Shavi Lomi: The First Georgian Food Revolution


The foodie revolution in Tbilisi started in 2011, when young Georgian chef Meriko Gubeladze opened her fusion restaurant Shavi Lomi.

“We wanted our restaurant to be original: Georgian cuisine with a twist. The same taste but different ingredients. Our goal was to evoke some kind of emotion from customers once they’d opened the menu: surprise, disappointment, anger — anything. So, we began to look for a chef but struggled to find anyone qualified. Back then, the industry was way behind what it is now; my time in the States allowed me to learn things that put my skills ahead of the people I hired at the time. So, despite my plans to the contrary, I returned to the kitchen as chef myself, and Black Lion was born. It was a huge success. Indeed, back in the day, the pioneers of Georgia’s culinary scene were focusing more on filling the vacuum of European-style cooking and introducing that culture; but no-one was focusing on revolutionizing Georgian food. So, in that sense, we were definitely the first to do so.”

So began our discussion with the revolutionary Ms Gubeladze, owner of Shavi Lomi.

So, how are you revolutionizing Georgian cuisine?

What we started was not so much an alteration of the tastes, but of the smaller details. Take the example of the serving of the food. Traditionally, Georgian tables are communal, with food being shared. Instead of, say, giving you ghomi on one plate and kharcho on the other, we tried to combine. We made ghomi green, which disappointed many and surprised others. A dish that has been very successful with our guests is our ‘gobi,’ a wooden plate filled with a mix of Georgian starters: cheese, cornbread, pkhali and walnuts. The name forms the base of the Georgian word for friendship, megobroba, because friends would share food from gobi, so it has a nice history to it. Even though it’s not on our menu, everyone is always asking for it!

How have you seen the wining and dining culture develop since you got back from the US?

Oh, it’s changed a lot. As I said, back then it was pretty much static. Now, and this is probably a result of the opening up of the country and the great influx of tourism, Georgians have realized that it’s time to change. As the need to keep to the same traditions as our great-great-grandfathers waned, people began to appreciate the possibility to be creative with our cuisine. The opening of the Culinary Academy was also a big deal as it facilitated the rise in this profession’s prestige among the younger generation. During the communist era, being a chef was not looked at as something prestigious, but now it is. The last 3 or 4 years have seen the industry develop exponentially, and I believe that it will continue on this trajectory for a while yet. The impact of tourism had a lot to do with this change.

The youngsters are bringing more and more creativity into the field and pushing for a loosening of traditions. Of course, there is an old vanguard still fighting them, so to speak, trying to keep everything the same as how their great-grandmothers served it.

What do you mean by “traditional”?

Presentation and flavors. Look at the traditional Georgian chicken soup, chikhirtma. As long as you can recognize the taste as chikhirtma, I don’t understand why anyone should protest the kind of ingredient, i.e. mint, terragon, whatever, used in the cooking process. But the older generation are relentless in their complaining.

So are these the kinds of changes that you bring into your cooking: using different herbs to create the same traditional flavors?

Indeed. What I mean is that if you call something “kharcho,” you should recognise it as that, and cook it in a manner that ensures the signature taste remains. How you get there, be it through combination X, Y, or Z of ingredients, is what makes things interesting. That process is what holds the key to the individuality of each restaurant: it shouldn't be the hostage of tradition.

Another thing that we are trying to do, and not just us but chefs across Georgia, is to bring back a lot of traditional dishes that were lost during communist times. By “lost,” I mean that people stopped cooking them as the culture of borsht and cutleti took over. We lost a lot of different kinds of cheeses and grapes, amongst other things. Today, a lot of us chefs are trying to find the old recipes and bring them back into everyday life. There’s a lot of work left until we achieve collective success in this goal, but we’re definitely getting there slowly but surely.

On that note, while in the US did you draw any inspiration from any particular chef or style of cooking?

I was at a very authentic and upscale Mexican restaurant for a while. That was a very different and unique experience for me: I was very blown away with the food there! It was definitely a source of inspiration for me. Though, to be honest, New York’s food culture in its entirety left a huge lasting impression on me. Everything, the different presentations, the cooking styles, the richness and sheer variety of flavors, was simply amazing.

Throughout my travels in Georgia, I’ve noticed the differences, at times subtle, at times explicit, in the flavor and presentation of popular dishes like Khinkali and Khachapuri. Is there a particular region of Georgia that you base your cooking on?

I grew up in Imereti, so I’ve definitely taken a lot of inspiration from there; Megrulian cuisine is another of my favorites, so that too has definitely influenced my cooking. As for things like khinkali and khachapuri, while today they are authentic parts of our cuisine, they are not necessarily unique to Georgia. Lots of other countries have them but in different shapes and form. To that end, I believe that Imeretian and Megrulian food is a lot more authentic and unique to Georgia. For example, I haven’t seen any ‘relatives’ of dishes like pkhali, gepshalia anywhere outside the country. Kakheti is also very interesting food-wise, with chakhapuli and chanakhi, but they also draw a lot of inspiration and influence from Persian and Eastern cuisine.

So on the whole, while Georgian cuisine does offer some unique dishes, its more an amalgamation of fusion of a variety of styles?

Definitely. There’s a lot of influence from around the world on our cuisine. It makes perfect sense if you look at the history books. We were invaded by Turks, Arabs, to name but two examples, so of course we have been influenced by them.

You mentioned that your original plan was to run a restaurant without having to cook yourself. We know the restaurant industry is a very demanding one. How do you balance it out so you don’t fall out love with your passion?

I think I was lucky. At the age I got into this industry here, I couldn’t imagine myself on my feet cooking for 18 hours a day. So what I was doing was designing dishes with my staff members, never being the one doing the cooking myself, which allowed me to limit the amount of stress and enjoy my job. Cooking is definitely a profession that comes with a lot of stress and physical pressure, so my best advice would be to get into it while you’re young and still full of energy, and not wait until your thirties to get things going.

With regards to the food that you serve, do you produce any of the ingredients?

We started making our own cheese during the summer. It’s a long process, though, so I’d rather buy. It’s a completely separate process that requires a different set of experts, so I’d rather go out and buy it directly from producers I trust. However, lately it has been so hard to find a local, natural cheese. They say that communism killed a lot of the gourmet cheese culture, keeping only the fresh types like sulguni. I don’t know if the people got lazy, or the quantities produced are super minute, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find decent quality produce. I’m not talking about fruits and vegetables as, when they are in season the quality is usually sublime, but about meat and dairy products. Slowly, the industry is catching up and moving forward, but it’s definitely taking its time.

I’ve been told there could be a huge market for Georgian agricultural products given their high quality, but there’s a lack of infrastructure to meet the demand. What solutions do you see for this situation?

I think that this should be a government goal. They should encourage farmers, providing them with loans and grants; a lot of money and effort needs to poured into this industry, but unfortunately, they are not doing this at the moment. There are some surface-level changes going on but it’s not enough.

However, I’ve noticed a large influx of foreigners with greater know-how, entering the agriculture market and producing high quality goods like aged cheeses, bread, vegetables: it’s a great source of education for the locals. I also noticed small quantities of city boys and girls moving to the villages to produce their own cheeses and vegetables. So there’s definitely a lot of potential, but we need the right investment and direction to ensure we get there.

Are there any significant challenges that you’ve faced since starting your adventure in the local culinary scene?

No. I think the industry has developed enough to accept and expect change. Whereas as in the beginning there may have been some resistance, today it’s fine. The most significant challenges that we faced have to do with produce, and I think that’s something every restauranteur has to deal with. So while we have a basic (and very popular) menu available to our guests, we try to introduce seasonal specials that make use of the relevant produce.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments?

I’m proud of this restaurant. We’ve managed to create a brand that’s retained its popularity amongst our customers. Our previous location in Sololaki was once a very unpopular place for restaurants, but we successfully kept our tables full, even hosting the President at one point. The same story with our current location: it’s terrible for restaurants, but we still find the reservations piling up. I’m very proud of my team for being able to create a household name. Of course, I was also very proud when both The New York Times and The Guardian featured us: I’d never have expected that to happen !

I’m extremely proud of the fact that we have managed to acquire a large Georgian clientele too, in addition to the foreigners and tourists. Our popularity amongst locals offers a great sense of self-validation, as it shows that the public has become receptive to our efforts in revolutionizing Georgian cuisine.

What are you goals for the future?

I’d like to open another restaurant, one that is very food oriented: a food lab with an open kitchen. The main focus would be just on food, not on the interior design or anything like that. We’ll see if it works, but that is the next project; to make sure that we are continuously innovating, and never bored.

What would you like your legacy to be?

I haven’t really put much thought to that, but I guess that doing my share for the continued promotion of this industry in Georgia would be it. As I told you before, when we first started, everything was static. Today, it’s a lot more dynamic and ever-changing, and I would like to keep on contributing to the greatest of my abilities to ensure that the spectrum for growth and innovation doesn’t stall.

By Máté Földi

22 February 2018 19:50