Day in the Life: Roland the young chef

Young chef Roland Visnapuu and his team spent much of Saturday prepping as much as possible ahead of Sunday night's presidential Independence Day reception. 23 February 2019.
Young chef Roland Visnapuu and his team spent much of Saturday prepping as much as possible ahead of Sunday night's presidential Independence Day reception. 23 February 2019. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

My daily reality does not actually involve serving the President of Estonia and her thousand guests and dignitaries hors d'oeuvres, although this year marks the second time I've done just that on Independence Day. On a typical week, I'm actually kept busy juggling my studies at the Tallinn School of Service and my job working in my dad's kitchen at a hotel restaurant in Pärnu. My name is Roland Visnapuu, and I am a young chef.

Restaurant life allows me one pretty significant luxury — work sometimes doesn't begin until noon. On those days, I don't wake up until 10 or 11 in the morning, although sometimes I find I can't sleep past 9 anyway for some reason.

A while back, Noot, the restaurant at Estonia Resort Hotel where I work, changed up its business hours, and à la carte service now begins at 5pm. At first everyone thought, oh great, now we don't have to be in at work until 5pm! Except in reality that's often not actually the case.

While some restaurants in Pärnu close down for the winter because there aren't enough customers outside of the summer holiday season, we're kept busy year round by various groups, conferences and so on — during the off-season, Mondays and Tuesdays are sometimes even busier than Fridays and Saturdays. And if a group comes in and needs tea and coffee service with cookies or a buffet at noon, then we have to be in by 9 or 10am. We have our own incredible baker on site, who will come in as early as 6 or 7 to bake cookies for the day from scratch — whatever they feel like making that day.

But many mornings I can sleep in. And then I have time to watch some TV, maybe watch the news, as I wake up. The good thing about Pärnu is, it's so small that anywhere you have to go is just a five-minute drive away. And there's no traffic. Not like in Tallinn, where you just sit in traffic for 45 minutes.

The first thing I do when I get to work is get a big bucket of coffee going in the hall. No point making it at home when you can make it at work for free, right? There is a sheet of paper on a shelf in the kitchen with details for the day's schedule on it, including any scheduled conferences, planned group sizes, and times. If we have any coming up that day, we will prep for those first. If we don't, or afterward, we will begin prepping for the evening's à la carte service. We make everything at the restaurant from scratch. We don't have a microwave in the kitchen — that's a hard no. Purees and everything are from scratch.

The hot kitchen at our restaurant includes three chefs — the sous chef, my partner Piret, who is second only to my dad, who is the head chef, a vegetable chef, and a grill chef. I'm on the grill, which includes a large flattop grill indoors and two large ceramic Big Green Egg charcoal barbecue cookers outside; different meats and dishes require different kinds of grilling. Sometimes I have to consciously think about what's gone where as I have multiple different things cooking at once. Every now and then we'll also get a customer in who seems to want to impress someone. We'll get an order ticket in the kitchen requesting that their steak be cooked medium-rare minus. I'll cook it — we do what we can to please our customers — and then afterward the client will ask, "What is this? This is raw!"

On the bright side, I am given a lot of creative freedom in the kitchen as well. Last year I won the title of Young Chef of the Year, and two of my wining dishes, a spin on the Estonian classic Baltic herring and a pumpkin fondant dessert with pollen syrup and oatmeal ice cream, are now on the restaurant menu. Other times I will try something new and give it to my dad to try. He's tougher on me than he is on the others when it comes to this — another chef and I could take the exact same dish to my dad to taste, one after the other, and my dad will say to the other chef that the dish is perfect and we should add it to the menu, and then tell me afterward that the dish needs some work. But he does this out of respect for and in support of me, to help me improve. Thankfully we have never clashed in the kitchen; he really respects what I do.

From cooking to cars back to cooking

I was born and raised in Talinn, in the district of Õismäe, together with my sister. My father and mother are also both Tallinn natives. My dad was a chef, and while as a kid I was already interested in cooking, and would help my dad in the kitchen and even started cooking omelettes and stuff for my parents as a preteen already, I didn't actually think I would grow up to follow in his footsteps.

I attended and graduated from the private Audentes School in Tallinn, where my graduating class was just four people. I was... not the best student. And I actually had a lot of trouble with school at various points. But with so few pupils, teachers were able to provide each of us with personal attention, and so I managed to graduate upper secondary school. And had a lot of fun along the way.

As a kid already I loved cars, and so after finishing school I decided to go to vocational school to study to become a mechanic. It didn't take long for me to realise that while I enjoyed tinkering with cars, and learned a thing or two that will help me care for my cars and save me money as a result, as well as do basic repairs on friends' cars, this wasn't what I wanted to do for a living.

While he never pushed me to become one, my dad was of course overjoyed when I decided to switch tracks and apply to study to become a chef. The ink had barely dried on my application to the Tallinn School of Service when he had already bought me my first chef's uniform. By now I am mere months away from graduating the two-year programme, but not until I've completed my internship at my dad's restaurant and taken my Level 4 vocational exam first.

This is one of those professions where someone can definitely work their way up without formal vocational training or a diploma, but for me personally, I would like to have that piece of paper. Some restaurants may hire you without it, and you can work your way up there and gain experience and everything, but if you find yourself switching jobs at one point, you may find that another restaurant won't take you without the relevant education. Besides, since the programme requires internship experience, that is still an avenue for gaining experience and contacts on top of what you learn and practice in school.

My dad has run the restaurant in Pärnu for three or four years now. My family otherwise still lives and owns a home in Tallinn, but we all sat down together and talked about whether this opportunity would be worth it and how it would work for my parents and us before he decided to take the opportunity. And by now it is quite the family affair, as I also met my partner Piret in the kitchen there.

Trial by fire

My experience at Noot has proven incredibly valuable. My first summer there in particular very much put me to the test, and taught me how to remain calm under pressure. I remember standing in front of the flattop grill and just freezing. I just could not understand what it was I had to do. Like, "I'm out. That's it, I don't want to do this." That summer, I was told I wouldn't be able to manage the flattop and the Big Green Eggs outside. But I decided and said that I wanted to do it, and that I was going to do it; I knew I could. And I did.

Even Piret has noticed that I just do not freak out in the kitchen anymore. She was titled Chef of the Year in 2017, and picked me to go with her to serve food at the centennial presidential reception at the Estonian National Museum (ERM) last February. It was an incredible experience to say the least, but what I vividly remember was how much pain I was in the next day, after hours of prepping hundreds and hundreds of identical hors d'oeuvre at very low tables. But I knew then already that I'd be the one attending the presidential reception as a chef in 2019.

Despite the pedigree and various advantages I've enjoyed in studying to become a chef, my road there hasn't always been that glamorous. I remember signing up for a cooking competition at the school. Most people's memory of me is that whenever time was up, it would look like a bomb had gone off at my station. That was because while some people had walked out, I stuck it out and cooked for my life through the very end.

In one case, a surprise special ingredient was announced just 15 minutes before the competition began — this time, it was Granny Smith apples. I made little baked apple chips in sugar water and everything, and set them aside in a bowl on a shelf while I continued to prep the rest of the dish. When it came time to serve, I got the food plated and out with the servers in a hurry when I realised... I had forgotten the apple! But it was too late; the food was out already. I finished cooking through the end, and did my best, aware that I had bombed my dish but hoping that I wouldn't come in last place outright at the very least.

...I came in last place.

Practice makes perfect

Before competing in the Young Chef of the Year competition last year, I practiced hard. Every day for a while, I would go to Pärnu Market and clear it out of fresh Baltic herring. The first ten times, I would practice just gutting and cleaning the herring against the clock, until I got down to ten minutes to gutting and cleaning an entire kilogram of herring. Once I got that down, then I could start working on other parts of the dish.

Winning the Young Chef of the Year competition last year is still among my happiest experiences of late. That moment was just so unreal; I sometimes go back and watch it again. I remember going out to eat with my family afterward to celebrate, and just not having any idea what was going on; I was firmly inside my own bubble of disbelief, in a daze. By the next morning, it had begun to actually hit home already, but it was still such an honour to earn the title, especially just a year after my partner Piret won the general Chef of the Year title.

Fittingly, after she included me on her team at the presidential reception last February, she is part of my own team for the Independence Day reception this year, which also includes Kaspar Hiis and Diane Sarapuu-Kelder from the Tallinn School of Service as well as my entire family. There is no way I could manage without them either, as I have to prepare and serve a total of 1,500 hors d'oeuvres — 650 of one kind, 600 of a second, and 250 of a third. And of course the officials from the Office of the President of the Republic ordered the fewest of the easiest ones to make.

Back at the restaurant, the kitchen closes at 10:30 at night, half an hour before the restaurant does. The bar is open longer, and we don't mind our customers lingering and enjoying themselves, but as anyone who has ever worked at a restaurant or even in a store knows, the worst thing is when you've already cleaned up for the night ahead of closing and then someone walks in at the last minute. At that point, you're not getting out of there until 11:30, midnight.

Closing tends to run late during summer in particular, and there are busy days where you might come in at 8 in the morning and then not get home until the middle of the night. And then if I have to get back to school in Tallinn the next day, I'm waking up at 6am to hit the road. That's tough.

Overall, though, I am privileged to be able to do what I love for a living. And some people who try to combine their passion and a career end up hating it as a result, but so far at least, I could not be happier or more satisfied.

Back to basics

Schedules like mine don't really leave much time to rest or recuperate, but when I can, I love going to my family's country home in Jüri, a little ways outside of Tallinn. I was born in the late 90s, but I still had a childhood where you would get up and grab your bike in the morning and not get home again until nightfall, running around and doing stuff with your friends. Cell phones were still those Nokia brick phones with antennae back then, and so if I was gone for too long my mother would have to go around the village looking for me.

These memories still take me back, especially when I'm back at the country home and doing chores like mowing the lawn. I may have grown up in the city, but I wasn't a typical city kid in that sense. Even when I was born, newborn me was taken straight out to the countryside first thing after being released from the maternity hospital.

I was also into freestyle skiing when I was younger, the same style in which Kelly Sildaru was just crowned World Champion in the halfpipe event in Utah earlier this month; we have actually even skied together before. But a knee injury crossed that sport off my list forever. I still find myself missing it, but I gave my skis away to a friend so that I wouldn't be tempted and risk injuring my knee even further. That particular injury still gives me grief today; if I take one wrong step, it's out. So I have to be careful.

Simpler times are something I've thought about in terms of future plans as well, though. Nowadays you can order anything from the internet, and look up anything online, even how to build a house. People aren't even really cooking much anymore; they order delivery, and ready-made food, and we're getting to a point where people don't know how to cook even the most basic of things for themselves anymore, or know how to hold a knife. I've thought about launching a food truck, but since that is very much a seasonal thing, at least here, with Estonian winters, then there is another route I have considered as well.

Growing up, I was always so interested in and inspired by chefs I'd see cooking at open kitchens at restaurants. Why not combine a restaurant with semi-private cooking lessons? At my work, we also provide groups and clients with cooking "shows" that are actually interactive lessons, so why not extrapolate this concept to a cafe or restaurant?

I know people who barely know how to boil pasta, but at the same time, private lessons and courses at exclusive culinary schools and things like that are prohibitively expensive, and maybe a little too advanced for your Average Joe. Why not find some kind of middle ground? We could work on knife skills and making staples. And then, at the end, the customers could eat the food they made themselves, and feel proud of their accomplishment.

But that's not for another while, in any case. In the meantime, after the presidential reception on Sunday it's back to work, and preparing for my vocational exam, and counting down the days until graduation. When you get out of work at the kitchen very late, sometimes you just aren't sleepy when you get home. At that point I sit around and watch TV, and sometimes I won't get to bed until midnight, 1am, or sometimes even later, and then I feel it the next day.

But it's back to the grind next week, and I've got another Pärnu-Tallinn commute ahead of me, which means another early wake-up time. Thank God I've at least got somewhere to live in both cities; rent in Tallinn especially is just brutal.


Day in the Life is a near-weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at [email protected].

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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