The Insider grills Aleksander Baron – proprietor and head chef at Solec 44 – on the meat industry.
WI: You’re known for your love of meat. Has it always been that way?
AB: It all started in Scotland. I worked there for four years and fell in love with the country and its food. Before, I didn’t even see the difference between chicken and beef. It’s the best place I’ve eaten to be honest – I loved the lamb, and the Scottish Black Angus. The lessons I learned when I started working as a chef were very altruistic – that you can’t make something good out of something that’s crap, and as such the basis of all good cooking is good ingredients. So when I returned to Poland I asked myself where our own good produce was. Just two percent of our cow population was for meat, the rest were milking cows – which are fine for goulash but not much else. And it wasn’t just beef – I asked, where are our chickens, hens, geese?
So the produce was bad in Poland?
We’ve always had fantastic goose, great duck – but it was going straight for export to places like Germany. Instead we were getting lamb from places like New Zealand, our beef from Argentina – those are great, but they were crossing the world before ending up on our tables. I wanted to serve good Polish produce, so I started looking around, using markets etc. A lot of chefs were using cheap, low quality, wholesale meat, but my search led me to Grzegorz at Polna Market: nowadays he’s become something of a celebrity butcher!
You’re a crusader for free-range produce…
I believe there’s the right ‘energy’ in free range. I don’t want to eat unhappy animals. I want to eat animals that have seen the sky, that have seen the grass. I don’t touch mass-produced meat, it’s ugly. And I also believe in not wasting an animal. I’m big on nose-to-tail cooking; offal is my specialty.
Do you have a favorite meat, a favorite cut?
I love all animals and I love all parts of them. You will not find more interesting flavors or textures than in the cheeks – it’s such a gentle meat. Ears are also interesting, so too sweetbread and mountain oysters. One thing I never serve is fillet steak, instead I want to teach people about other parts of the cow. Most people haven’t heard of things like buffet steak or white spider.
You sound like you’ll eat and cook anything. What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten?
Rat. I was in China and there was a guy cooking rats up at a street stall and I thought why not. And you know what, it was nice. The meat was tender, it had a full flavor. Of course, I’d never serve that here as cooking rats isn’t part of Polish culture. If ever you found someone serving that here it’d just be for shock factor. But I have to try everything once. Thinking about it, the only meat I wouldn’t touch is human!
What do you think of vegetarians?
I respect them, I understand them. They’ve thought through their actions and made a conscious choice, which is a positive thing. Provided they’re not the sort of people who try and change me then I don’t have any problem with them.
Are you positive about where Polish cooking is going…
Under communism we lost our cooking skills – our culinary culture vanished and schabowy was king of the table. After the political changes we fell in love with things like Italian cooking, Turkish etc. We needed twenty years or so to grow up, to mature and start thinking of who we are and the value of Polish cuisine. And to be honest, these times have been great to be a chef – there’s been a revolution!