Unveiling New Romanian Cuisine: Adriana Sohodoleanu’s journey through gastronomic innovation – Business Review

In the heart of culinary innovation and cultural preservation of the Romanian food, Adriana Sohodoleanu stands as the one who unravels the intricate tapestry of Romanian cuisine with scholarly finesse. Business Review talked with Adriana Sohodoleanu on how sociology meets culinary arts, and where every dish tells a tale of tradition, innovation, and national pride, sparking a revelation of Romania’s gastronomic potential. What inspired you to delve into the exploration of Romanian cuisine for your PhD thesis? Well, all it took was a simple dish of zacusca with a side of a spider. It was 2017, and Maize, a farm-to-table restaurant, had just opened in Bucharest after a few months of clever pre-launch PR. I was having dinner, and there it was – this totally familiar and yet complete stranger amuse-bouche: a woven rod basket with hay holding small pita breads with zacusca. The audacity, I thought. No one offered zacusca in Bucharest and deemed itself modern in 2017. Minutes later, audacity struck back, this time in the form of a spider crawling on our table after leaving its hay nest. Well, that was Romania in a nutshell – brave, tasty, creative, and not there yet. The entire evening was a déjà vu; I knew that it was not actually new for me but couldn’t pinpoint it then and there. A few days later, the info sunk and resurfaced victorious – a new cuisine was about to happen, one based on local ingredients and identity but following closely in the steps of every other new local cuisine inspired by the disruptive Rene Redzepi, chef-owner at Noma Copenhagen and father of the New Scandinavian Cuisine. I understood I was privileged to witness the birth of our own local neo-cuisine, and I took it as a duty to document it. I was lucky; I was in my first year of doctoral studies, still engaged in reading the literature, not yet doing fieldwork, therefore easy to change direction. What were the driving factors behind your decision to pursue sociology as a field of study? It was not a choice but a given; there were no other schools, departments, or institutes specialized in gastronomy in Bucharest. So, social sciences are still the best place for food studies. In a previous interview, you mentioned that you pursued a PhD to explore why we eat, how we eat, when we eat, who we eat with, and why we make these choices. Do you feel like you’ve found the answers to these questions through your research? That was my first plan, indeed. To get into the doctoral school, I had to pass a written exam and also present my research project. This was focused on understanding food consumption patterns among corporate employees working in the Northern office buildings. I switched to the New Romanian Cuisine because it was a rare opportunity to observe a phenomenon since inception, but I still have those questions about consumption – the whys and hows. During my research, I understood that food is a good and accessible social locator; one can easily build an identity or merely project a desired image through food. There are individuals that have an ideology behind their food intake and lifestyle (vegans, no waste supporters, etc.) just as there are others that use plates, restaurants, and trends as steps in their – perceived – social climbing. The study of New Romanian Cuisine meant I had to limit myself to observing the production of food, its authors, and their motivation; the market’s reaction to their offer was not an object of my study. That is a totally different research question. Mine was how does the New Romanian Cuisine create its field, the symbolic and material resources it uses – strictly focused on the restaurant, not the (potential) customer. I am still very much interested in knowing what makes one eat sarmale for lunch and sushi for dinner, how one relates to their food choices, culinary identity, and heritage given the globalizing pressure, among other factors. Can you provide insights into the research process behind your book on New Romanian Cuisine? What were some of the most surprising discoveries you made during your fieldwork? I am in awe of the creativity and relentless pursuit of ‘Romanian-ness’ by the chefs I studied, their desire to rewrite the meaning of being Romanian in terms of food, and to create heritage-aware and proud consumers. For a foreigner, how do you define New Romanian Cuisine, and what distinguishes it from traditional Romanian culinary practices? The New Romanian Cuisine is an author-centric approach to creating new recipes based on older, familiar ones, using local seasonal ingredients and a modern approach in terms of techniques, principles behind pairing decisions, plating, and messaging – where food is seen as an expression of identity and duty, heritage, environment, health, and the well-being of consumers but also suppliers and employees, among other factors. In what ways does your book shed light on the cultural, historical, and societal influences that have shaped Romanian cuisine over time? The New Romanian Cuisine emerges as a reaction to globalization, as well as to an internal factor—the frozen-in-time state of traditional Romanian restaurant fare. Thirty years after the revolution, most of these classic restaurants maintain the same menu, devoid of seasonality, history, or regional specificity. Despite the nostalgia and comfort associated with these establishments, their identity remains stereotyped. The identical menu, interior design, and musical background persist throughout Romania, whether in Cluj, Craiova, or Suceava, irrespective of weather conditions. To understand how this situation unfolded, I delved into Communist-era cookbooks and conducted a comparative analysis with those published before 1947. Additionally, I analysed the factors shaping food preferences after 1989. Could you elaborate on any notable trends or developments in contemporary Romanian gastronomy that your book addresses? The New Romanian Cuisine embodies an ideology that champions local products, seasonality, and responsibility towards artisan producers, the environment, and future generations. One might perceive it as a leftist approach; however, its positioning through price and the required cultural capital unmistakably places it on the right side of the spectrum. The entire movement exhibits a fascinating dynamic that reflects today’s intricate ideological entanglements. Moreover, we inhabit an experience-centric society, and the culinary domain, including chefs and restaurants, follows suit by engaging in playful experimentation with food, providing us with delectable entertainment. What role do you see New Romanian Cuisine playing in the larger context of global culinary trends and the growing interest in ethnic and regional cuisines? The New Romanian Cuisine represents a much-needed movement. Internally, the younger generation, and not exclusively them, do not feel represented by classic Romanian restaurants. They are keen on learning more about their culinary heritage and identity, and these neolocal restaurants effectively respond to their needs. Externally, these chefs and their establishments act as gastro-diplomats, conveying information to the world through a form of food entertainment about our roots and future aspirations. They showcase that we not only have a past but also a future. I also appreciate these chefs’ role in expanding the culinary paradigm. Considering the impending scarcity of traditional foods in the future, it is valuable to introduce new foods or reintroduce forgotten, ignored, or stigmatized ones and transform them into something cool and sought-after. The best example is the now coveted ramson, initially foraged for consumption by marginal groups only. Can you share any anecdotes or experiences from your research that particularly resonated with you and influenced the narrative of your book? There were people around me always dismissing these restaurants as being simply a way of getting more money out of consumers through fancy food in tiny portions and big egos. I was happy to prove them wrong and show the strong message these plates put on the table, but while doing so I was also sad that there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to education. Having dinner at a Michelin star restaurant just because you can it doesn’t guarantee you also understood the experience and for sure does not give you automatically the right tools to evaluate local fine dining experiences. There were always people around me dismissing these restaurants as simply a way of extracting more money from consumers through fancy food in tiny portions and big egos. I was happy to prove them wrong and demonstrate the powerful message these plates convey. However, in doing so, I also felt a sense of sadness that there is still much work to be done in terms of education. Having dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant just because you can doesn’t guarantee that you truly understand the experience, and certainly does not automatically provide you with the right tools to evaluate local fine dining experiences. How do you envision your book contributing to the preservation and appreciation of Romanian culinary heritage, both domestically and internationally? My book can be considered a work log as it follows the chefs almost in real-time, from their first steps until the pandemic changed the rules of the game without stopping it, though. It analyzes the last 80+ years of restaurant life and attempts to provide an explanation and context. As far as I know, it is the first to theorize the evolution of professional cooking, paving the way to uncharted territories. What do you hope readers will take away from your exploration of New Romanian Cuisine, both in terms of culinary knowledge and cultural understanding? My aim, in general, is to show people that one can read a plate beyond its ingredients, techniques, and price. Food is a powerful lens for understanding society at any given time – whether it’s the use of expensive, rare spices reflecting geographical expansion and status in the Middle Ages, or the transformation of diets during the Industrial Revolution as the working class moved from villages to cities. Today, our plates reflect the anxieties of our present: considerations such as milk-free, gluten-free, no sugar added, zero waste, plant-based, fair trade, organic, artisanal, short supply chain, clean label, low carbon footprint, recycled, etc. My book touches upon all these aspects, but its primary focus is on three things: first, we can build a future without destroying the past, as the New Romanian Cuisine is another expression of local cuisine, not a replacement; secondly, we have reasons to be proud of our food – it is more diverse and rich than we often think; thirdly, food is a powerful tool for promoting our country. Adriana Sohodoleanu transformed her Phd thesis in a recently launched booked,  “Ce e nou in Noua Bucatarie Romaneasca” / What’s new in the New Romanian Cuisine, available in Romanian language only at Carturesti.