Chef Deniz Zembo's Olive Oil Explorations

Croatian celebrity chef Deniz Zembo shares insights into the culinary possibilities of cooking and innovating with olive oil.

Chef Deniz Zembo
Jul 27, 2017 9:05 AM EDT
By Isabel Putinja
Chef Deniz Zembo

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Olive oil is an impor­tant ingre­di­ent in any kitchen but good chefs know exactly how to pair the right oil with a dish to enhance its fla­vors. For Croatian chef Deniz Zembo, olive oil is an essen­tial ingre­di­ent in his culi­nary cre­ations that even offers the scope to inno­vate and exper­i­ment, some­thing he’s not afraid to do.

I use mal­todex­trin to turn (olive oil) into a solid, like a pow­der that I can use in dishes. I even tried to snort it once just for the expe­ri­ence.- Deniz Zembo

Well-known for his cre­ativ­ity in the kitchen and food pre­sen­ta­tion, Zembo has celebrity chef sta­tus in Croatia as one of the stars of MasterChef Croatia and the mas­ter­mind behind sev­eral suc­cess­ful restau­rant ven­tures. Today he’s the head chef and owner of Hotel Amfiteatar and its restau­rant located in Pula, a city on the south­ern tip of the Istrian penin­sula.

Istria is an olive-grow­ing region that has been pro­duc­ing oil since Roman times but it’s only in recent years that it’s attracted much atten­tion and inter­na­tional acco­lades for the high qual­ity of its extra vir­gin olive oil.

Of the 22 Gold and Silver Awards won by Croatian olive oil pro­duc­ers at the 2017 New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC), 18 were awarded to oils from Istria, and many of these are organ­i­cally pro­duced.
See Also: The Best Olive Oils from Croatia
In 2015, the min­istry of agri­cul­ture granted a pro­tected des­ig­na­tion of ori­gin (PDO) appel­la­tion for olive oil pro­duced, processed and pre­pared in the Istrian region — a mark of qual­ity and authen­tic­ity. Soon Istrian olive oil will also enjoy PDO sta­tus at the EU level together with the olive oil pro­duced in the Slovenian part of the penin­sula.

One of the advan­tages of run­ning a restau­rant in Istria for Zembo is the high-qual­ity prod­ucts he’s able to find locally. Most morn­ings he can be found brows­ing the stalls at Pula’s open air farm­ers mar­ket sourc­ing the ingre­di­ents for his restau­rant him­self. And there’s lots of high-qual­ity olive oil to choose from in the region.


There are many excel­lent pro­duc­ers here and many of them are small fam­ily pro­duc­ers who have mod­ern equip­ment to press their oil them­selves,” he said as he lined up half a dozen bot­tles of his favorite local oils. Istria is the north­ern­most olive oil-pro­duc­ing region in the Mediterranean and it has the ideal cli­mate — a lot like Tuscany but not too hot. In my opin­ion, Istrian olive oil is one of the best in the world and that’s thanks to nature itself.”

With so many local pro­duc­ers to choose from, how does Zembo select the oils he uses in his kitchen? I have tasted the oil of many, many pro­duc­ers here in Istria, espe­cially small fam­ily-owned olive oil pro­duc­ers,” he revealed. But I espe­cially like a brand called Brist pro­duced by a fam­ily-owned and oper­ated olive farm in nearby Vodnjan run by Silvano Puhar. They have a fab­u­lous selec­tion of qual­ity olive oils that also offer the best value for money. One of my favorites is their Buža mono­va­ri­etal made from their grove’s old­est tree that’s more than 500 years old.”

Istrian olive oil is char­ac­ter­ized by its mod­er­ate to intense fla­vors, dis­tinc­tive fruity notes and high phe­no­lic con­tent. When it comes to cook­ing with olive oil and pair­ing it with cer­tain foods, there are a few basics to con­sider. There are three fla­vors from the cook­ing aspect: nutty, grassy and fruity,” Zembo explained. The oils from Tuscany and Provence tend to have more of a nutty taste because of higher sum­mer tem­per­a­tures in those regions, while Istrian olive oil is more fruity with notes of apples and toma­toes. The new, freshly pressed oil is pun­gent and high in polyphe­nols. The Leccino pro­duced here has a delight­ful green grassy fla­vor. And then there are oils like Buža that have a strong taste and you have to be care­ful how to use them because they can over­power the dish.”

He then pointed out the impor­tance of care­fully con­sid­er­ing which olive oil to com­bine with the main ingre­di­ent of a dish. Leccino is excel­lent for carpac­cios and sal­ads. Buža is a local olive vari­ety of big olives and a pun­gent taste that’s also best used in cold plat­ters. For tuna or steak, I use črnica – known as Carbonaza in Italian, Pendolino, or Frantoio, because they give the strongest taste.”

Olive oil can also be a sur­pris­ing addi­tion to desserts. I use olive oil as a base for cook­ing and to fin­ish dishes, but I really love to play with it when I pre­pare desserts,” he said. For exam­ple, for vegan desserts, I use olive oil instead of but­ter. I often use an olive oil with a high per­cent­age of Leccino because it’s a good all-rounder. In my orange zest sor­bet, I add a good dose of Brist’s Buža, and Istarska Bjelica is excel­lent with choco­late.”

Despite con­trary infor­ma­tion, most cooks know that extra vir­gin olive oil can be used for cook­ing and not only to fin­ish dishes. But few have yet to catch on to its ver­sa­til­ity and the scope it offers for exper­i­men­ta­tion. This is some­thing that Zembo has been espe­cially keen to explore, some­times in sur­pris­ing ways.

I use olive oil for mari­nades of course, but also to make emul­sions that include cit­rusy fla­vors. I also love play­ing with olive oil at the mol­e­c­u­lar level and I use it in dif­fer­ent and some­times play­ful ways. For exam­ple, I use mal­todex­trin to turn it into a solid, like a pow­der that I can use in dishes. I even tried to snort it once just for the expe­ri­ence! But it was so strong it made me cry!”

I learned a lot about how to use olive oil from Spanish chef Fernando Sanchez,” he added. At a com­pe­ti­tion in Alicante I attended, there were fas­ci­nat­ing work­shops and pre­sen­ta­tions on dif­fer­ent tech­niques for using olive oil. I pre­pared dishes like baked choco­late with warm olive oil frappe made with white choco­late, olive oil ice cream, olive oil crack­ers… The first prize went to a Spanish chef, of course! But I won sec­ond.”

Marinades, emul­sions, mol­e­c­u­lar exper­i­ments, dessert top­pings… the culi­nary pos­si­bil­i­ties of cook­ing and inno­vat­ing with olive oil are astound­ing and Zembo has worked on mas­ter­ing the art. But when asked what’s his favorite dish topped with olive oil, he quickly con­ceded that less is def­i­nitely more: My favorite way to have olive oil? That’s easy. Just with bread,” he pro­claimed. As sim­ple as that.

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