Food & Cooking

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
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 more: 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.

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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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