My favourite dish: Tomas Lidakevicius
Tomas Lidakevicius chats to Tony Naylor about his native Lithuania.
We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds to talk about the dishes they love.
The acclaimed chef talks about swapping a career in music for one in food and also shares a recipe from his native Lithuania.
See Tomas's recipe for cepelinai (meat & potato dumplings).
Tomas's favourite dish
At Turnips, chef Tomas Lidakevicius is challenging food's established hierarchy. "All my life, everyone's gone crazy about meat and fish being the stars," says the 34-year-old. "To be honest, they're not."
Reflecting this, his Borough Market restaurant – which is a collaboration with the specialist grocer and wholesaler whose premises and name it shares – celebrates incredible seasonal vegetables using: "Meat or fish as the garnish". For example, even in a dish of caviar-topped celeriac: "Celeriac is the star. Same with the Jerusalem artichoke and buckwheat dish with lamb on the side. The menu is 80% vegetables. I’ve learned that I and other chefs were wrong."
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Given the meat-heavy diet Tomas grew up on in Lithuania and his 15 years in top London kitchens, this veg-forward conversion is radical. But Tomas has never been afraid to strike out in bold new directions.
Aged 18, the then-named MC Thomukas was both enrolled in chef’s school, to placate his worried parents, and a rising star on Lithuania’s music scene with the band 8’as Maršrutas (whose members included Lithuania’s 2022 Eurovision competitor, Monika Liu). Yet just as the band’s debut album, 13, was released, Tomas took the ‘spontaneous’ decision to ditch music and head to London to cook.
Hip-hop’s loss was the restaurant world’s gain as Tomas: "Fell in love with fine dining." In food terms, it pitched him into a very different environment to the one he was raised in: "The 90s saw huge change in Lithuania. Not long after [independence from the Soviet Union in 1990] big supermarkets and other companies came in."
But the Soviet-era feel carried on a while after it officially ended. For a time, families would get a set amount of tickets each month for things like milk, bread or sausages.
"Until I was seven, I’d never seen pineapples or mangos. Food was super-local. Biscuits and sweets were Russian or Baltic. At the most, you might get a little packet of Pringles on your birthday.
"I grew up in Klaipėda, a port city with an iconic food market. Hunting, foraging and growing-your-own was big, too. Lithuania has a culture of fermenting and pickling because we had the space, and needed to see ourselves through winter. Outside towns people grew everything in their gardens. That’s how you survived. You couldn’t go out and buy it.
"My grandad would forage for ceps and girolles and, in season, mum and grandma would smash through pears, strawberries or anything they could get to make preserves.
"At home, mealtimes were free and easy. We lived in these five-storey blocks where, in summer, there’d be 30 kids outside playing football or basketball. By 8pm, you’d hear mum calling me and my younger brother: ‘Tom! Lukas! Come eat!’
"Me and my brother were big boys and like dad, who was a fireman, we ate a lot. Mum cooked a lot of meat for us, often pork. We’d buy a whole pig, split it with the neighbours, and mum would make a terrine from the ears, nose and trotters. We’d eat it with horseradish and boiled potatoes.
"Cepelinai is Lithuania’s national dish. They’re super-heavy (two with a beer and you can’t walk!), but amazing. And even better the next day, halved, pan-fried and all crunchy.
"Making cepelinai is a lot of work. We’d make them for big celebrations. You start by finely grating potatoes; my parents live in London now but still have our Soviet-era grinder. Mum would be mixing everything while big pans boiled on the stove, as myself and dad pressed the potatoes and Lukas portioned out meat.
"My interest in food started early. I was always in the kitchen. Mum worked from home as a seamstress and, around eight, I would make cakes or sandwiches for clients who came around for measurements. That’s why, when my parents realised
"I wasn’t going to be a doctor or solicitor, they tried to put me in chefs’ school. They said 'look, you know how to do it.' They saw something in me."
Five key Lithuanian ingredients
"We’d have them five times a week: mashed, roasted, boiled, as rösti or fries. Like cepelinai, kugelis pudding is made with grated potatoes but oven-baked with eggs, chicken legs or pigs’ trotters. Lithuanians learned to do lots with potatoes."
"We eat smelt during the winter ice-fishing season. It’s a tiny fish which you cook whole with the head on, pan-fried as a snack. Fresh, they smell like cucumber."
"Lithuanians use the whole animal in dried meats and salamis. The fridge could be full but if there wasn’t any ham, mum would say, 'we’ve nothing to eat'. As kids, we’d take a piece of rye bread and top it with soured cream, raw onion and smoked meat to have as a snack while we watched telly."
"In Lithuania, cottage cheese curds are thicker and drier. My brother and I would have it for breakfast with fruit in summer. Then cottage cheese products came in flavoured with strawberries or chocolate. In Eastern European shops, you can buy cottage cheese snack bars."
"As a kid, I don’t remember chillies. Horseradish was the spice. Mum would grate it fresh with soured cream and keep it in the fridge to eat with smoked meats or to make mash."