The Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance (SFCA) was launched in Albania in June 2015 and currently has twenty-one active chefs in the country. Bledar Kola is one of them, known for community-building and inspiring others around the world.
Bledar left Albania for London as a teenager and worked his way up the kitchen career ladder. He remained abroad for many years, learning his culinary skills at some of world’s most applauded restaurants, including Pied à Terre, Noma, and Fäviken. Almost a decade ago, he returned home with the desire to refine Albanian cuisine. In February 2016, his restaurant Mullixhiu (The Miller) opened its doors to customers.
The restaurant follows the Slow Food philosophy, serving local and seasonal Albanian ingredients as well as supporting five endangered wheat varieties. There is a stone mill on site where fresh wheat is made into bread and sold daily in the restaurant. “The whole concept of the restaurant is to bring attention to the food and to the wheat varieties that are disappearing,” says Bledar, adding that Slow Food and the Chefs’ Alliance are very positive movements in Albania. “We have had a good experience being part of Slow Food, because, apart from serving good food, you see the social impact it has on people.”
Bledar believes that chefs play a crucial role as intermediaries between producers and consumers, and should use their position to improve food culture in their local communities. One of his current projects was inspired by rising obesity rates among Albanian children, which is associated with children feeling ashamed to bring a packed lunch from home and instead eating unhealthy food at school.
Bledar started a movement called Buka ne Straje (Bread in Your Bag), referring to the idea of bringing a packed lunch from home. The movement was followed by a social media campaign where famous food professionals – Carlo Petrini and Rene Redzepi among them – promoted the phrase. Bledar organized meetings in a local park to demonstrate how parents could prepare food for their kids to take to school. Bledar also purchased a food truck with his personal savings, using it to visit different schools and continuing his efforts to educate children on the importance of healthy eating and cooking at home. As he explained, “it’s a very complex issue that is destroying the future for kids and nobody is really aware of it.
“On a small scale, as a chef in a small country, I do my part to change things here. This is my next mission; to educate kids to eat healthy. It really worries me when kids come to the restaurant with the latest technology and they cannot eat food without watching a screen. This is a huge problem not just in Albania but in most of the world. People are more informed about iPhones than they are about a native fruit which has been around for all of history. Only chefs can change this. We have to take some time to educate kids, who are growing up with no knowledge about the food they eat.”
Bledar’s work is a great example of the essential role chefs play in infiltrating mainstream society’s food culture and working to change it for the better.