Food by VICE

Meet the Chef Teaching Estonians to Dine for Pleasure

Chef Tõnis Siigur of Tallinn’s celebrated NOA restaurant sees it as his job to help Estonian diners enjoy food as form of entertainment—a very un-Soviet concept for a country that left communism just 25 years ago.

by Merlin Jobst
Apr 14 2016, 10:00am

All photos by the author.

What do we talk about when we talk about European food? French bread, Italian wines ... German bratwurst, perhaps? Intricate Nordic dishes will certainly get a mention.

The eastern end of the continent, however, is often either forgotten or dismissed as a place where people still live off reindeer and black bread.

But in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, a burgeoning food scene disproves the stereotypes surrounding Baltic food. At Tallinn Music Week, a massive celebration of modern Estonian culture, I meet a chef at the forefront of the city's growing dining culture: Tõnis Siigur.

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Tallinn Bay, Estonia. All photos by the author.

Siigur is typical of most of the men I've met from this part of the world: stoic, sharp, and guarded. We meet at his restaurant NOA (both "ship" and "knife" in Estonian), which rests on the seafront just outside Tallinn. The evening sun throws rays through crystalline glass walls onto white wood tables with gold and copper adornments. Wherever you sit, you overlook Tallinn Bay, which flows into the Gulf of Finland. It's impossibly picturesque, and pointedly Nordic—a theme I quickly realise is the direction modern Estonia tries to follow.

Siigur leads me past long sharing tables, an idea he took from Scandinavia, commenting that Estonians "don't want to share, they're not so into talking," but that they quickly learn to enjoy it.

We sit in a closed-off section of the restaurant at a table for which prospective diners have to effectively interview with Siigur over email in order to get a seat at. He answers my questions in slightly broken but confident English.

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Inside Tallinn's NOA restaurant.

"Even in Soviet times, people ate local, Estonian food," he tells me. "There'd be a lot of pork, a little chicken, some fish. They made a lot of the same things—solyanka [a type of Russian soup], stroganoff, that kind of thing. After independence, people looked for something different. We had internet, more books, people started to travel, and we got a lot of information."

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Independent from Soviet rule for just 25 years, Estonia occupies a unique place in Europe. With Russia to the right, well-established Central and Western Europe on the left, the Nordics above, and Latvia and Lithuania as its only Baltic neighbours, the country has a deluge of food influences to work with.

And that's without even drawing on the country's culinary past, which focused on the seasonal—gathering lingonberries and hunting in the summer, preserving in the winter. Siigur, who once wrote a now magnificently stylistically outdated Estonian cookbook, says that the key is taking inspiration from other countries and time periods, rather than trying to replicate.

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Chef Tõnis Siigur of NOA.

"We have a lot of, er, blood stuff," he smirks. "Especially sausages. And dumplings. This is food we still eat but it doesn't make sense to put on the menu. You can create other products from this but never original. You have to change something."

Siigur tells me about a dessert served at his second restaurant Tuljak, a massive concrete Soviet-era dining space on the other side of town.

"In 'Russia time,' they had these Cognac cornets. They made a handmade waffle, filled with butter and Cognac cream, and covered with chocolate," he explains. "It used to not be so perfectly done. At that time, it was made in a really horrible way. It [cooking] was only a job back then—no passion. Now it's completely different. Now it's people who want to make things better."

One ingredient Siigur has worked to "make better" is moose, which he uses in a unique kind of pie.

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"In Germany, they have deer. In Finland, reindeer. In Estonia, we have moose," he says, adding that the pastry for his pie is taken from a Georgian dish called khachapuri. "Again, local food but now we have this dish which is local moose, Georgian dough—a new dish. Maybe after ten years, everybody will be making it."

British pies could learn a thing or two from Baltic cuisine: the moose pie's khachapuri dough is both pillow-soft and delightfully crispy, like a savoury doughnut. Inside, the dark moose meat is offset by razor-sharp ice-dried lingonberries.

"Very typical, very Estonian," says Siigur. "And Scandi."

It's literally the best pie I've ever eaten—I note myself murmuring "holy shit" on the interview playback. This is Siigur's vision for Estonian cuisine: inspiration from the old and influence from outside.

Alongside the pie, he prepares an "appetiser" of an enormous parcel of raw carpaccio-style beef containing herbs, tomato, wild garlic pesto, rocket, Parmigiano, lumpfish roe mayonnaise, and mountainous crackers made from dehydrated and deep-fried sheets of rye porridge. The raw meat is buttery and rich with acidic bursts from the fresh ingredients inside.

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"Everything on this menu has an Estonian touch," Siigur says, pointing out herring, pike perch, fermented cucumbers, smoked beetroot, and blackcurrants. There's also a Nordic pizza with sour cream and heavily smoked Estonian cheese.

His ultimate aim at NOA is to find that sweet spot between dishes customers feel comfortable eating and food that expands the palate.

"Little by little, we teach them," explains Siigur. He sees role as a chef as to help people enjoy food as form of entertainment—a very un-Soviet way of thinking.

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"Government need to push Estonian people to eat out more," he remarks. "If they want to spend 20 or 30 Euros for food, then it's too expensive. They eat because they have to eat, but it's one of the top emotions: number one is sex, second is food and drinking. These are two very important things, and if you live once and don't know how to enjoy them, then you waste your time."