FOOD VS... KURT CALLEJA
The singer-songwriter and sales & marketing executive trained to be a chef before embarking on his current career. He shares some of his mouthwatering food seduction secrets with SWAG below.
When did you learn to cook?
This may be the cheesiest answer ever but I swear that it’s true. My brothers, cousins and I used to spend the entire summer with my grandmother in her humble flat in Bugibba and as she started getting older she started asking us to help her round the house. I will never forget spending hours in the kitchen filling gnocchi with her mix of ricotta, garlic, parley, cheese and salt. I never tired of doing it and Nanna never tired of answering questions that I had regarding food.
I have always loved good food and after my experiences in Nanna’s kitchen I started popping out of my parents’ house to buy some new ingredients from the supermarket and experiment. My creations weren’t always very good – but slowly and surely I got the hang of it until I decided I actually wanted to be a chef.
After my teen years at secondary school I enrolled at the Institute of Tourism Studies where I was trained by professionals. I spent a good four years after the course working in different segments of the catering industry.
I started off in a humble pizza, pasta and grill but a few years later I was running a small wine bar with a ‘Specials of the Day’ Menu. That was until music started knocking heavily on my door and I had to choose. It was a hard decision but I had to leave food as a hobby.
What are your favourite ingredients?
I’m a very moody person and ingredients and preferences always vary according to my mood. Lately I have been cooking a lot of fish and beef, veal and lamb – because of an attempt to adhere to a healthy lifestyle. I love making sauce and dressings though. They just uplift the dish so much.
So you’re health‐conscious when cooking or planning meals nowadays?
Well it depends on the occasion. Day to day I am super health conscious – as in I cook high protein, low carb meals, and I add in the good fats for energy. However when I prepare for a party or I want to impress someone I go all out – as long as the dish tastes great and is not too heavy I will not count calories.
What's your signiture dish?
I made this sweet potato pie once that my family and friends who tasted it keep asking me to make again. It’s really simple to make – all you need is a good quality short crust pastry mixture made into small cup-sized flans and then baked blind. Then fill them in with mashed sweet potatoes, garlic, parsley and parmesan until the potato has hardened a bit and top it up with Philadelphia cheese, fried sweet potato shavings and Rucola and then dress it up with a herb oil.
Have their been other meals that were such a success that they are still remembered today by your mates?
Last Christmas my brother’s girlfriend and I made savoury muffins with ricotta cheese, Gozitan ġbejna, Parmesan and cheddar all mixed with a muffin mixture – no sugar naturally – and then baked and topped with a balsamic reduction. They were very popular!
Also, a few weeks ago one of the people who sponsored my latest music video – Vertigo – had her birthday, so I went to her house and spent the whole day cooking. We invited her family over and as a thank you for sponsoring me – I cooked everything you can see in the photo above.
From top left: pumpernickel bruschetta with blue cheese and grilled pears and again pumpernickel bruschetta with basil Philadelphia cheese and smoked salmon; sweet and sour chicken rice balls with avocado dressing, beef joint with Jack Daniels' gravy; chicken satay skewers; pork fillet stuffed with beef and chicken mince, wrapped in bacon and served with an apple, garlic and reduced white wine sauce; Parmesan potato balls wrapped in parma ham; BBQ prawns; fresh crab and shrimp cakes with a herby tartar butter.
I think that spread will remain quite memorable too.
What would you cook a date to try and impress her?
Normally I would learn what her favourite food is beforehand, and if I had never made it before I will practice making it a couple of times before I make it on our special occasion. If the girl I am trying to impress is adventurous I would give it a couple of twists of my own but that doesn’t always help – if she is a fussy eater you may not score any points.
Once I actually asked the girl what she DOESN’T like – and she said fish in general. So I said to myself: challenge accepted! I got a fresh red snapper from my fishmonger friend Brandon in Marsascala and what I did with it was very simple, yet super tasty.
I got baking sheets (carta forno), placed them in a big bowl, put the fish in them, wrapped it in garlic, salt, pepper and a herb butter which I make from fresh herbs that I put in hot water for a couple of seconds and blend with melted butter, garlic and salt and white wine. I wrapped it to look like a big toffee and placed it in the oven as soon as she arrived. During our aperitif I would go and check on it and once it was done I hand picked fresh basil and mint and placed it lazily on the fish which I THEN removed the bones from.
She tried it and liked it a lot. However, that is a super risky strategy. You don’t want to try it if you don’t have a) a back up plan, and b) you need to be sure that the reason she doesn’t like a dish is because you strongly believe that when she tasted it, it was not cooked properly or how it is supposed to be cooked.
Matching wines with the mains (and more importantly their sauces) is crucial because the meal tastes that much better. Also, when on a date a dessert that is playful is very important. Most girls like chocolate – and there is a scientific reason for that but I won’t go into it.
Serving something smooth, creamy, light and chocolatey as a romantic dessert is a safe guarantee for a date dinner to conclude well. However giving it a hot and cold twist, or a creamy-crunchy or even a sweet but a bit tangy twist will show that you’re in ahigher league.
Please share your favourite date night recipe with SWAG…
I think it would depend on the season but my classic for anytime of the year would be the cheesy, savoury muffin I mentioned earlier as a starter, alongside a tangy Chardonnay served chilled but not too cold.
Then I’d move on to deboned stuffed chicken thighs with a light creamy spinach and minced meat filling – slowly cooked in a rich tomato sauce and chilled – then dry roasted just before serving and served with a very basic rice pilaf and topped with fresh spinach leaves and a sweet but chili herb oil.
To finish: something to show off a bit. A banana flambé with coffee syrup – warm – and coconut ice-cream (cold); or else a smooth chocolate mousse with hazelnut syrup filling over a digestive base, garnished with raspberries and blueberries.
With the first dessert I would serve a very neat, cognac or brandy so that the sweetness from the dessert is countered by the soothing flavour of the cognac. I find that girls normally like sweeter alcoholic beverages, but if one takes a bite of the banana flambé and then cleans it out with the cognac it becomes more of an experience.
As for the second dessert, I would go for an ice coffee with chocolate flavored vodka – it has the smell of chocolate but is not sweet – and again with the sweet taste and creamy, crunchy texture of the dessert, the unsweetened – unsugared – ice coffee cocktail will clean the sugary taste from the tongue, teeth and lips and the second bite will be as good as, if not better than, the first.
What type of food do you like to order when you're out?
Sushi as I have never attempted to make it.
What type of restaurants do you like going to?
The kind with a relaxed environment, ideally open air and with a good level of service. The kind where you know that they use fresh, good quality ingredients and do not over complicate their dishes. And lastly, where they have a menu that doesn’t have many items to choose from. When there is a vast menu it means that the restaurant is not focusing on a particular set or type of dishes but rather going mainstream to try and please everyone.
What type of restaurants do – or did – you take your dates to?
Ideally the ones I mentioned above. However, I use food itself as a seduction not a restaurant. Anyone can go to a restaurant and order food – though what to choose does make a difference – but making it yourself shows passion, interest, quality and it’s an ice breaker too!
What's your favourite food ever?
Believe it or not, hobz tal-Malti with garlic butter, Maltese sausage filling spread and cheddar cheese.
And what's your least favourite?
Rice with curry and raisins. Don’t get it anywhere near me.
And finally, what's your favourite food smell?
The mixture of friend onions topped with wine and stock being reduced into a gravy.
Check out the video to Kurt’s new song Vertigo below.
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