Since opening three years ago, the Mandarina cake shop has developed something of a cult following among Belgrade’s foodies. The lust for their colourful, irregularly shaped cakes and crunchy croissants occasionally results in small queues forming in front of this smartly designed shop in Gracanicka, a short hop from Knez Mihailova.
Behind it all, is the sibling duo Kamelija Radojcic and Krsto Radovic, and years of hard work, dedication and passion.
“We grew up in our parents’ bakery and we were milling about the workshop from the time we could walk. There was always this desire for us to open something of our own,” explains Krsto, Mandarina’s pastry chef. While Kamelija honed her skills working in marketing agencies, Krsto’s path towards crafting dazzling cakes and other tasty treats took him to London.
After training to become a pastry chef in Belgrade’s best hospitality schools and a brief stint in the US, where he was also playing hockey, Krsto answered an ad for a job at Claridge’s. One of London’s iconic hotels, Claridge’s is famous in equal parts for its glamorous guests and the high calibre of its restaurants and bars. Many of the world’s best chefs led or passed through its kitchens, including Gordon Ramsey and Rene Redzepi.
“I was young and hungry: I wanted to learn, advance and get to know new people. London was the perfect place for that,” remembers Krsto, who stayed with Claridge’s for six formative years.
His training in creating elaborate, beautiful pastries sounds gruelling, as many cooking shows such as Hell’s Kitchen demonstrate.
“You enter this huge system where all those who want to prove themselves go. Nobody works there just for a salary. They are there because they adore their work, and want to learn and build their careers,” says Krsto.
“You need to be extremely dedicated and talented, with great attention to detail and persistence. You spend 75 to 80 hours a week working. Even as you progress through the ranks, the pressure is constant. All the great chefs need to go through this.”
On top of the gruelling working hours, Krsto also decided to continue his education at the University of West London, where he studied for a degree in Culinary Arts on a scholarship from Claridge’s. Although it took up rare, precious moments when he was not working in the kitchen, he notes that the degree provided him with practical knowledge about how to run his own business.
Despite the stresses, he looks back fondly on this time, especially the support and training he received from the head pastry chef Nick Patterson and his colleagues with whom he stays in touch.
“During the years we worked together we pushed the standards in terms of pastries. We [Claridge’s] had the best afternoon tea in London for a few years, which is a huge deal there. I am now trying to convey that importance of dedication and loyalty to my new colleagues.”
When Krsto decided to move back to Belgrade, his family and friends questioned his decision.
“I always wanted to come back – Belgrade is my city. I could have got a good job anywhere in the world. Even now, some people are asking me why I returned – but I don’t understand it. I love it here and in any case the recipe for success is the same anywhere in the world: hard work and dedication.”
Even though he is his own boss now at Mandarina – which grew from artisan cakes to making chocolates and baking croissants – creating and selling innovative treats with his team is still challenging.
“When you are your own boss, you are your own boss every day, around the clock. Even when you are at home you need to think about the business and your employees.”
Although for a customer it is just about eating and occasionally instagramming beautiful tasty cakes, running a high-end pastry business is very complex, with a lot of considerations about ingredients, machinery and service.
Even crafting Mandarina’s ever-changing menu is hard, albeit delicious, work.
“It looks really simple but it’s actually very complex. For each cake you need to consider the shape, colours, textures, taste and the actual experience of eating it. It all needs to come together and balance well, so that it can be at the level we are aiming for… and then you need to think of eighteen other cakes you will offer beside it, and the hundred cakes you made before, because you don’t want to repeat yourself.”
However, all the years of strain and work are vindicated by the amazing moments of creativity and joy that permeate the whole process.
“Last summer, I tasted some grapes that I had completely forgotten about and hadn’t eaten since childhood. It was a rare variety which grew in my grandparents’ garden and it brought back all these memories, so I spent days trying to blend their taste into a cake.
“It’s a wonderful feeling when you see [a cake] evolving from an idea and an attempt, to something that someone enjoys. When you see [your customers] sitting on a bench, eating cakes and having a great time, and then writing comments about how much they like it – there is no better feeling for me as a pastry chef.
“The only reason why I am doing this is that I can see someone enjoying what I dreamt up.”
This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.