Matija Babić interview: the world on a plate

The founder, one of Europe's youngest ever editor-in-chiefs, talks about his new TasteAtlas website

Written by
Marc Rowlands

Matija Babić may have been a student at Zagreb's Faculty of Political Sciences, but this outspoken Croatian found his perfect calling within journalism. A larger than life character, Babić started his career with high ideals, launching two political websites, before that brought him to the attention of a large media company who hired him as an editor. He left their services in 2002 to found his own news portal, Perhaps the best internet-only news website in Croatia, it has courted controversy throughout its tenure from the publication of tabloid and political exposés and from what some regard as content so liberal, left-leaning and questioning as to be unpatriotic. Over recent years it has consistently produced some of the best, mass read investigative journalism in the country. As editor in chief, Babić was among the youngest journalists in Europe ever to hold the title.

Matija Babić

Currently travelling the globe, Matija Babić has for the last few years focussed his attentions on a new challenge; TasteAtlas. The website allows users to search the globe for traditional, local specialites in food and drink and suggests where they might best be tried. Suggestions are made by collating expert, local opinion and reviews alongside the input of the specialists who work at the website. It is intended to be a comprehensive guide, offering the top tips of well informed insiders. The ambitious project stands in contrast to the world of restaurant and food critique and blogging, which frequently overlooks beloved local food in favour of championing cuisine that lies out of financial reach and everyday experience for most of us. TasteAtlas also stands in contrast to the self-perpetuating popularity of Ponzi points awarded by ill-informed herds in places like TripAdvisor. Who could argue that a local expert might give a better tip on where to try the local speciality than someone who's just stepped off a plane and into the busiest local restaurant, recommended by the last ten people off the plane?
After three years development, TasteAtlas has just launched officially and to mark its arrival, we interviewed Matija Babić about the project and spoke about some other stuff besides.

Over recent years, food blogging has become an incredibly popular alternative to traditional restaurant critique. But many of the most successful and high profile of these successful new bloggers have concentrated on high end, Michelin starred-type food. Taste Atlas covers food at the other end of the spectrum; traditional, local specialities. Why did you decide to take the project in that direction?

There are two reasons for this. The first reason is because I carry a profound belief that people above all else expect taste from restaurants, and only after that the show. During the last twenty years, gastronomy has gone the way of showmanship, something which entertains, but not for long. Ultimately, you want to eat good food. And the tastes that have been developed for decades and centuries, as well as the traditional meals encompassed by TasteAtlas, have certainly passed the test of time much better than any of the moss served on a plate with fried ants ever will. I believe people will turn back to the classics more and more, but they will also demand that they be perfectly prepared. This is exactly what TasteAtlas covers.

The second reason are tourists, or travellers, however they want to call themselves. When visiting a foreign country, many want to experience its culture, and what better way to do that is there than food? These people will not go to London and eat in a McDonalds, nor will they look for high-end signature dishes in Rome. TasteAtlas will tell them what the traditional dishes in London or Rome are, what are the traditional drinks, cheeses and sausages, and give answers to questions on where they can eat the best Fish & Chips in London, the best Cacio & Pepe in Rome - all according to the opinions of professional food critics and excellent bloggers.

I believe this is what people want from their restaurants and travels.

How do you expect to see the website growing?

I don’t think about numbers. In the next two years, I want to fulfil all my ambitions regarding content: we will introduce a detailed overview of food markets on TasteAtlas, as well as all gastro events. We will introduce a better wine base and a better base of cheese and processed meat producers. We will also significantly increase the amount of good quality reviews and recommendations. And then whatever happens, happens.

Is language a barrier to the ambitions of the site being truly global?

TasteAtlas is currently only in English. We plan to make versions of the site in Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese. However, we have a lot of things planned so who knows when some things will get done.

The outlet that is currently recommended as making the best Imotski cake is located in Zagreb. This kind of anomaly might be repeated and cause a certain disgruntlement among some people. Wars have started over less. Have you anticipated such occurrences?

People who love food don’t feel like going to war. Just look at the Italians. With the best cuisine in the world, you simply lack the enthusiasm to start silly things like wars.

This will happen often, that the capital city or the metropolis prepares a dish better than the particular village, even though the dish is originally from that village. Sometimes this is because in said village there are no good, or any, restaurants and sometimes we simply don’t have enough good quality reviews. Wherever there is a problem in TasteAtlas, we will do our best to fix it with a greater number of reviews. If you’ve had excellent Imotski cake in Imotski, we will be happy to listen to you and include your review on our site if we find it to be trustworthy. But we can’t open a restaurant in Imotski.

Your recommendations are drawn from experts, reviews and collated by your in house team. But the world is a big place. How do you know you are choosing the correct experts worldwide? How do you know they are always offering unbiased opinion? How does this actually work in the collating process; are you looking for a consensus of opinion?

You can’t know. TasteAtlas doesn’t aim to be perfect, but it aims to be really good. Professional food critics may sometimes be lacking, inexpert, or unprofessional. But they are all those things in much lesser amount than anonymous commentators on the Internet.

Having said that, TasteAtlas accepts the comments and reviews of citizens who are not professional food critics, but their reviews will be less valued until we confirm that they are good and trustworthy commentators. Accompanied by good quality comments and photos that prove that they really were in the restaurant, their comments will gain importance and receive a higher coefficient.

Why have you chosen expert recommendation as the guide rather than popular opinion?

It is a lot harder and more expensive to bribe 10 gastronomy professionals than to write 10 anonymous comments. The concept of anonymous comments has, I’m afraid, become a debacle.

Does public opinion have a role in shaping TasteAtlas?

Of course. On the one hand, the popularity and opinions of the public undoubtedly have an effect on the food critics. It is the critics who create the public opinion, anyway. On the other hand, as I said, the citizens who are not professional food critics are by all means invited to give their opinion through grades, comments, or top lists on their favourite dishes, foodstuff, and restaurants.

How do you attribute foods to a particular area, as the origin of some local dishes is often contested between places?

Our team has done research for three years. There are numerous problematic cases; for example, dishes that are contested between numerous countries. And dishes that are equally present in more than one country. You also have identical dishes in several different countries, but they have different names. For instance, empanada, a dish originating from Galicia, but incredibly more popular in South America than in Spain. We have approached each of these cases differently. Sometimes we would create different dishes, sometimes we would include a dish in the country where it, according to the majority of historical documents, most likely belongs, and in the cases in which we couldn’t obtain any trustworthy information about its origin, we just gave up on including the dish. Somewhere in the future phases of the project we will include dishes which will be equally represented in several locations. And here, I repeat, TasteAtlas will not be ideal. But we will try to be the best we can be. 

Your previous work as been within the world of journalism in Croatia, where you founded the incredibly popular Index website. Why is TasteAtlas registered in Bulgaria and not Croatia? Where are your employees actually based?

Difficult times are coming for Croatia because its economy is based on unhealthy and unsustainable foundations. It is better to get your business out of a country like that before difficult times hit, because by then it will be too late for many. Also, the tax imposed on high salaries in Croatia is the highest in the world because of a huge and inefficient public sector, whose only purpose is buying social peace and inventing sinecures for the electorate. Until these things change, it is not wise to do business in Croatia. Bulgaria is a solid tax jurisdiction. Whether TasteAtlas will remain in Bulgaria depends on how the project will develop, but also on how Europe will develop. If at some point I conclude that it is better to do business in some other location, we will do business in another location. For now, Bulgaria is totally ok.

TasteAtlas has sought authors on international advertisements, and we have part-time associates from different parts of Europe.

What were your hopes and intentions when you first set up Index. And did you succeed in doing what you hoped to?

My main idea was to change Croatia for the better. I was young and naïve, and I didn’t understand the roots of Croatian problems. I failed at it.

Index is focused solely on Croatia whereas TasteAtlas is aimed at the world. Aside from the ambitiousness of the project, it's also opens up a global advertising market to you, which is exciting. From what sort of advertisers do you anticipate drawing interest? You're dealing with local recipes and very often the food of the common man; will there be room for every kind of advertiser on the site, such as small producers? How do you anticipate that working?

I started TasteAtlas, just like Index, because I had a desire that drove me to do it. I just wanted a world atlas of local food because I found I needed something like that. If other people find TasteAtlas as interesting as I do, money will come by itself. I don’t think about that at all in this moment. I still see TasteAtlas as a very expensive and demanding hobby.

When requesting this interview you informed me that you are traveling and that you don't use Skype or a phone. Do you really not have a phone at all? 

Of course I have a phone, and a computer as well. But I never talk on the phone because I hate it. I consider all types of communication in which I am expected to give an instant response without a chance to think about it extremely exhausting and intrusive. I also consider video-calls to be a very show-offy way of communication. I believe everything can be solved via e-mail. I never talk on the phone with my girlfriend or family, either.

Have any specific dishes appeared on the site yet which you haven't personally tried, but would really like to travel there to try?

In the next five years, I plan to travel around the whole world to decide where I most want to live. I want to try all the dishes in the world, too, but I won’t be able to do it alone because I simply don’t want to explode like that fat guy in Monty Python. Day by day, dish by dish, I always try to taste as much as possible. People try to find different meanings in life, from religions, children… I don’t believe that life has any particular meaning, but I think that it’s worth living for the occasional joy and happiness in it. To me, and to many others, food and travel rank among the greatest joys of life and I definitely want to experience as much as possible.

By your own judgement, what's the weirdest local speciality that's so far gone on the site and where does it come from?

Casu Marzu (pictured), no doubt about it. The so-called walking cheese, which walks because there are millions of worms walking inside it. I tried one type of it on Sardinia. Italians are crazy, but nobody in the world cooks food like them, so we can forgive them the walking cheese.

What are the best dishes from your native Croatia and where are the best places to find them? 

We’ve had sensationally good influences – from Austria, Hungary, Italy to Turkey. This is precisely why Croatia has excellent food. I adore štrukle (a type of cooked or baked pastry filled with cheese), I adore prosciutto from Istria, Skradin risotto, but I think that one of the best Croatian products is Kulen (a type of paprika flavoured sausage made of minced pork) brought here by the Spanish and improved on in Slavonia. I like it more than Chorizo. However, if you want to eat the most delicious food in Croatia, you must choose gregadas (traditional fish soup) and brodettos along Croatian islands. And if you want to know where exactly, you can look it up on TasteAtlas, ha! Saying these things actually made me miss Croatia. I always miss it, and I hope a time will come when we can live and work nicely in Croatia.

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