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Flipping the script on Latvia’s culinary reputation The nation’s restaurant scene has earned its own Michelin Guide, so why is it still struggling?

Source: Meduza

Story by Will Mawhood for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

In late November 2023, the inaugural Michelin Guide Latvia was presented to the world. The veteran tire-maker and restaurant-rater awarded a star to a single establishment in the Baltic country of two million (designating it “a very good restaurant in its category”), with a handful of others receiving lesser awards and more than 20 eateries earning praise. 

The Michelin-starred restaurant, Max Cekot Kitchen, offers a fine dining experience with 10-course tasting menus priced at 200 euros ($216). Located some way from the center of Riga in an unmarked former factory building overlooking a trolleybus depot, Max Cekot Kitchen had hitherto been relatively unknown. The eponymous owner, Maksims Cekots, who left Riga as a teenager and worked in New York and at Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill in London, told Ir magazine the sudden demand for bookings after Michelin’s announcement crashed their reservation system. 

Maksims Cekots
Max Cekot Kitchen

Michelin began issuing travel guides to its home country, France, in 1900, hoping its customers would be tempted to wear out their tires visiting tourist sites and restaurants. Since then, they’ve extended their coverage of the culinary universe gradually but inconsistently. Though guidebooks to neighboring countries appeared in the following decades, publication of their guide to Britain lapsed in 1931 and wasn’t taken up again for more than 40 years. The United States didn’t get its first dedicated guide — to New York City — until 2005, and Michelin’s coverage is still limited to selected cities and regions. 

Max Cekot Kitchen

The last decade has seen first-ever guides to places as distant from Michelin’s base in the central French city of Clermont-Ferrand as South Korea, Serbia, and the state of Florida. The precise details of the agreements that bring Michelin to town are sometimes shrouded in secrecy, but the Latvian Investment and Development Agency said openly in late 2022 that it had spent 150,000 euros (more than $160,000) on luring Michelin’s inspectors to assess Latvia’s restaurant scene. Michelin unveiled its first guide to neighboring Estonia the same year, while assessment is currently underway in Lithuania, with selections scheduled for June.   

Flavors of nature

Among the 26 Latvian restaurants Michelin singled out for praise was FERMA — a glossy and spacious spot on the edge of Riga’s so-called “Quiet Center,” a tranquil district of parks, embassies, and flamboyant Art Nouveau buildings. FERMA’s Nils Ģēvele, who also received the Young Chef Award, says he’s seen an increase in his five years as head chef in the number of locals who appreciate fine dining, as well as a greater willingness to try new things and place trust in the cook. 

Nils Ģēvele

FERMA stresses its relationship with local producers and offers the opportunity to taste “the genuine flavors of nature.” “Things that come from our forests are very good quality and very tasty,” says Ģēvele, highlighting Latvian berries, mushrooms, and game meat in particular.  

Ģēvele recently returned from Norway, where he represented Latvia in the semi-finals of the Bocuse d’Or — a competition before whooping crowds that’s sometimes described as the “culinary Olympics.” The country’s team finished twelfth, their highest placing to date, only narrowly missing out on the opportunity to advance to the finals in Lyon. 

In another boost for the nation’s profile among gourmands, Latvian Raimonds Tomsons was named the world’s best sommelier in 2023.  

And in a sign of both increasing Baltic interest in gastronomy and increased gastronomic interest in the Baltics, Polish-British cook Zuza Zak recently released Amber & Rye, a sumptuously illustrated recipe book dedicated to Baltic cuisine. Zak spotlights idiosyncratic specialities, such as Latvian hemp butter, rye bread trifle, and fenugreek-infused green cheese (“a truly unique product with an irreplaceable umami flavor” produced by a single family in the northern Latvian countryside).

All the same, Latvian cuisine has had no shortage of detractors, including among those who know it best. “It’s pork, pork, pork, pork,” said British-born cook Mārtiņš Rītiņš when Reuters asked about the cuisine of his parents’ homeland in 2008. Nearly a decade later, British journalist and longtime Latvian resident Mike Collier wrote in a humorous column about the country’s favorite seasoning: “I no longer notice if I am eating dill, but I certainly notice when I am not eating dill.” 

Latvia’s culinary confidence took an even nastier knock early this year when readers of TasteAtlas, a website where contributors rate various world foods, ranked the Latvian baked good sklandrausis among the top five worst dishes globally. Among European foods, the sklandrausis — a bright orange carrot-and-potato pie with a chewy crust — was ahead only of Hákarl, a dubious delicacy from Iceland popularly known as rotten shark. 


The TasteAtlas list is constantly updated to reflect voting, and — due to a change of heart among global foodies or perhaps the efforts of patriotic Latvians — the pie no longer appears among the top 20 in the hall of shame. Nonetheless, the story gained traction with the Latvian media, and even Maksims Cekots was asked to comment. “That’s just an old recipe that I think should be forgotten about,” he told a local TV station. “We need to think about the future.” 

That said, Cekots’s own menu includes a jazzed-up take on gray peas with bacon (pelēkie zirņi ar speķi) — a hearty local favorite and traditional Latvian Christmas dish (though the bacon is replaced with oysters). 

From the capital to the countryside

“We shouldn’t mix up Latvian cuisine and cuisine [made] from Latvian products. Latvian cuisine is in LIDO for the most part,” says chef Valters Zirdziņš, referring to a popular chain of brightly painted buffet restaurants where the staff dress in folk costumes. 

Zirdziņš became widely known for bringing the Latvian countryside to the capital with his restaurant Valtera. When it opened in 2013, the restaurant boasted that 90 percent of its ingredients originated in Latvia — a novel concept at the time. Zirdziņš shut down Valtera in 2021, citing fatigue, but returned to Riga at the tail end of last year with a slightly smaller operation, B7. A brasserie-style restaurant, B7’s food edges more towards fusion cooking, but products from Latvian suppliers still make up the bulk of the menu. Zirdziņš lists potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, lettuce, lamb, and pike perch from Lake Burtnieks as examples of excellent local produce. “I don’t cook Latvian recipes in general,” he underscores. “I use Latvian products.”


Perhaps the only restaurant on the Michelin list that places traditional Baltic cooking at the center of its menu is Milda, an establishment in Riga Old Town that offers surprisingly aesthetic and almost minimalist takes on filling dishes such as blood sausage with sauerkraut. 

Following the TasteAtlas scandal, food culture researcher Astra Spalvēna wryly suggested that perhaps being known for unappetizing cuisine could be a plus, a way of drawing curious visitors eager for a novel experience — an original PR strategy, although probably not what the Latvian Investment and Development Agency had in mind when planning to promote the country via its food. 

The restaurant Pavāru Māja (the “Chefs’ House”) in the tiny town of Līgatne, swaddled in the forests of Gauja National Park, might offer a more appealing and tourist-friendly vision of bucolic Latvia. The dining space occupies a neat red-brick building (formerly a maternity hospital) and spills out onto a publicly accessible terrace, with tables set among herb patches. Stacks of beehives stand nearby and, at the end of the garden, there are greenhouses under construction. The eight-course tasting menu currently promises wild spring herbs, the super-local Rehtšprehers cheese, and a venison cutlet served with sparkling apple mash and linden glazing — paired with a wine list curated by Raimonds Tomsons himself.

Pavāru Māja was the sole restaurant in Latvia to receive a Green Star, a new category Michelin introduced in 2020 that “highlights restaurants at the forefront of the industry when it comes to their sustainable practices.” And it’s one of just seven Latvian restaurants that Michelin spotlighted outside the capital.

Pavāru Māja

Originally from Riga, the long-haired and genial proprietor Ēriks Dreibants explains that he’s been visiting Līgatne since the late 1980s, drawn by an interest in ornithology and bat-watching (the sandstone cliffs above the River Līgatne feature more than 300 caves, which provide an ideal environment for bats, hosting eight species). Pavāru Māja’s dedication to sustainability and biodiversity goes beyond the menu: the restaurant has replaced disinfectant with ozonated water and uses the town’s many caves to store some of its produce, saving on refrigeration. Dreibants describes his efforts to revive and return to circulation the yellow apple rutabaga, once widespread throughout Latvia, now available at the biweekly Slow Food market in Straupe, a small town just ten miles away. 

“One of the unique qualities which we can offer, and which in my opinion many other places don’t have, is wild food,” Dreibants explains. “In Latvia, we still live very much in tune with nature — in the spring, we bore holes in birch trees to get birch sap, we collect nettles, [and] we go mushroom and berry picking.”

This emphasis on foraging and characteristically Northern European produce brings to mind the countries just across the Baltic Sea. Scandinavia, with its similarly heavy and often sneered-at cuisine, has become an unlikely magnet for foodies since the publication of the ten-point Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine in 2005. The signatory chefs vowed to base their cooking on “ingredients and produce whose characteristics are particularly excellent in our climates, landscapes, and waters.” 

In her cookbook, Zak describes Baltic cooking as falling between Slavic Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, while the Michelin-recommended restaurant H.E. Vanadziņš in the town of Cēsis features a range of Latvian classics on its menu but markets itself as a “Northern restaurant.” 

‘We can’t survive’

While Pavāru Māja plays to Latvia’s strengths as a heavily rural country with deeply embedded “wild food” principles, there are fears that the more traditional corners of the restaurant industry may be in mortal danger. It certainly seemed like the end of an era when the Riga restaurant Vincents closed in 2022, a year after its founder, the aforementioned Mārtiņš Rītiņš — beloved in Latvia as the exuberant host of a popular cooking show — passed away from Covid. 

Opened in 1994, pricy and French-leaning Vincents became a totemic restaurant for a Riga just restored to its role as independent Latvia’s capital — a seemingly mandatory stop for any eminence or celebrity in town (George W. Bush, King Charles, Elton John, and Angela Merkel have all dined there). Just four years after it was the only Latvian restaurant named in the Nordic White Guide’s top five in the Baltics, a representative from Vincents told the news site Delfi, “The state’s tax policy at the moment is such that, working honestly, we can’t survive.” 


A trip to Bishkek’s Dordoi Bazaar with writer Caroline Eden


A trip to Bishkek’s Dordoi Bazaar with writer Caroline Eden

The government has drawn particular ire from the industry for its refusal to cut value-added tax (VAT) on catering during the pandemic — putting Latvia out of step with most other E.U. countries, including neighboring Lithuania. Tourist flows have dipped precipitously due not only to Covid but also to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, spooking Western visitors; inflation reached 22 percent that same year. With its proliferation of empty shop fronts, Old Riga in particular has been likened to a ghost town. In August 2023, Jānis Jenzis, a representative of the Latvian Restaurant Association, declared, “This is the worst situation in the history of the catering industry.” 

However, there are tentative signs things may be improving, perhaps due in part to the increased focus on food culture in the wake of the Michelin Guide’s publication. Dreibants says he saw more guests at his relatively remote establishment this past winter than the year before. Also, the parliament’s budget and finance committee has agreed to review a reduction in VAT rates for the sector.

The situation is severe, but Latvia has been through worse. Food culture researcher Astra Spalvēna told The Beet that she once worked on a project that involved scouring Latvian literary works for references to cuisine. “We realized that descriptions of our food in literature are descriptions of starvation and hunger,” she recalled. In other words, the absence of food was invoked more often than feasts. Latvians’ harsh history of frequent wars and occupations may have contributed to a more utilitarian attitude towards cuisine, but, as Michelin’s attention suggests, the view that food is first and foremost fuel is under serious challenge in these parts. 

Hello, I’m Eilish Hart, the editor of The Beet. Thanks for taking the time to read our work! Our newsletter delivers underreported stories like this one to subscribers every Thursday. Like all of Meduza’s reporting, it’s free to read, but relies on support from readers like you. Please consider donating to our crowdfunding campaign.

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Story by Will Mawhood for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart