From DC, LA and the West End: Chef Georgi Yaneff presides at Sofia’s Koto

There is soon to be a new feature at Koto restaurant in Sofia, the Chef’s Room, a place for excellence and experiment. As he has done since Koto opened, chef Georgi Yaneff will preside.

Georgi Yaneff’s path in putting fine dining on the table has taken him from the Old Town in Alexandria in Washington DC, where he learnt from executive chef Susan McCreight Lindeborg, to being mentored by the legendary José Andrés in LA (Yaneff’s resume includes The Bazaar by José Andrés and SLS in Beverly Hills), to the signature Yaneff at DSTRKT Restaurant in London.

That long path began in the town of his birth, Elhovo in southern Bulgaria – where his love of cooking and food was born in his earliest years – and after the years in London, the moment came for a return to Bulgaria. Thus his role at Koto, which opened a year and a half ago.

The concept for Koto was created in collaboration between Georgi Yaneff and the owners. A venue where everyone may feel comfortable and find a time to their taste; a place with a fine bar, to stop in the afternoon for a cappucino, to savour a whisky, to sit down to the specialty Pan-Asian cuisine or enjoy a steak – sourced in Argentina, Australia, the US, Spain, Romania, select farms in Bulgaria – and experience the very frequently-updated seasonal menu.

Of the Pan-Asian concept, he says: “I think we have done it pretty successfully. A lot of the guests and regulars say they don’t feel as if they’re in Sofia, but in a modern European city, and that was our main goal”. On Koto’s menu, the Pan-Asian concept embraces dishes from Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and China.

Then there is the seafood. “Lately we’ve started getting our fish straight from Greece, trips two or three times a week to Kavala or Thessaloniki”. The sourcing of the seafood, as well as other foodstuffs from carefully-chosen places in Sofia and elsewhere, creates a special dynamic for the seasonal menu.

“Right now, the seasons are very dynamic, especially now in the spring and summer. This is the most exciting time of the year – the fish, very soon the summer vegetables, the summer fruit – and we like our seasonal menu to be very seasonal. For example, there are those baby shrimp, that have a season of just three weeks or so; we get it from Greece, it’s on the menu for two to three days, and when it’s sold out, we change again.”

The staff that he has built up in the kitchen, a team of about 18 with an emphasis on youth and thus a willingness to be responsive to quick change, accept these frequent changes as a challenge.

Delicate care in the kitchen at Koto.

“It took me a while, but I think that at the moment, I feel very fortunate having such a staff because they’re really amazing, very passionate, they want to improve, to learn, they always want to do something new.”

Asked about his own personal favourites on Koto’s menu, he chuckles. As a chef, he’s guided by what he himself likes to eat. He would hardly want to offer others what he himself would not enjoy.

“I love a lot of things – the crispy rice, the great steaks, the seafood, the salads…”

Georgi Yaneff has many inspirations. He speaks of José Andrés (“he’s my biggest mentor”), and others who inspire him include American chef, restaurateur and cookbook writer Thomas Keller, US restaurateur and TV personality David Chang, “the French chefs, the new wave of chefs; there are so many”.

He keeps up to date, continuing the pattern of his youth. “When I was young, I was buying at least four to five cook books a month, just to continue learning and improving.” He estimates he owns about 400 to 450 such books, not counting those that he had left behind when moving on: “I have maybe 200 left in Los Angeles, maybe another 100 in DC, just because it’s very hard, 200 books, I can hardly take them with me on the flight.”

All of this leads up to the Chef’s Room project. “Because we’re a restaurant, we’re a bar, we’re everything. Now we are going to separate this part of the restaurant” – he gestures to the elegant, intimate space where the interview is taking place – “and here we will focus just on food, a tasting menu, a very seasonal menu, with the best ingredients, probably having five, seven or nine courses, combined with signature cocktails and with a custom wine list.”

Chef’s Room, Georgi Yaneff says, will be “people who like to experiment, try a new wine, a new cocktail, a new combination of flavours”.

He smiles again. “I’m looking forward to it”. Diners in Sofia might well too.

To book at Koto’s Chef’s Room, please click here.


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The Sofia Globe staff

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