Tiko Tuskadze, chef-owner of London’s celebrated Little Georgia restaurants, with one branch in Islington and one in Hackney, shares her love for the food of Georgia, her home country, in her first book, Supra: A Feast of Georgian Cooking (Pavilion Books).
The book, which was published in the U.K. in summer 2017 and in the U.S. and Canada in summer 2018, features the recipes and stories that have been passed down through her family for generations.
We recently had the chance to chat with Tuskadze and hear more about her career trajectory, the work that went into creating Supra and the role that food played in her childhood in Georgia.
Can you tell us a bit about how you became interested in food and cooking, and your career trajectory as a chef?
When I came to London, I had the idea that I wanted to run a restaurant and ended up taking over a failing spot. At that time I brought my two aunts over from Georgia to cook, as I didn’t have any background in kitchens except just watching my family – food was a big part of my childhood. My grandmother was an absolutely brilliant cook, and we adopted all the dishes in the restaurant from what we used to eat at home.
This was around 2003, over a decade ago. My whole concept was recreating the home environment, starting with the decoration and design of the restaurant, and most importantly with the food we were making. It wasn’t only a business for me; I was away from home, and the restaurant was an almost therapeutic way for me to deal with nostalgia. That’s why everything there, like the design, all the pictures and things were actually brought from my home. And then my aunts were recreating the recipes that used to be cooked and served in our home. When people came in for the first time, I wanted them to feel like they’re coming to somebody’s house. And that’s how it started really.
To be honest with you, I didn’t have a background in running a restaurant or as a professional chef when I first started out. It’s changing now as restaurants are becoming more popular, but it used to be that in Georgia, everybody was a great cook because we weren’t as spoiled with restaurants as we are now – all the entertainment was happening at home. The difference was in the taste, as every cook had her own signature. You give from your heart and you know the taste you’re going for. That’s why we say there are as many cheese breads as there are women in Georgia, because each woman makes it in a different way. And it was often a competition as to who makes it best.
My aunts went back to Georgia because I had to close that first restaurant as I was moving to a new area, and now it’s very hard to bring them back as the rules changed. But having a family-oriented kitchen meant that I was involved in everything, and the more you work the more you develop and become more creative. The people I have in the kitchen now, some of them are women are from Georgia, and as I said, they don’t have a professional background but they are all great cooks. The seasoning, though, is done by me. I have to season the food so that it tastes like what we used to eat at home – sometimes people even think that I have an Indian background because we do very spicy food but that’s how we used to have it at home, and our customers seem to really love it.
But it’s true that if you do something right and if you are genuinely honest, people will love what you’re selling. The restaurant business can be hard but it’s really enjoyable because I feel that I’m spending a certain amount of my time in Georgia.
What made you decide to write a book? How did this book come about?
Customers were always approaching me and asking, “What’s the recipe for that?” I always gave it to them because it’s not a secret – it doesn’t matter if you can follow the recipe, but it depends on who is making it. Just as people wear the same clothes differently, it’s the same with the food – a lot of it has to do with personality. Still, people were always encouraging me to write a book. But it’s difficult. You have to know how to write the recipe exactly. Plus I was thinking that I don’t want to write a book with only recipes. If I do it, I was thinking, I want it to be personal, because the restaurant’s very personal for me. So each recipe should have the story behind it, the place of its birth, and not just directions and a list of ingredients. So I was thinking I want to do it, but I don’t know how to do it.
And actually it happened that publishers approached me and asked if I’d write a Georgian cookbook. I explained to them how I wanted it to be done. I said if you only want Georgian recipes, it’s easy to Google it. What I can offer is the way we do things at Little Georgia. And plus, it has to be my story because otherwise I just won’t be able to do it.
Writing the book gave me the opportunity to thank all my family for what they’ve given me. It’s the best way I can thank them, to acknowledge how much they gave me in life. So the book ended up being a kind of big thanks to my family, and it was the best way I could have done it.
Did the writing process unearth any particular feelings or memories?
It definitely did. For nearly two months, I was just sitting and writing these little stories and it made me so homesick that I had to go back to Georgia. I went and visited places, some of which I hadn’t been to for more than 30 years.
And during the writing process I was surrounded by so many people who came alive. It was a very emotional process but it was… you know how sometimes you are sad but it is a pleasant kind of sadness? It’s like when you are in love and you are missing somebody, but it’s not a bad feeling, it’s almost pleasurable to carry it around. So I was sad, but pleasantly sad.
Your family plays a prominent role in the book. What role did food play in your childhood?
It played a huge role. Especially, as I write in the book, the institution of supra. It’s a whole experience of eating because the food was bringing everybody together.
I was brought up in a family where my grandmother, she was an excellent cook but she also had a day job. She was headmistress of a boarding school for blind children, which was quite demanding. So she practically had two jobs – in the daytime, she was at school. After 6 o’clock, when she was leaving the school, the first thing she was doing was going to the market, getting a whole lot of food and then coming home to cook. Her friends used to come over, the neighbors came too, and my grandfather would always bring many people to our house because everybody knew that we had something delicious on.
I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, but I had lots of cousins, neighbors – my childhood was always full of people, sitting around the table and talking. And my grandfather, because he had a type of job where he always had a lot of people visiting from different parts of the Soviet Union – it was the Soviet Union at that time – and even from abroad, all the entertaining was happening at home. And his friends as well, every second day he used to have his close friends over for dinner – he had around twenty best friends, I remember.
And listening to them, I never got bored. Sometimes when you are at a supra you think, oh god, the toast masters are going to talk, talk, talk. But their generation was brought up listening to other generations: the way they were enjoying themselves, but also their wisdom, and dignity and grace. We were learning a lot, about who we wanted to become.
Do you have any thoughts on the increased interest in Georgia and Georgian food recently?
At the moment Georgia is very popular and everyone seems to be visiting. Even some of my unadventurous friends decided to take the risk to go and see Georgia. And they’re coming back absolutely enamored – they all want to go back and live there, which is great.
To be honest with you, we were always quite busy. I remember that when we opened the restaurant and Georgia wasn’t as popular, a travel editor at The Guardian wrote an article about Little Georgia. She loved the food and atmosphere so much she decided to travel and see the country for herself. It made me very proud because I said, okay, we are doing something right that people are getting so interested in Georgia.
There is something magical about it. For me, one of the things I loved most about living there was the spontaneity. I think it’s changing a bit now, but it used to be that you’d never know who was going to turn up at your doorstep without letting you know that they’re coming – it was always something out of the blue.
So I remember the feeling of looking forward to the day because you never knew if something amazing was going to happen. This is the thing I was missing in London because every day when I woke up, I knew what was going to happen. While it’s not possible to consider a move now, I feel like Georgian is calling me back as I’m getting older.
This interview has been condensed and edited.