VILNIUS - Jurgen Weis has been cooking as long as he can remember. The Swedish born chef who now oversees the kitchen at the Reval Hotel Lietuva's Riverside Restaurant was one of the pioneers of upscale cuisine in Lithuania.
Having previously served as executive chef at Literatai, a Vilnius restaurant specializing in Scandinavian food, Weis was one of the first to introduce sophisticated Western cooking to the local palate.
Arriving in Vilnius after stints in New York and Paris, Weis said that adjusting to Lithuanian tastes presented specific challenges to a chef accustomed to clients raised on international cuisine.
"In the hotel, we get lots of different nationalities who come to eat, but among Lithuanians I've had trouble trying to serve spicy foods-they really don't like it," said Weis.
Aversion to piquant gastronomy aside, Weis says that he and fellow foreign chefs in Lithuania have witnessed a rapid transformation in client demands as well as the range of possibilities available to chefs over the past years.
One of the most welcome changes for chefs anxious to bring their culinary creations to life has been the ever-increasing availability of specialty ingredients and quality staples.
Weis recalls a time when question marks hovered over the supply of even basic foodstuffs such as chicken.
"Once when I first started at Literatai, I placed an order for fresh chicken to come the next day at 11:00a.m," he recounted. "When it still hadn't come by noon, I called them, and they said they didn't have any chicken at all. Of course, I swore never to use them again, but after I tried every single supplier and all of them did the same thing, I wound up going back to this first supplier!"
Now an advanced network of supply brings quality fresh meats and other groceries produced domestically to kitchens around the country with relative frequency and reliability.
But in spite of the progress, Weis bemoans the paucity of other key ingredients that could add flavor and variety to his creations.
"There are no specialty vegetables available. I like using yellow beetroot instead of red beetroot, but it's almost impossible to get it here," he said.
Even more disastrous in Weis' opinion, is the fresh fish situation.
"Fresh fish is my favorite thing to prepare. But it's completely unavailable here, so unless I have a customer willing to pay 200 litas [58 euros] a plate, I can't afford to have it flown in from Norway."
While a practitioner of advanced and contemporary cooking methods, Weis has one particular insight on Lithuanian traditional cooking that he says most often comes as a shock to locals.
"Sweden and Lithuania have pretty much the same geography with the same available ingredients, so our cooking is more or less the same. When I tell Lithuanians that we have cepelinai in Sweden, they almost never believe me," he said.
For better or worse, it would be difficult to spot cepelinai-Swedish or otherwise-on Weis' menus, which instead reflect the very latest in international culinary trends.