A new trendsetter in Estonian food culture came into the spotlight at this year’s Michelin awards. Under the leadership of Daanius Aas, Restaurant SOO was included in the White Guide and Michelin Select and awarded the Michelin Green Star. Daanius Aas became the Michelin Young Chef of the Year. What makes him special?
When the Michelin Awards were handed out in Estonia this year, Head Chef Daanius Aas had to go up on the stage three times. His Restaurant SOO is a newcomer of the year in the world-renowned restaurant guide. Daanius works alone in the kitchen of the restaurant, located in the Maidla Nature Resort, a 45-minute drive from Tallinn. He has the opportunity and the luxury to do so, as the intimate restaurant in the middle of forests and bogs serves a five-course dinner for just ten people a day and only three days a week.
Restaurant SOO is dedicated to local ingredients and guided by genuine sustainable considerations. It is this outstanding commitment to sustainability which was recognised with the Michelin Green Star. However, Daanius also took home the title of Young Chef of the Year and the restaurant was for the first time named in Michelin Select. This is on top of the remarkable fourth place in the White Guide restaurant guide. He admits modestly that he certainly was not expecting such an accolade, but he makes no secret of the fact that he is a perfectionist and loves to polish his dishes until they are impeccable.
From a humble start to big acclaim
In the early days, Daanius prepared five courses every evening for just two people. They were whoever happened to overnight in the luxury villa for two. The first customer he cooked for in Maidla announced: “In two years, you will be in Michelin.” Daanius laughed at this because, at the time, no restaurant in Estonia had the most prestigious accolade in the restaurant world – the Michelin star.
The first Michelin stars in Estonia were awarded to restaurants 180 Degrees and Noa`s Chef`s Hall only in 2022. This spring, immediately after Daanius Aas received his accolades, the pre-bookings of Restaurant SOO filled even faster than usual, not to say instantly. “But I remained true to myself – despite the increased popularity, we have no plans to expand, primarily to ensure the quality of every dish that comes out of the kitchen and a special experience for each customer. I will still be making dinner for only ten people a night, and I’ll do it alone in the kitchen.” Encounters with so-called Michelin tourists have also increased – the furthest food gourmands who travelled specially to Maidla came from the USA.
The young Head Chef already has experience from other well-known restaurants under his belt. He has also learned under the guidance of top Estonian chefs. “I believe I have now found my own style – it is local, natural food, including all sorts of vegetables and herbs which have been forgotten or undervalued. We currently serve animal-based ingredients, but I am gradually moving towards a full vegetarian cuisine. It gets most interesting for me in the winter, after we have canned, fermented and frozen all sorts of things over the summer. Geete, the house fairy of the Maidla Manor and the main gatherer, plays perhaps a bigger role in the running of the restaurant than I do. She helps me with preserving all this precious stuff.”
The interest in cooking developed thanks to Daanius’ grandparents – when his mother was at work, the young lad often ran over to his grandparents’ house after school, where cooking fresh meals was a daily routine. At the age of eight, Daanius was already baking the “Napoleon cake” or milles-feuilles with his granny. When he went to study to become a chef, he found that he tended to improvise instead of sticking to the school curriculum, and this led to hesitation – he wondered if it was the correct profession for him. While working as an apprentice and witnessing the highly stressful job of the head chef, he asked himself the same question again…
But once things started to take off, the hesitation gave way to euphoric working. He admits that he has gone to extremes by working 300 hours per month. Needless to say, this is not sustainable even for a young person. Today it is clear that the Michelin accolades bring a great responsibility, but also a conscious choice not to work yourself until burnout.
“Most importantly, even my granny now believes that I can cook. But she won`t come to my restaurant – says it is too expensive. As if I would bill her,” muses the young Head Chef, whose favourite kind of dishes are still his grandma’s home cooking.