His exodus at the end of the nineties led him to his sister in Italy, where he hauled rocks, then to his brother in London. On his way to London, he hid himself under a truck that was on a ferry. When the truck started to drive off, it happened. “I wanted to jump, but my jacket was stuck on something. I got dragged ten meters until the truck stopped at a red light and I could escape.” He was 15 at the time.
In London he worked as a dishwasher – the start of an illustrious dishwashing career. This boy, who had loved cooking since he’d watched his mother do it as a young child, finally went to culinary school, worked in star restaurants and at some point returned to Albania. “Staying abroad felt like a betrayal to me,” he once said. At first he really experienced culture shock when it came to the culinary range in his homeland. But then Bledar Kola snagged an internship with Rene Redzepi at the legendary Noma in Copenhagen. From then on he wanted only one thing: to bring respect to Albanian cuisine as the culinary voice of a forgotten country. His country. And he made that dream come true.
His work at the Swedish cult restaurant Fäviken brought him further skills and, at some point, Bledar Kola finally returned to Albania. Although there was still little going on at the time, he had now learned how to create something big with minimalism. In 2016, it was finally time: Bledar Kola opened his first restaurant in Tirana, which he named the Mullixhiu – and with it, soon gained international attention. But what the young man from provincial Albania was doing was also a little out there. He was placing this unpopular, grandma’s home cooking-like cuisine in the limelight, complete with old-fashioned local ingredients and an ambience reminiscent of a rustic wooden hut. Incidentally, the hard to pronounce name is also rustic: Mullixhiu simply means miller and alludes to the nostalgic mills that grind old types of grain behind a pane of glass in front of the guests.
Bledar Kola is certainly not short on ideas. “Every day brings new inspiration,” he says enthusiastically. One glance at the menu will show you what he means. The charming understatement makes the menu almost shocking. It’s all seasonal vegetables, homemade sausages with polenta, quail backed in clay. Nothing that would suggest the fireworks of color, texture and flavor concealed behind it. And it’s the hard work that makes it shine.
The prices are also shocking. Shockingly low, that is. “One of the unique advantages of Mullixhiu is what we like to call gastronomic democracy,” says Kola. “The most expensive meal on the menu costs ten euros, our eight-course degustation menu costs only 25 euros and the most expensive bottle of wine we have in our restaurant will only put you back 30 euros,” says the successful restaurateur. All of this is done for a reason: “Thanks to this approach, everyone has the possibility to experience our cuisine.”
The master is also modest when it comes to his skills. “We don’t grow our own food because we could never do it as well as our local farmers do,” he says. He also leaves collecting in nature to others. “Instead of doing everything ourselves, our philosophy is to build an ecosystem of small partners that grows together.” For fermented ingredients such as the soup base Trahana and the wheat-based lemonade Boza, Kola also prefers to rely on local experts. “We learn from each other, we develop our ingredients together and the companies are part of our team.” Speaking of learning, the dedicated restaurateur educates even the very youngest about healthy cuisine. He has invited children to Mullixhiu almost every week, even before he had a son himself, where they happily work together. With the Buka n’Strace food truck initiative, Bledar Kola encourages schoolchildren to cook for themselves instead of giving in to the temptations of fast food. The restaurateur is also socially committed in other respects. During the recent earthquake disaster in Albania, he cooked for the victims in a spontaneously erected tent kitchen.