Ildiko Csiki at A Brunch of Friends event
Photo courtesy of Ildiko Csiki

Ildiko Csiki: “Start with baby steps, aim for small goals, celebrate the small victories”

An interview with Ildiko Csiki, the cooking artisan and recipe curator that joins us on Food for Soul, the new well-being column on LAUREL.

Piles of hardcover, modern, and tasty-looking cookbooks are always sitting around her house, seducing inquiring minds like mine to just start analyzing the texture of the covers, of the pages, the photography in them, the fonts used. These books seem like fortress walls protecting the richness of spice & herb supplies governing the kitchen. Ah, this looks so fascinating.

I admit, I rarely took the time to really get into a recipe while journeying through the gorgeous Persiana or even darling Ottolenghi’s Simple cookbooks. Most of the time, I was just savoring the idea of maybe getting myself into cooking one day. Not the way she does it, no, but just as a way to eat better and, well, explore my creativity through food.

Oh, and these recipes do seem like a piece of cake, though, despite their long names almost listing half the ingredient list, and my constant “hey, what’s that zaaa-thaar thing?” types of questions.

Ildi is one of my closest friends – we’ve known each other for more than 10 years, back from when we were studying at the same university. We’ve grown into who we are today by always keeping our spirits curious and hungry for learning while feeding our friendship with the good kind of nutrients: mindful presence, love and a great deal of fun.

Our friendship and our conversations inspire and challenge me in many ways, from how I work with my mind and how well I understand my behaviors from a psychological and spiritual point of view, to the creative energy that comes from our passions and our beyond-the-corporate-job activities.

Ildi’s dedication to cooking is truly palpable and seeing her building up a project that gathers her craft and her social networking side is something I wish we all had the guts to do more often. To put our magic out there. You know, it might be delicious.

“Cooking shouldn’t be a standard, and what we choose to eat shouldn’t be rated or discussed. We are unique in that sense.” – Ildi

I asked Ildi to join me and curate some cool recipes on Food for Soul, a new LAUREL well-being column – also the place where, hopefully, I’ll get my cooking habits in check and also inspire you to cook better, healthier, with a great taste of comfort and joy. Simple and quick recipes to nourish our bodies and our time.

So let’s dive a little into a short interview I did with Ildi regarding her perspective on cooking, where does she get her inspiration from, in terms of cuisine and cooking style, but also about what kind of content you should be expecting on Food for Soul further on.

LAUREL: Cooking for friends inspired you to create a space where people would gather and taste delicious food, cooked by you and three other talented ladies. Tell us more about “A Brunch of Friends”. What is the ethos (and tastes) of this series of events?

ILDI: When I started A Brunch of Friends, the only thing I knew was that I enjoyed cooking, and everything else that followed was untapped territory. I had a simple idea in mind: I want to cook for my friends and find a place that speaks to my heart. When I found the place, a very green and lush garden, I simply knew this is where it was gonna happen – my first Sunday Brunch. The excitement was there, but I was scared at the same time that this is actually happening. 

As days went by, ideas started to unfold. I knew a few people passionate about food and I invited them to join me in this “crazy” idea of cooking for a bunch of friends. They said yes, so this is how it started. 

There were four of us, four talented ladies – me, Alexandra, Cosmina, and Anca -, without a clue about what it takes to prep a brunch for almost 40 people, to create a menu, to adjust recipes for a crowd, to make sure we don’t waste ingredients or have a back-up plan in case it was raining. The first brunch was honestly about a bit of luck and a lot of improvising.

Looking back, two years later, we already have had a few successful events, in locations with a story to tell (a rooftop, a few gardens, hostels, a painting studio, cool Airbnbs, and so on) and a community that felt very close to our heart. Our brunch concept got crisp. We knew this is not only about eclectic food and rich tables, this is also about cool, alternative locations and a strong community.

A Brunch of Friends events have gathered many local foodies to explore tastes and recipes inspired by gastronomies from around the world | Photo courtesy of A Brunch of Friends

LAUREL: For some (count me in again), cooking can sometimes be more like a necessary activity rather than anything else. Others, especially during this pandemic, have found in cooking a sanctuary of unwinding and exploration. How would you guide someone, who’s not so much into cooking, to find pleasure in making food?

ILDI: I really love this question, but it’s a hard one. I used to get triggered by the answers I got on why people don’t cook, but I learned that’s my own limitation in understanding them. 

So here’s my take on this topic. It’s ok and perfectly fine if you don’t like to cook. People shouldn’t feel shame or pressure because they don’t know how to do homemade wraps, silky lemon curds, or French omelette. Cooking shouldn’t be a standard, and what we choose to eat shouldn’t be rated or discussed. We are unique in that sense. 

However, if you’re looking to lean into cooking or maybe just baking or learning to do the best homemade tacos, this is my advice: start with baby steps, aim for small goals, celebrate the small victories. It is the same journey as it is with any other practice you want to start, like starting to run let’s say. The biggest and most important goal is to get out of your house, not the length of your run. Then run slow, so you can build endurance, repeat a few times, then improve, and repeat. 

It is a very mindful process, you need to be aware of every step in this exploration and ask yourself: How do I feel about doing this recipe? Do I like the taste, the texture? Is there enough salt? Should I add some lemon juice to my avocado? Do I like this spice? And so on. Basically, get to know your taste buds! 

There aren’t many rules at this stage, it is mostly about how you feel while cooking and choose what version of “cooking better” feels best to you. 

Of course, there are also more practical aspects to be considered when starting our cooking journey, like how to build a pantry, how to choose good quality ingredients, where to shop, what cooking blogs to follow, kitchen gear essentials, etc. 

LAUREL: You are quite experimental in your cooking, drawing inspiration from various geographical areas around the world. What gastronomy seduces you more and how would you describe your style?

ILDI: Indeed, I am quite experimental and eclectic in how I choose the recipes. I never settle for a certain cuisine or prepare a dish too many times, but I must admit that I have a few gastronomies that are dear to my heart. I really love Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines because they are flavorful, rich, juicy, spiced, comforting and the plates look quite vibrant due to the multitude of ingredients. They give me a lot of room for improvisation and creativity, and the cooking process turns into a playground. 

From time to time, however, I do like a classic, comforting risotto or a soup like my grandma used to make. 

That’s the fascination, you can never get bored. You can live anywhere, get stuck by a pandemic, but still explore the world.

Ildiko Csiki at A Brunch of Friends event
The joy of doing what you love | Photo courtesy of Ildiko Csiki

LAUREL: Finally, I’m happy you accepted to share your craft with us and help launch “Food for Soul” on LAUREL. What kinds of recipes and cooking experiences will you delight us with?

ILDI: My game plan is to start with simple, adaptable, delicious recipes that will make this cooking journey feel like a feel-good practice. I will pick and choose my preferred recipes from different cooks and cuisines, with the promise to make you a bit braver about exploring and improvising in the kitchen (and all according to your taste). Granola, green patties, creamy soups, crunchy noodles, warm turmeric lattes are just to name a few recipes that we’ll play with.

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In the trial of taming my sudden granola cravings, I am happily inviting you to discover and explore the first Food for Soul recipe Ildi has prepared for us – Crunchy Homemade Granola. Bon appetit!

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