When David Buttigieg was around seven years old, he ‘took over’ his mother’s kitchen to give her a break from caring for a seven-person household. Today, he is one of the youngest head chefs in the industry, elevating The Harbour Club’s famed brigade to new heights with a circular approach to dining and a unique approach to pairing ingredients.
“The first full dish from scratch I remember cooking was Spaghetti Bolognese, and yes I was seven years old. My culinary background is based on grassroots flavours, tastes and recipes from my mother’s and my grandmother’s kitchen. We were a big family and we weren’t particularly well-off, so from an early age I learnt the importance of treating ingredients and produce with respect and of not wasting anything – but also, of creating unusual recipes with classic ingredients,” he starts off.
The kitchen was something that brought the whole family together, as David still remembers that sweet spot in summer when tomatoes would go down in price drastically.
“My mother would bulk buy and we’d spend a few days happily turning them into polpa, to be prepared in batches for future sauces,” he says with a chuckle. “I think my mother always realised that this was to be my path.”
And yet, a straightforward path it wasn’t. Being very well-aware of the personal challenges the lifestyle of a chef brings with it, he resisted the urge for as long as he could. He enrolled at MCast, graduated, and took up a profession with the IT sector. But the more time passed, the more dissatisfied he grew.
“It just didn’t feel like me. There wasn’t that spark when I was doing my job. Eventually I joined ITS, thinking I’d try front of house for a while. But the kitchen beckoned.”
And David answered its call, working at a number of renowned restaurants before taking over the kitchen at The Harbour Club some two years ago. Since he joined, the seasonal menus have placed an even stronger focus on sustainability and locally-sourced produce, with David working hand-in-hand with local suppliers.
“I still follow the principles I learnt in my mother’s kitchen. You respect the ingredient and you use everything. So if I’m using celeriac, the roots yield a potato-like flavour, the leaves can be pickled, the stems stewed… It has become such a struggle for farmers to achieve a good yield that I feel it’s the least we can do,” he explains.
This is one reason why the menus at The Harbour Club aren’t set in stone, as David tends to adapt according to what the market is offering. This season, for instance, the menu is strongly focused on root vegetables, buttery flavours and a more hearty approach to suit the colder months. In summer, butter was swapped for olive oils and many of the dishes were lighter, fish-based.
“Obviously the quality of ingredients is crucial. To give just one example, to source local pork I had to go through quite the hunt. Eventually I found just the farmer and visited the location. I made sure that the pigs lived a good life, that they weren’t over-crowded or kept in bad conditions. All this makes a difference. Then I built a relationship with the butcher he supplies, to ensure that I always get his best meat,” David says.
He adds that a good chunk of his work takes place outside of the kitchen, building contacts with such people. Experimenting and brainstorming are two things he highly encourages in his brigade, with the team regularly holding discussions and debates to source new ideas. Asked to describe his concept at The Harbour Club, David replies that his approach is to use classic ingredients in a surprising manner, while also building upon tried and tested recipes and giving them a twist.
“At the moment we have the Coffee Brioche Doughnut on the dessert menu. One of my chefs floated the idea of creating a doughnut that’s different from the usual and, after much brainstorming, the dish was born. My aim was to reinvent the idea of a banoffee pie, which is usually too sweet to handle after a full dinner, and to combine it with the doughnut pastry. Instead of caramel, we used miso for the umami; we added the coffee for a hint of bitterness and creme fraiche for the sour taste. It can be described as a childhood favourite, with a twist,” he explains. “When guests figure out or are informed of what I’m trying to recreate, that’s an added bonus.”
With this approach, David balances the concept of a more curated dining journey with more accessible dishes. He also enjoys finding a creative way to combine the dish and the ingredients with a story to make the experience different from that of another restaurant.
The Harbour Club’s Valletta cards, in fact, have become something of an icon not only among tourists but even with Maltese guests. Each dish on the menu is tied to a particular area or street in Valletta, with the card that accompanies each dish creating a historical tableaux. Thus, as you eat your risotto with ġbejna (Maltese cheeselets), you may find yourself reading about Sir Temi Zammit and his discovery vis-a-vis brucellosis.
“We introduced this because we realised that many people are fascinated by the history of Valletta. So why not place their imaginations directly in the action, so to speak.”
He describes how some guests like to take the cards with them, while others go walking around the city after dinner, finding the spots they have just been reading about. So has it all been a string of successes? David laughs and it doesn’t take much to persuade him to share an anecdote from his first forays in the family kitchen.
“I was still very young, and I decided to treat my siblings to pancakes. But I decided to bake them in the oven, instead of preparing them in the usual way. Don’t ask me why I thought it was a good idea. I still remember the crushing disappointment when I saw that they were so thin, the texture was chewy, they didn’t rise at all. I wanted to throw up when I saw them.”
The story, however, appears to have had a not-so-bad ending. “I hated the way they looked, so I didn’t even try them. But they still wolfed them down, mind you. Maybe the taste wasn’t too bad,” he concludes.
The Harbour Club has just reopened after a short break and is accepting Valentine’s Day bookings.