memories. When life comes to an end, your memories are all you have, and there is little that brings back memories the way food does."
Metropolitan Hotel Sofia is located between some of the city's largest business centers, such as the European Trade Center, Capital Fort, Business Park Sofia and the Inter Expo Center.