Chef Yaya is turning humble ingredients into something special.
By Artur T

Chef Yaya is turning humble ingredients into something special.

When it comes to creativity, sometimes frugality can ignite the most imaginative ideas. Chef Yaya focuses on making the most of what she has, often transforming simple seasonable ingredients into dynamic dishes. She was born in the former Soviet Union and has since lived in Cuba, Canada and now Berlin and her technique reveals the trademarks of her findings.

At Hund Hund, our favourite kinds of meals are those that marry sustainability with top level and mindfully sourced ingredients that seem simple but aren’t. It was a moment of serendipity when we found out Yaya was the head chef one of our favourite food and wine bars Jaja. We feel super lucky to have her and Florian from Ladidadi host their Back 2 the Grill event on the Hund Hund terrace on May 11.

These are the insights from her culinary journey and food philosophy:

What was your culinary journey? And how did you learn?

I don't have a straightforward culinary path. Unlike many chefs who know from a young age what they want to do, I sort of stumbled into cooking. I was going to university in Montreal for other studies; meanwhile, I was earning money doing side gigs cooking for people privately at their homes. Eventually, I got a part-time job cooking at a neighbourhood Italian cafe, where I learned a lot, and the owner was very loving and encouraged me to go to cooking school.

Where are you from what is your background and how has that influenced the kind of food you create? People and cultures?

From a young age, I have moved around a lot. I was born in the former Soviet Union, then lived as a child in Cuba, then spent my teen years in a small rural community in the east coast of Canada before settling in Montreal for a decade. More so than my background culturally, what translates into my cooking is every place I have lived and its frugality. I lived around people and relatives who could turn very little into a lot, and that influences the way I cook now. I love turning humble ingredients into something special.

What is your approach to food? Your philosophy?

"K.I.S.S" is an anagram we were taught in cooking school. It means "Keep It Simple, Stupid", and it has been a motto of sorts for me. I love simple food, unpretentious food, uncomplicated food. Having spent a few years working in fine dining establishments, and getting to play with all the high tech toys and the molecular powders, at the end of the day I am happiest serving (and eating) a humble classic dish made well.

When did you and Florian from Ladidai Wines meet and when did you start collaborating?

Florian and I met at Jaja, where I work. He is a friend of my bosses Julia and Etienne and had come in a few times and eaten my food there. I had also tried his wines at small wine fairs around the city. From the beginning it made sense for us to work together, we have similar laid back personalities, and what we do complements the other's work very well. When he started holding private dinner series at his studio and shop, he invited to one of his pop-up events, and we have worked together since.

Together with Florian Ladidadi Wines, you are throwing an event in the Hund Hund Studio can you tell us a bit about it? What will be your flavour profile for the event?

Last summer Florian and I did a very intimate grill pop-up at the Wagners terrace, and it was a truly lovely event. My style of cooking is best expressed on a grill, and Florian's wines were a perfect foil for that. When Michelle met to interview Florian, they discussed collaborating and shortly after we were given the opportunity to use the Hund Hund studio, we were very excited to be able to recreate the magic of last summer's events for a larger crowd. For this event, I will be grilling a beautiful bounty of spring vegetables, fish and seafood that have come into season. People can expect small plates bursting with freshness and bold flavours.

How do you see the food scene in Berlin progressing? Where are some of your favourite food spots or events in Berlin?

The Berlin food scene for myself is in equal parts exciting and frustrating. It is still very young in the global sense, yet it thrills me to see all the super creative and hardworking talents taking a crack at making something great here. The frustrating aspect for me as a chef is finding reliability in supplies. Unlike other cities with massive markets, in Berlin getting your hands on good products can be an exercise in patience. I have been lucky and managed to build good relationships with a few small suppliers and producers, and I feel privileged that I get to use their products.

My favourite places in Berlin to eat and drink include, Barra, Arabica, Muted Horn and my place of work Jaja. But to be honest, my favourite is Rogacki.

Do you feel responsible for nudging customers eating habits or persuading them to try new dishes or ingredients?

I certainly try. When I first started cooking in Berlin, I was a little bit annoyed at the inflexibility to try new things by diners I was encountering. With time I realised that a lack of knowledge caused this. So, instead, I began to see it as an opportunity to illustrate something new. I started by cooking popular dishes and slowly intermixing different ingredients and unconventional preparations. Now I can put pretty much anything on the menu, and even the timidest of my German customers are happy to try it at least once because they trust me.

Besides pop-ups where can people try your delicious food?

I can be found cooking almost every day at my home base of Jaja, in Neukolln. I am the head chef at this small natural wine bar, where I do a weekly changing menu of shared plates that change according to what's available at the markets.

The Back 2 the Grill will be taking place on Saturday the 11th of May from 12 pm to 8 pm.

 Text curation by Michelle Torres 


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