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Emmanuel Wille, Chef de Cuisine of Olde Hansa Restaurant, Knows His Way Around the Medieval Cuisine

24.August 2015

Chef de Cuisine of  the Olde Hansa Restaurant, a Belgian Emmanuel Wille, found himself in Tallinn 20 years ago after accidentally coming across a job advertisement in a local paper. Eventually, he stayed there for good. He married a Russian girl, learned Estonian, and uses English to communicate with his family. He works at the most famous restaurant situated in the Old Town of Tallinn and considers Estonia as his second homeland.

What brought you to Estonia?

My passion for traveling. When I was younger, I used to work for a period of time and thereafter took a break to go and see the world. In 1995, I returned to Belgium from Indonesia. I did not have a job at the time. I did not have much money. Then I saw an ad in a local paper saying that Roosikrantsi, a Belgian cuisine restaurant in Tallinn, was looking for a Chef de Cuisine. It got me interested. After getting in touch with them, I bought a ticket and flew out to Estonia. At first, I did not think I would stay there for long since I really did not go there for the money. I was expected to work four hours a day. The restaurant provided me with a place to live, food, and small income. My primary objective was to update the menu, put together a good team, and try to get the staff more motivated . When I started, the kitchen had 14 cooks. Coming to work I noticed that they were all somewhat strung up, as if worried about something. Thus, one day I told them, “Just take it easy, guys, and you’ll be fine!” One of the cooks became my wife afterwards and we have two children. Estonia has long been like a second home to me. It will be 20 years this year since I settled here. To be frank, the quality of the cuisine at Roosikrantsi was quite decent even before I arrived there. All I did was add a few extra touches. I worked on taste components, the texture of dishes as well as their visual appearance. I mingled with our clients. I always wanted the distance from the kitchen to the customer’s table to be as short as possible and this approach paid off. The number of visitors started increasing. Very soon I knew our clients by their first names. I even helped one to arrange a wedding and another to have a birthday party. Then a Russian millionaire invited me to work at the Charital restaurant in Pirita, which he had bought in 2000. The previous Manager of the place was also from Belgium but had decided to return home. It was a matter of prestige for the owner to have his own restaurant, as this was where he usually welcomed his foreign partners. In 2007, the owner sold the restaurant for as much as four times what he had initially paid for it. It had become just business. Many thought we were going bankrupt but that was not the case since at the time of the sale the restaurant was making profit.  Fortunately for the owner, the deal was made also before the crisis started, when many places in Tallinn had to close down. I was shocked by the sale of the Charital restaurant. After all, for seven years I had put my heart and soul into it. One day all that was just gone. For a period of time I stayed at home, I was trying to cope with it. Then I got a job offer from Dimitri Demjanov, the owner of Gloria which is a famous restaurant in Tallinn. Whilst working there, I was also participating in other exciting projects. 


For instance, I got a chance to train Estonian cooks for the Bocuse d'Or contest which is one of the world’s most prestigious culinary tournaments. The first time I went to Lyon with Vladislav Djatshuk, the Chef de Cuisine of the Tchaikovsky restaurant, and this summer we went there with Dmitri Haljukov, the Chef de Cuisine of Cru. Neither of them won, however even just taking part in a contest as big as this is both highly prestigious as well as a testimony to the high level of the Estonian cooks. After all, Lyon attracts the absolute top masters of the culinary art from all over the globe. Keeping them company, spending time with them, and watching them cook is a fantastic opportunity for any cook. I truly hope that one day the main prize goes to an Estonian cook.


You’ve been working at the Medieval Restaurant Olde Hansa for about 5 years. What is your primary professional objective over there?
Right now, my primary objective is to maintain a high quality of dishes we cook. The owner of the place, a Finn Auri Hakomaa (30 years in Estonia), has his own vision of things. He is responsible for the concept and my job is to put it into practice. I advise our cooks, help them to come up with the right balance of flavor undertones, and arrange all the accents the way they should be.


What is the phenomenon of Olde Hansa ?
Olde Hansa’s success is based on the fact that it is situated in the right place, the right building, and it offers the right dishes. We cook from scratch everything that our clients order. It is true, we do not produce our own liquor, but we put our own flavor additives in our beverages. There are no partly pre-prepared meals. We use only natural products. It is also worthwhile to mention that people come to Olde Hansa to get new experiences. The client is greeted here by waiters wearing medieval clothing, there is medieval music playing, and serving the dishes can be considered as a ceremony of its own kind.


How do you come up with your Medieval recipes?
Fortunately, the recipes dating back from the authentic Medieval cuisine have survived pretty well to this day. The flavors of these times are described in ancient books. We have a guy on our team who specializes in it. Yet the main role in this process is not really played by him or me. It is the owner of the place who travels around the world and reads a lot. He knows exactly what a dish should taste and smell like. My job is to come up with a balance, look for that exceptional harmony of flavors that make the dish perfect. Olde Hansa’s menu never really changes. Every day we work on developing it, but new dishes come out very rarely.

Where do you purchase your produce for the place?
90-95% of it comes from the Estonian market. We buy mostly from the wholesalers. Every year we calculate things to come up with ballpark figures on how much bear or moose meat we will be requiring. 

Do you dream of Olde Hansa being awarded with a Michelin star?

I do not. Honestly. I just like to cook nice, delicious food. A Michelin star is not just about rating your dishes. You will never get a star just because your food is great. Stars are awarded based on many criteria: service, cleanliness, the quality of food, etc. It is very hard to get a rating like that and it is even harder to constantly maintain a Michelin star level. It is way too stressful for Head Chefs. When you have one star, you will not sleep for a day; when you have got two of them, you will not sleep for two days; and when you have been awarded with three stars, then you will have to stay up seven days a week. That is why many cooks die young. Just recently a cook passed away in Denmark at the age of 35. Besides, stress is often the source why one may turn to liquor to relieve stress. And, yet again, that is additional load on the body. My health is what I care about the most and therefore I am determined to lead a healthy lifestyle. For example, I go track running: in winter I use the winter track and in summer I do it outdoors.

Who does the cooking in your house?
For a long time it was both my wife and me. However, a few years ago our daughter started to show interest in cooking and she does not allow her father into the kitchen any more! But she’s good. She can cook both main dishes and pastry.


Tell us about your family.
My wife is five years my junior. She works at a café in the proximity of Tallinn airport. It is where airport workers and employees of nearby firms usually dine. They serve about 200-300 meals per day. But she does not cook anymore. She takes care of the organizational matters. I would not say that she is doing it just for the money. It is just that for 11 years she had to stay at home with the kids and now that they have grown up, they don’t need to be looked after all the time. She wants to go out there and do something as well. My daughter is going to turn 16 this year. She is about to graduate from high school. My son is 11. Both of them attend a Russian-speaking gymnasium. My wife speaks Russian and I speak English with them. Besides, my daughter is fluent in Estonian. My son is not as good at it as of yet, but I am pretty sure he will get there too. 20 years ago my wife did not speak a word of Estonian, but now she is fluent at it. She has passed all the exams. Anyways, we are more comfortable speaking English with each other.


Do you yourself often go to restaurants?
I do not.  Maybe just once in a while. After work I hurry home as I prefer to have dinner at home. With the family, we frequently visit the Attimo pizzeria on Peterburgskoye Shosse. As far as the level of restaurants in Tallinn is concerned, then it is very high. There are places that would succeed in the capitals of the leading European countries. Take Tchaikovsky, for instance, or Cru – they are 5 points out of 5.

Do you like the traditional Estonian cuisine?
It was hard for me to understand it 20 years ago. Sauerkraut, tvorog (quark or curd cheese), peas, grains, black pudding – none of it was my cup of tea. But after having lived here for a while, I fell in love with the Estonian cuisine. It fits the local climate perfectly. Black pudding with cowberry sauce and pork with sauerkraut and pickles – it is so filling and delicious, warms up the body and provides it with vitamins. Right now I am in love with pea soup.

Finally, is it hard for a cook to achieve success?
I started out in the kitchen when I was 13 which was followed by acquiring professional education of the field. I feel that the kitchen is like life: if you really love what you do, you will definitely make it.  


Sergei Mikhailov

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