There are so many things to do in Croatia. Join us as we explore this country of untouched beauty as our guests give us tips and the best time to visit Croatia. From biking trails and medieval towns to breathtaking views of the crystal-blue Adriatic, Croatia offers a variety of landscapes, cultures, cuisines, and fun activities. Joining us in this episode are veteran hotelier Kai Behrens and chef Rudolf Stefan, who gives us an enthralling depiction of what you can expect from this charming, underrated Mediterranean treasure. Kai is the Cluster General Manager of two Kempinski properties, one of which is the Kempinsky Hotel Adriatic in Istria, while Rudolf is the executive chef and owner of Peligrini a Michelin Star-awarded restaurant in Šibenik, Central Croatia. Plus, Andy and Todd narrate their whole destination bucket list for listeners to follow!
Andy McNeill and Todd Bludworth are travel and hospitality entrepreneurs and owners of the global meetings organization, American Meetings, Inc. From sourcing meetings in Croatia, to corporate event management around the world, their team selects corporate event venues and meeting planners for a wide array of enterprise business clients, providing ideas for convention themes and strategies for running global meetings and events. Learn more at www.americanmeetings.com.
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Welcome everyone to the show. We are excited to be joining you in Croatia. It is going to be a fantastic show. We’re going to talk about all the different areas of Croatia. We have several times done the entire coast in England from the wines to the cheeses, fresh seafood and history. It is a bucket list adventure. Todd, let’s talk a little bit about our last trip there, where we cruised along the coast. It was incredible.
It was. We did that a few years ago. Croatia was one of those places that growing up, you never heard about it as a destination, especially for people coming from the States. I think in Europe, it was always more popular, but when the itinerary came out for this trip that he’s talking about and I saw Croatia. I was excited because I had heard of Dubrovnik and I’d seen pictures of it. That was one of the destinations, but besides Dubrovnik, it is cool to go up the coast and see all of these other towns.
We went to Dubrovnik. We went to Split. Korčula was another one, which is an island. If you look at it on a map, it’s got a tremendous huge coastline. Thousands and thousands of miles of beach and included in that right off there are islands. Each island is unique also, but it’s got a history to it. For the people who’ve watched Game of Thrones, a lot of the background was filmed in Croatia, which is interesting. I think it was one of the scenes where the city was demolished, but the Dalmatian Coast stretches into a big vast area. There were a lot of locations filmed for that series along the Dalmatian Coast, which was cool.
It’s an incredible country for many reasons. We probably could do 4 or 5 shows about Croatia. We’re going to stuff as much as we can from bucket list things. We’re going to talk to a Michelin Star chef. We’re going to talk to the general manager of one of the nicest five-star hotels in the Northern part of Croatia. We’ve got a great list of activities and people to speak to.
To give our readers some perspective of where Croatia is, it lies on the Adriatic Sea. North of it is Slovenia, which is another one of those untouched countries that maybe one day we’ll open up and become a great destination. South of it is Montenegro and then Albania, which all of these incidentally were places that we stopped when we were going up the Adriatic coast. It was all amazing and as close as they are. They are all different in terms of culture, but it was gorgeous.
It’s because of its location, it’s affordable to get to from anywhere in Europe. Italy is right across the Adriatic. It’s a quick flight from Rome. There are lots of easy ways to get there. One of these locations that you want to put on your bucket list. There are lots to do from wine tastings to great country to biking because of the rural roads. There’s so much to do. We can’t wait to bring it to you.
I want to talk about that 10% of it is made up of natural reserves. For people who enjoy the outdoors, there is a lot of that to enjoy in Croatia.
We are here with our next special guests with Kai Behrens. Kai is the Cluster General Manager of two Kempinski properties. One is in Slovenia, but we’re going to focus on Croatia and that is the Kempinski Hotel Adriatic. Kai, thank you for joining us.
Thank you for having me
We’re excited to have you. Kai, you are German-born. How did you end up in Croatia? What is your background in the hospitality and hotel business?
I always say somehow it was, “You get the unexpected.” I ended up in Croatia a couple of years ago and it came overnight. I was prior to be stationed in China and one day I got a call from my regional president asking me if I would move back to Europe. I said, “Sure. Why not?” He said, “How about you come to Croatia?” I said, “You must be kidding me.” He said, “Why? That was one of the properties I was always hoping for because it’s a stunning location, a hotel and a fantastic country to work in. I said, “Of course.” It went within three weeks, the deal was done. I had the pleasure of relocating from central China into a small town in Croatia. I came from eighteen million city in China to a 300 town in Croatia. I was shocked in the beginning.
You landed in a beautiful place. If you’re looking on our YouTube channel, you can see a sitting in front of a plate-glass window looking over the Adriatic, which is one of the most beautiful oceans or seas in the world. It’s stunning. They’re beautiful.
Is your entire hotel background been with the Kempinski hotels?
I joined several years in the hospitality sector. I started with that stage with a relatively small American brand called Hyatt. I spent my first ten years in a career with Hyatt and grew up through the ranks. Back many years ago, I decided it’s time to change the brands. At that time, my GM took me with him to a Kempinski project to open, which unfortunately never happened. I said, “I’ll stick to the company.” I’m a loyal employee to my brands. I said, “I don’t want to jump brands all the time.” In my twenty-plus years, I worked for two brands.
For people that aren’t familiar with Kempinski, they may know the name of a property, but not even know it’s a Kempinski property, but each hotel is unique and their design. They’re not a cookie-cutter brand by any means. They’re boutiquey in the field and service. Let’s talk about Croatia, specifically the Kempinski Hotel Adriatic in the Northeast of Croatia, on a peninsula.
One of the most unknown areas of Croatia. If you talk Croatia on the national scale, people know Croatia mainly because of the Southern part being provenance, traveling up North and then maybe Split, but the Northern part is relatively unknown. It’s a pity. For me, the Northern part is way more attractive than the Southern part because it’s a complete mixture of different cultures. It used to belong at one stage to Italy. It once belongs to Austria. The people have a cultural mix of all these different nationals, which makes it interesting. It’s a blend of all the food and all the culinary. It gets the blends over all Europe and that makes it unique.
You’re considered five-star property in Europe. Tell us a little bit about what makes your property special?
When we opened the hotel many years ago, the Adriatic was the first true international five-star luxury property in the Northern part of Croatia. Over the last few years, more luxury hotels are coming into that part. We invented luxury traveling through Istria and people knew us for many years. If you talk luxury destination Istria, people say, “That’s Kempinski. It’s the only one you have.” Whenever this entire development was established, it was a mind-blowing project because it’s not only the hotel we had, which was built onto the shore of a rocky coast. We have a hotel with 286 rooms and suites. We have in there the leisure facilities, two outdoor pools and one indoor pool. On top, we have built a conference center, which is unique items where you sit on the beach and you look onto the sea while having a conference. That’s something I think nobody else has. We always say we have people coming for a site inspection and their biggest concern is that my attendees will get distracted because of all these views, “Can we close all the windows, please? How can you close these windows?” “We can, but you’re not coming for sitting in a dark room.” It’s amazing.
[bctt tweet=”Istria is an interesting culinary destination. If truffle-hunting and wine-tasting excite you, it is one of the best places in the world to be.” via=”no”]
Is it great for sales meetings, sales, incentive programs and conferences?
Conferences, yes, but mainly we are focusing on incentive and product launch. We have quite a lot of car launches because on top of Istria is secluded. You have no traffic. When people come here, companies showcase their brand-new cars, which are not on the market yet. The journalists fly in and nobody notices them. They can enjoy the privacy of small roads driving past the cove. That’s one of the key focus areas we have. We have a golf course attached that combines a lot of other opportunities with the golf course.
How many holes is it? Is it an eighteen-hole golf course?
It’s an eighteen holes golf course on 72 par with a course length of over 6,000 meters. It’s a good thing or not a good thing, depending on how you look at it as a golfer. The entire Croatia have I think 3 or 4 golf courses. We are the only ones in the area. A lot of our business, especially in spring and autumn, our golfers who travel from Southern Germany and Austria will come for a long weekend or a week to enjoy the climate and good rounds of golf.
To give our readers a perspective, if you’re looking at the YouTube channel, you see Slovenia and that stretched over the water. If you go directly across the Adriatic, you run into Venice, Italy, which is about what a 2.5-hour boat ride.
It depends on the boat you have. You can do it easily in a two-hour boat ride. What you see across is Italy already. On the other side, you see Slovenia. The peninsula is one of the rare areas where you have access to directly three countries. You have Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. On a good day, it’s when you have clear days, which unfortunately days are not strong. You have to also see the Italian Alps. After a rainy day, the Alps look very close especially in spring or early autumn. You see the snow-covered Alps. You have twenty degrees here and beautiful sun. It’s amazing.
Jumping back to the golf course quickly, are some of the holes on the coast?
Unfortunately, not. The golf course is more inland. It’s on the other side of the hotel. On some holes, you have views of the sea, but it’s not direct to the coast.
Let’s talk a little bit about some of the activities that the hotel does for guests and groups that come into the property. What are some of the favorite activities that you recommend people do around the hotel?
The most favorite activities depend on the seasonality. Quite a lot of companies interested in a combination of all. They want to do some outdoor activities going on to the sea. In the last few years, standup paddling is the favorite sport. A group of 20, 30 people going with a paddling board 2 to 3 kilometers along the coastline. There comes a small secluded beach they could prepare picnics, barbecues and enjoy. Most of them are not going to make it back on the paddling board because they’re enjoying too much stuff. That’s something different. We also combined because Istria is one of the most interesting culinary destinations.
A lot of people want to experience culinary. We have in the early autumn, sometimes a range and we go olive picking because all around us are the olive trees. We go to an olive farm. They’re going to pick the olive oil and the olives. It’s a nice takeaway after. Personalized bottle of olive oils. It’s well-known. Istria is one of the biggest producers of truffles. A lot of people, a lot of the groups want to go on truffle hunting tours. In spring, it’s the black truffle. In summer, we go for the summer truffle. This is the season for the white truffle.
There are three seasons.
There are minimum of three seasons for truffle hunting and every single one is different. The white truffle is mind-blowing. It’s easy to find. There’s so much out there. It’s more or less guaranteed success.
When they truffle hunt, are they using dogs or pigs? I heard pigs are more effective. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve heard they used both.
Here they mainly use dogs. I think it’s more to do that pigs eat the truffles quicker than you can say no.
Tell us a little bit about the wine scene there and what you can do around wine?
Istria is famous for wine. The Southern part or the peninsula, the coastal side is more known for the white wines. A typical Istrian white wine is the Malvazija. I think in a 20-kilometer radius, there are around 20 to 30 wineries. You can take a tour from the hotel. The closest winemaker next to us is 300 meters away. You can have a wine cellar. They do the estate tours. You have local small-scale wineries, but you also have large scale of wineries which are famous in the region in Europe and then also overseas. If you want to visit every winery, you have to stay for a month. One day you visited, take a break and then you go off again.
What a great thing to do with your guest. It sounds like it’s easy to get to back and forth and you can do it most of the year. What’s the best season to come if you want to have a wine experience?
It depends. If you want to go for a winery tour and a wine tasting, then that works all year round. If you want to go a little more into the experience of the harvest thing, then it’s the late summer or early fall. A lot of these wineries are happy to also take you on doing the harvesting and show you how to harvest. All the seasonality for the destination of Croatia, for groups and events, I always had the best season to travel is either spring. It’s the middle of April until the middle of June. The weather is fantastic with very little rain and not too warm. Starting in the middle of September until early November.
What’s the best airport to fly into?
It depends on where you’re coming from. The closest airport from a distance is Trieste, which is around 75, 80 kilometers. The only issue there in high season if you’re coming in summer is that you have to travel across two borders. There is the Italian and Slovenia Border which is not a problem at all because it’s an open border, but then you need to cross Slovenia to Croatia, which is the Schengen border and they are passport controlled. There might be or there is a delay in crossing the border. The quickest in travel time is the Pula Airport, which operates mainly from April until October.
Is it an easy trip from there?
You go on to 5 kilometers away from the hotel, start to the highway and the highway drops you to the airport. It’s a 45, 50-minute drive with no issues.
Kai, let’s talk a little bit about the dining experiences that you offer at the hotel. Tell us about the main restaurant.
The main restaurant we have is located on our hotel premises, which is called Restaurant Dijana. As we are using this as our all-day dining in hotel terms, meaning breakfast, lunch and dinner, it’s more focused on international cuisine plus some Istrian specialties because people come with families. They want to have their spaghetti. They want to have their steaks. It’s a wide spread of culinary offers.
What is a traditional Istrian cuisine?
A traditional Istrian cuisine is either a boskarin, which is a type of beef, which is exclusive. There are not too many cattles that exist. It’s difficult to buy large quantities. You always have to order two years in advance in order to secure your own supplies. It’s a lot of truffles fresh pasta. The local pasta is either Fusi, which is a roll pasta or Pljukanci. These are the two traditional pasta types. You eat this either with a meat sauce or we always eat it all the time with the truffle sauce. With that location, with that sea behind that is so close, seafood is in any kind. That’s what you need. Being it the local sea bass, which is fished outside. There are local Adriatic tuna, calamari and octopus, everything available. If you travel 30, 40 kilometers down from here towards Pula, then you have a fjord which is called Limski Kanal. Hardly anybody knows that it’s famous for producing one of the best oysters in the world because it’s mixing the seawater and the freshwater producing amazing flavors. They have amazing shrimp. Once you try it, you say, “Forget the French oysters.”
Kai, we ask each one of our guests that come on the show to answer some questions for us and the questions for people like you, who are world travelers. Who have seen things and have traveled the globe to give our readers some tips on what they can do and what they can see around the world. They’re called our rapid-fire questions. Are you ready to answer them for us?
The first one is, have you ever completed anything on your personal bucket list? If so, what was it?
I’m a fortunate person. I’m traveling the world. I live in eleven countries for work. I’ve been to the most amazing destinations and being in these amazing destination, I had the opportunity to visit places which other people would put on their bucket list. For me, one of the most amazing ones was when I was living in Australia. In Australia, everybody talks about the Great Barrier Reef. I get that one. For me, one of the most amazing things is the Great Ocean Road, the Twelve Apostles. I was lucky enough to visit at least ten of the apostles and more of them are tumbling, but this is something unique. You walk down and then you have a long stretch of beach on the Twelve Apostles where you walk miles. There’s nobody. It’s an amazing landscape and you see these amazing towers are stone in the middle of the ocean. In China, I’ve been to the Great Wall. I was fortunate to go on one of these days when there was nobody. You see the millions of people, we walked up there and there were my family and I and nobody else. I was lucky to pick the right dates.
We did a podcast on Australia and we talked about that. It’s great for anybody’s bucket list. If you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be that you haven’t already?
I would rent the house next to me right up on the hills enjoying the Croatian hillside. Here you have everything you want. You have great food and fantastic weather. If you need to travel, you have an airport close by. I can always say rewinding on the Eastern coast. There’s no traffic. There are no people. It’s an amazing place to be.
Is there a walkable village near the hotel?
We have a small town here called Savudrija and that is altogether 300 people living. It’s 300 meters from the town. You can walk on the coastline and you end up on a small fishing harbor. There are fishermen who come in in the morning and you can buy fresh fish. There are three small fishing restaurants and really down to earth. It’s amazing.
It sounds like a special place. If you could travel with someone infamous or famous, who would it be?
[bctt tweet=”If you want to do a full digital detox in a place with no internet and other distractions, that’s something you can still find in Croatia.” via=”no”]
I am traveling business-wise every 2 or 3 destinations, I don’t travel privately. What I do when I go away is I go home and spend time with my family. Out of the 365 days a year, I try to be at least twenty days a family man.
When you’re packing for a trip, what is something you pack that might surprise our readers?
It’s going to sound strange because what I’m going to take with me is my mobile phone, but I’m not taking a mobile phone for getting calls, but because I’m more or less addicted to Blinkist. Every free time, I go on the Blinkist playlist and listen to books because I have no time to be reading books.
There are some great tips there and it’s almost like CliffsNotes for audiobooks. It’s incredible. You can get through an entire concept in fifteen minutes. That’s a great suggestion. Everyone remembers that. Finally, what is your most memorable experience in Croatia since you’ve been there?
It’s not the most memorable experience since I’m here. I used to work in a neighboring country many years ago and I went on a holiday to Croatia. I went to Island Hvar, which is a famous island in front of Split. Because the hospitality industry is stressful, I ran completely on a digital detox and I rented an old cabin in the middle of nowhere where we had no electricity, no running water and no internet. I spent there for two weeks without access to the outside world. I said, “This is amazing.” That’s something you can still find in Croatia. If you want it, you will have peace and calmness. If you want, you travel 20 kilometers and then you have your entertainment and nightlife. You have the best of both worlds.
That’s what’s beautiful about the country. It’s different and a small country. You can have lots of different experiences. That in and of itself, no one’s ever said as a bucket list thing to do is to unplug. It’s a great suggestion and one that all of us should take and consider because it is a great way to recalibrate and then focus on your life again.
It’s an experience that everybody needs to go through or should go through. I’m not having a phone in front of you, but once you get back, it’s like, “Do I need that phone again?”
Kai, as we’re talking about bucket lists, somebody who visits Croatia besides your property, what’s one thing that you would recommend you guys must do this?
A question of the personality of the individual traveling. For me, Istria is amazing for cycling. You can do there 10, 15 cycling tracks from 15 to 100 kilometers of length and you go on small roads. There is no big traffic. It’s amazing. You have these medieval towns, which are 20, 30 kilometers away. It’s an excursion day with a bicycle. It’s amazing.
Can you get access to bicycles over there easily for rental?
At the hotel, we are renting both the normal mountain bikes, as well as the e-mountain bikes. A lot of people like to travel here with their own bikes.
Kai, thank you for your time. What a beautiful place. I can’t wait to come. Everything you told us from the wineries to the truffle. You told me that you can cycle there and it’s beautiful and rural. I can’t wait to come and we appreciate your time telling us about your beautiful hotel.
Thank you for the opportunity. I’m looking forward to seeing you in Croatia. I’ll take you truffle hunting.
Don’t plant the truffles ahead of time.
Don’t worry. I wouldn’t be able to.
Thank you so much, Kai Behrens.
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We’re going to talk about some bucket list items. There are some cool and unique things to do in Croatia. You heard Kai talk about the differences in the Northern and Southern parts of Croatia. We’re going to touch a little bit on each, but the first thing that he talked about that I want to touch on again was truffle hunting in Istria. Istria is where his property was located up at the peninsula in the Northern part of Croatia, which is great. They do have an annual truffle festival and then local guides will escort you through the forest in Istria and you can learn how to find and how to cook truffles, which is amazing. It’s something I did not know, but I learned was the different seasons for the truffles, which was cool, but that’s a must-do. We did it in another country one time, but Croatia is probably better known for it. We’d have to put that back on my bucket list.
There’s another great thing to do in Zagreb, which is the Museum of Illusions. This is a great thing to have for a business meeting. You can rent the entire space out or you can do it as an individual tourist, but there’s a visual sensory and educational experience with 70 exhibits that teach you about vision, perception and the human brain. You can defy gravity in a room where the water flows uphill or you can see your friend shrink before your eyes and get lost in amazing mirrors. You can hang from a ceiling in a rotating room. That’s called the Museum of Illusions in Zagreb. It might be a great thing to do if you’re in the city.
The next one I’m going to talk about it’s something that I thought I knew about the wine industry. There is an underwater winery in Edivo. They had built the first underwater winery, aging wine at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea. You can also visit Edivo Wine Bar and then learn about the process and how they do it. You can taste the wines. If you have that need for increasing that adventure level a little bit, you can do a scuba diving tour of the winery itself. If you’re a scuba diver, this is something you’d want to add to your bucket list.
I have to do that. To be able to scuba dive into a winery, that is going onto my top twenty bucket list for sure.
Speaking of winery, there’s a great international festival of wine and culinary art that’s held at the Hotel Esplanade. Supposedly, it’s the top food and wine event in Croatia. If you’re a foodie and a wine aficionado, you want to consider the international festival of wine and culinary art at the Hotel Esplanade.
I’m going to take you back over to the water. Something unique to Croatia is the Pasara. It is a traditional Croatian boat. You could go to Hvar Island, take one of this out. You can put six passengers on them. You don’t need any experience in driving boats in order to maneuver these and onboard. They typically have a refrigerator. You can stock up on food, water, alcohol and enjoy your day at sea.
It sounds like the perfect day. Have you done it?
Yes. There’s also the Paklinski Islands which you can explore. Grab a group of friends, depending on who you’re traveling with. Become a little bit familiar with the area because you will end up in the Adriatic, but that would be a great experience. If you love wine, there are the Hvar Wine Tours. You could do half a day of swimming and then half a day of wine tasting, but I’d do the wine tasting second.
Here are some that Todd and I did a few years ago was to enjoy drinking at the hidden cliff bar in Dubrovnik. It is one of those cities that looks like a movie set. It was the base for one of the cities in the Game of Thrones, but a lot of it was destroyed in the Bosnian War many years ago. They’ve rebuilt a lot of the red tiles. It makes it even more dramatic as a city but they have two bars that are on the edge of the cliffs and the name is Buza and Buza II. It translates as hole because you can only access them through a hole in the cliff. I remember sitting at this bar, which is enclosed inside a cliff looking out and there were tons of paddleboards going on.
It’s kind of a maze to get there too so we could see it and we knew we want to go there.
We snuck up on it. We didn’t even plan on it.
You start walking through these little corridors and you’re like, “I think this is it and I think you go out here.”
We need to make sure, everyone, if you’re going to Dubrovnik, make sure you put that on your list because it’s a lot of fun.
If you’re looking out the walled city, you’ll see it on the waterside, down low. It’s cool. You could also listen to Zadar’s Sea Organ and it’s underneath the 230 footsteps on Zadar’s coastline. It’s 35 different pipes and they all create beautiful tones when the water goes in and out. We did that as well. When the tide would come in, you would hear them and it goes out. It pushes the air through pipes. A lot of people are taking pictures, but it’s known as the sea organ. They say it never makes the same noise twice. It’s great for hanging out, sunbathing and having a meal.
When you’re on the coast, there are tons of caves and we’ve mentioned 2 or 3 of them, but there are also two famous ones. There’s the blue cave which is the Blue Grotto. You can go every day and it loops between the hours of 11 and 1 on sunny days, it eliminates the water into this bright blue. It’s a little touristy so you might want to try to go in the offseason. For a similar experience, there’s also the Green Cave, which is located in Bisevo Island. It’s often less crowded because it’s farther out and provides you the options for swimming as well. Anywhere in Croatia, you’re going to be able to enjoy a beautiful Adriatic, which is one of the most beautiful bodies of water on the planet.
Besides going and doing something, the great thing about Croatia and every single destination that we went to, you could go walking, grabbing a beer, sitting, watching the people and looking at the view.
It’s great for those who own a business or in charge of a group. It’s a great group destination because a lot of people haven’t been, it’s relatively inexpensive still and is one of those places that has the high quality of a European country, but not necessarily the prices and the views are unmatched.
We are excited to have a very special guest with us. We have the Executive Chef and Owner of Pelegrini‘s in Šibenik, Croatia, Rudolf Stefan. Chef, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you for inviting me. I’m pleased and honored to be a part of your show.
[bctt tweet=”Anywhere in Croatia, you’re going to enjoy the beautiful Adriatic, which is one of the most beautiful bodies of water on the planet.” via=”no”]
We wanted to talk a little bit about Croatia. It seems with the people that I talk to, it’s become a very popular destination, probably the last decade, especially from visitors from the US and many other places that are far away. What is the attraction to Croatia that you see that is drawing people to come?
For a couple of years, I have a nice example to explain what Croatia is. If we talk in hospitality terms, you have huge and big hotels with 1,000 rooms. Croatia is like a boutique hotel. It’s beautiful but limited in good ingredients. It’s not for mass tourism, it’s targeted for small or individual tourist. This is what I think is the future for Croatia.
Your specialty is gastronomic cooking. Can you explain a little bit of what that means?
First of all, we usually say we need to have a passion for the job and for what we do. Without passion, it will be difficult to wake up in the morning and continue the things that you do. We try to use ingredients that we have around us and try to give the best to our guests. The most important is to provide a special gastronomic event for a better experience for your guests.
Let’s start with where’s your restaurant from because you’re from there, Šibenik, Croatia. Tell us a little bit about your hometown and why people should come to visit?
Šibenik is a special small city. It’s located in the middle of the Adriatic Sea in the middle of Croatia. It’s surrounded by two national parks. It has a beautiful area of Krka. In gastronomic point, we have mussels and oysters, these are all influence of the river of water. We have salted water or you would like to say the ocean. This is the richness for Šibenik in the gastronomic view and for the experience, it is incredible. One day you can stay in Krka on the mainland and then another day, you can go into Kornati National Park. It’s completely different. It’s like you are arriving on the moon. It’s something special and crazy. It’s full of sage.
Is it great hiking there?
Yes, these are the spots that can extend the season. It’s nice to visit our area in April and May even October and November because it’s not so crowded with people. You can get nice hospitality and it will be a great experience.
The last time I was in Croatia was in May. I have not been to Šibenik but it’s on my bucket list because it looks beautiful. The reason I asked about hiking is that I love to hike and it sounds like it’s a beautiful place especially if you have two national parks right there. That would be a great thing to do.
It’s not only hiking. It’s a lot of seawater activities or river water activities. There are many cultural things. Šibenik is a city of different fortresses, which are made to protect the city from the Ottoman Empire. It is very important to understand the influence because Šibenik was 400 years under the Venice Republic. We have a huge Italian influence on our cuisine. Skradin, which is only 10 kilometers from Šibenik, was under the Ottoman Republic.
Do you also have a Middle Eastern take on some of your food as well?
Of course. I say that we are rich because we can use all these elements. We can use Ottoman influence, Austin, Hungarian, Venice Republic and French.
Let’s talk a little bit about your food. What inspires you? What type of food is your favorite? What are you focused on?
Several years ago when I was a bit younger, I was looking for special ingredients. You travel all around the world and in the end to find that the best thing is in front of you. If you look at the picture or if you go to the harbor, you will see the mussels. This is what we didn’t use a lot because we thought the mussels are for poor people. It’s not what we want to make. It’s not a specialty. The best ingredient is when it comes fresh from the sea and arise in the restaurant. That’s the best that we can provide to our guests. The freshness of these mussels is something special and this is what you are going to remember for a long time. All our cuisine is based on this principle. We try to use as more as we can ingredients from our area so we don’t buy ingredients from far away and we don’t travel a lot.
I want to congratulate you because Pelegrini has been awarded a Michelin star every year since 2018. Am I correct?
That’s a fantastic achievement. What was the process of being awarded a Michelin star? How does a restaurant find out that they’ve been awarded a star?
Thank you. It was a huge help from the Croatian government because for many years, they made research, and they find out that Pelegrini for me is very important for the guests, like 30%, 35%. It’s important to make decisions where you will travel. The Croatian touristic board decided to invest more in important of gastronomic guides. They helped that the Michelin arrived in Croatia. It’s very important to put Croatia on the gastronomic map of the world. It wasn’t the main aim to receive the Michelin star. For me, it’s always important that we have happy guests. After many years of hard work, somebody recognizes that and we thank them. I always say thank you to my team because without my team, it wouldn’t be possible. They are the most important part of our Michelin star.
That’s a very long time in the restaurant business, isn’t it?
I agree. It’s long and there are lots of ups and downs especially because Šibenik is a tourist spot. When it’s high season, it’s high pressure and then in the winter, it’s slow. You need to keep all your team and activities all year round. This is the biggest difficulty in our case and this is why we try to invent new things to extend the season.
What are some new items on your menu for this season that you’ve launched?
We did zucchini and sea bass. This is new. We have a couple of days using more zucchini flour. When you finish, you get the melon sorbet with olive oil and panna cotta. We try to follow what is in the main ingredient that we get from the beach. We work on the new dessert. It’s based on the figs. It’s figs and ricotta cheese.
You’re the founder of something called the Chefs’ Stage. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is and the purpose of it?
We found the Chefs’ Stage for many years in our business. We detected some very difficult problems. If we wait for somebody to solve our problems, it will take even more. We decided to find what are the problems. The problem is that Croatia is not recognized in the world as a gastronomic country. It’s a small country and not so many people know about it. We think that lots of people know about us, but when you make research, you’ll find that it’s not like that. We want to bring more and more people or opinion-makers to Croatia, show what Croatia can and that they spread the stories around the world. The same thing as we do today. We figured a very important thing, which is not only in Croatia, but it’s worldwide. It’s that young people don’t want to do any more service and long hours in the kitchen.
This is what we need to start to talk about. We need to start to find new ideas on how to fix it. In the other case as well, we need to tell our clients that it’s not possible to operate all or around seven days a week. The people need to rest. It’s a huge pressure in the restaurant business and it’s always long hours. What we can do is to try to find solutions. In Croatia, we didn’t have so many trained young chefs. Our school system is not good enough to provide good service when students finish school. When they finish culinary school, they need to start from scratch in the restaurant.
This is the reason why we made a foundation called Budi Foodie which collects money from the big companies in Croatia. We had big support from Coca-Cola Croatia. We send three students to foreign universities to do the training. They are students from 16 to 26. They don’t need to have any skills and knowledge in hospitality before. They only need to be real that they want to work with hospitality. We did the training for the pastry chef, the chef and we did for the restaurant manager as well. We did a training in Italy. These are the things that we think are important to do.
What a great program you started to help restaurateurs and people who want to get into it. What are your personal goals? Are you going to open up more restaurants? Are you going to focus on the restaurant you have? What are your long-term goals?
My goal from the start was to live in Šibenik with my family and to stay happy. We are happy with one restaurant. We struggled to survive with this one restaurant and this is what makes me happy. It’s very difficult to have more restaurants at this level.
That’s very smart, especially if you want to maintain the quality. Especially with restaurant staffs and the pressures that they’re all under, focusing on one restaurant is a great idea.
It’s great to hear that you’re getting ahead of the problem, identifying it, and coming up with solutions before they become almost a pandemic within the restaurant industry. That’s a novel idea. In terms of Croatia and the food that people might expect, what is an authentic Croatian dish that people can expect to see when they go to Croatia?
I would like to say that Croatia is a small but special country. Why? If you look in a wine production term, there are not so many countries in the world that can produce from extreme hot climate to ice wine. In Croatia, you can buy the ice wine from the continental part of Croatia. You can buy extreme or red wines from Peninsula Pensions which is completely different. Is this case, we divide Croatia into five key regions. One is Slavonia. It’s a nice, special, good food, spicy food and sausages. There are lots of food production. It’s mainly pork, cow, reel and wild games. You have the main city which is Zagorje, which is a small hill and a special area. The dark and chicken production are in that area. We have Gorski Kotar and Primorje. They have big roots and when you enter inside, there are small strawberries and raspberries inside the roots. You will find lots of different types of mushrooms. It’s a perfect area for a potato. You come to Istria, it is well known for the truffles and pasta. It’s a huge influence on Italy. Istria is near the sea. Their specialty is some type of seashells. There are incredible langoustines. We come to Dalmatia, the beauty of Dalmatia is the 1000 islands. Every island is like a mini-state.
We see in different countries food and wine festivals showing up that are very popular where there are celebrity chefs there and there are a lot of cooking demonstrations. Do you participate in those? If so, which ones do you suggest? Which ones do you like more than others?
There was one special wine fair in Zagreb. When the harvest is finished, all the winemakers and restauranteurs come in one place. It’s always the last weekend of November. It’s the Esplanade Wine Festival, which is something special. It’s in a beautiful old hotel in Croatia, the Esplanade. In the last several years, every city and every region has some nice local festival.
Chefs have become somewhat of a celebrity these days, whether you’re from a small restaurant or a large chain of restaurants. People love watching them. My kids will watch the Food Network and watch chefs cook and bake things. I love how they get involved with it. I hope some of it spills into the kitchen at our house. It hasn’t yet. We wrap up our interviews with a couple of rapid-fire questions. The first question I have for you is if you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be?
It will be during summer in Europe.
Any particular part of Europe?
[bctt tweet=”Few countries in the world can produce the variety of wines Croatia does. From icewines to extreme red wines, this small country has it all.” via=”no”]
Somewhere close to the sea, most of the sea but definitely in Šibenik in Croatia.
Have you ever completed anything on your bucket list? Something that you wanted to do that was life-changing?
It was a couple of times, but when I was a child, there was something special. It was Buenos Aires, Argentina. When we earn the first money from the restaurant, we spent all the money for twelve days in Argentina.
My next question for you is when packing for a trip, what is something that you always pack that might surprise our readers?
It’s the wine cork opener.
That’s a good answer. It’s always needed.
We traveled from Germany to Somalia. We had a trip to Germany, to the wine region and then we stopped to buy some quick breakfast, salami, bread and we saw a nice bottle of wine. We bought one but we didn’t have what we need.
My last question for you is, what is your most memorable experience in Croatia that you would like to convey that if someone’s coming to Croatia for the first time, besides coming to your restaurant and having a great meal, what’s another great experience that you remember that you’d like to recommend?
I can’t say it’s only one.
I agree with you because Croatia is such a beautiful country and there’s so much to do in it. Every time I go, I want to come back because you can’t see it all in one trip.
The islands in Croatia has a special thing. Every island has different tools, culture, approach, or even different language. If you talk about islands, I’m always connected with Island Cres. It is something to see and spend time on it. It’s Cres and Komiža. Two cities on the Island, but they have a different dialect. I can see Kupari is special but Korčula is amazing. I prefer more quiet places than Peninsula Pelješac. It’s something with the culture and food. For extremely good vines and oysters is in Dubrovnik.
If you go to the Northern part, I would say the Island Pag. It’s a small Island, but they have four brands. It sounds like a special land from Island Pag. They called it the Pag Zrce. The old ladies make some blankets. You go to Krk, Kraljevica, to Istria. Istria is so peaceful and it’s one of the best truffles comes from. You come to Motovun in September, you can view the vineyard, it’s in the front if you are on the top of the hill. You can enjoy a good glass of Malvazija and you may need a nice pasta with the truffles.
Chef, thank you so much for joining us. If people want to make a reservation, where should they go? What’s your website?
They should go to www.Pelegrini.hr. From our website, they can do a reservation for the restaurant.
Thank you so much for your time. We know you’re very busy. We wish you the best of luck and congratulations. We wish you a successful 2021.
He was a lot of fun to talk to. I learned a lot about the culinary experience that you can get in Croatia. He talks about olive oils, pastas and seafood. Between him and Kai, they touched on some of the same things. It’s a Mediterranean signature dish for Croatia, but there are also so many other things. I can’t wait to get back there and try some of the unique foods that they prepare.
Everyone, we gave you a great hotel with the Kempinski Adriatic and then stopped by to chef Rudi’s restaurant, Pelegrini. I’ve got to do the underwater winery. That sounds like something that is once in a lifetime experience and all the other wineries on top of that in Croatia, which is a cool scene. I want to also cycle up the Northern coast. It’s rural, but it’s unbelievably beautiful. You could stay at the Kempinski if you did that. Something that we have down in Dubrovnik is going to that bar cave to wind-down to get to. That’s a once in a lifetime and unique experience. How about Todd?
It’s the Pasara because there are so many islands that are off the coast. I’d love to get a boat and start exploring. You probably could go on forever, but you see which islands are inhabited, which are preserved as parts of nature conservancies. I think that’d be a lot of fun spending a couple of days doing that. That does it for this episode of the show, Croatia. It adds some things to your bucket list, but we’d also like to thank some special members of our team. We have Chris Jordan, our copywriter. Guy, our content developer. Annie Fernandez, our creative director. Lauren Campbell, our amazing podcast producer. Make sure you subscribe, rate and review the show on your preferred podcast app or by going to www.Destination-Everywhere.com. We look forward to speaking with you next time.
- YouTube – American Meetings, Inc.
- Museum of Illusions
- Edivo Wine Bar
- Hotel Esplanade
- Hvar Wine Tours
- Budi Foodie
About Kai Behrens
Experienced General Manager with a demonstrated history of working in the hospitality industry. Skilled in Business Operations, Food & Beverage, Luxury Goods, MICROS, and Front Office.
Strong sales professional with a Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) focused in Executive MBA for Hospitality and Tourism from NEOMA Business School.
About Rudolf Stefan
Working in hospitality requires a specific lifestyle. I enjoy in gastronomy and fine dining. Hospitality is a great career path that encourages professional growth, allows you to travel and exchange knowledge with international colleagues, implement new techniques, discover new flavors and educate young professionals. This is what makes me fulfilled. I live with my family in my hometown and love what I do. I am a happy man.
Never-ending curiosity is important. You have to have thirst for knowledge because this is a profession that keeps on evolving. Persistence and patience are keys to success. Happy and satisfied guests should be the chef’s goal. Today I know good things come to those who wait.
Local flavors rule our kitchen. We have to be aware of our surroundings. This is why we constantly build a network of local small producers as our main partners.