The glitzy trappings of celebrity are deceptive and treacherous wherever they appear, but in Malta this is amplified all the further by the simple fact of our diminutive geographical dimensions: the idea of a ‘Maltese celebrity’ is something of a contradiction in terms when it comes to a country this small. So it’s refreshing to hear supposed ‘celebrity’ chef Sean Gravina immediately divest himself of any pretension in this regard the moment we start chatting about what drove him to pursue the culinary arts in the first place.
“My passion for so-called ‘Culinary Arts’ wasn’t something that came from TV,” Gravina tells me, distancing himself somewhat from the “newer generation” whose interest in the craft was piqued by popular cooking programmes – the likes of which, to be fair, Gravina himself has appeared in and headed on local TV from 2014 onwards.
“For me, it was a family thing,” Gravina adds, enthusiastically reminiscing about his formative experience of helping out at his grandfather’s snack bar – a figure he describes as a constant beacon of inspiration and support.
“It’s here that I first got to enjoy the freedom of creating whatever I could, and seeing the enjoyment on people’s faces as they would catch a whiff of what I guess we could call the ‘classics’ of Maltese cuisine,” Gravina says.
“I can instantly recall the aroma of my grandfather preparing a Rabbit dish (fenek moqli) or snails (bebbux), and of course, how can anyone resist a good Ħobż biz-Żejt?! My mouth starts to water at the mere thought of it…”
Though Gravina subsequently underwent a fairly rigorous and varied training regime before getting to where he is now – apart from the prestige of being a recognisable local TV chef, he is also chef patron at the trendy Crust bakery-bar-bistro in St Julian’s – his love for the timeless, down-to-earth mainstays of Maltese cuisine continues to shine through.
It is a passion that’s very much evident in the cooking segments he is presenting as part of this year’s online edition of Għanafest, the islands’ trademark festival of Maltese folk, which takes a wholesomely broad approach to what is ‘folk’ and ‘local’, with cuisine certainly forming part of that mix.
Among the dishes one will find on the sub-site dedicated to Gravina’s recipes are the balbuljata (complete with tips on how to make your own Maltese bread as accompaniment), minestra, Gozitan ftira and the irresistible sweet send-off of the Sfineġ (also known as Zeppole). The easy-to-follow video recipes all come with their own added twist on Gravina’s part – which is a crucial element of his approach to Maltese cuisine in general.
“Maltese cuisine can only remain relevant if enough people who are passionate about traditional recipes and who appreciate the local ingredients they have to hand, really apply themselves to bring out the best qualities of what they have available to them. This is true of all cuisines worldwide,” Gravina says; an observation that is rendered all the more urgent by the current woes being faced by local farmers left struggling in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic and its resultant disruptions.
However, Gravina is also quick to warn against falling for shallow nostalgia, but identifying the true value of the traditional and how it can be improved upon and made to ‘pop out’ in a contemporary context.
“Traditional cooking methods could be one way of keeping a culinary tradition ‘alive’, also because it could perhaps be a way for the younger generation to understand all the more clearly how and why certain things were done in the kitchen back in the day,” Gravina
says. But he’s also keen to remind us that our tools are always improving, and that this isn’t at all a bad thing. Indeed, certain implements that are now part of our domestic sphere – like the crock-pot, sous vide and steamers – were previously only available to commercial establishments.
“With that in mind I think that while keeping traditions alive is important, it is equally important to develop that same tradition and take the dishes one step further, in line with new developments, without losing the original flavour profile that traditional dishes are known for,” Gravina says, adding that the extra creative twist is also a key aspect of keeping traditional dishes vital and interesting to the modern day palate.
“The chef’s personal twist is, at the end of the day, the artist’s calling card,” Gravina says.
Look out for the final 3-part episode of the Cooking Sessions with Sean Gravina on https://www.facebook.com/Ghanafest/ and www.festivals.mt/ghanafest for a special episode featuring Bigilla (watch it below!) Linguine with Rabbit Sauce (today at 16:00) and Imqaret (tomorrow at 16:00).