When BAHIA first opened in the quiet Maltese village of Lija, the first reaction was: what’s the connection between the Brazilian state Bahia and Lija? Then the penny dropped. The village of Lija and its surrounding area were well-known for their orange groves, including the navel orange Bahia. Frédéric Lacroix, writes in 1841: ‘The gardens in Malta are rich in flowers and fruits…the orange tree is king.’ An interesting correspondence dating to late 18th century deals with the world of orange trading from Malta to Paris. Grand Masters of the Order of Malta (1530-1798) often sent oranges as gifts to foreign rulers. So has this connection disappeared, now that BAHIA has moved to Corinthia Palace, Attard? Not at all! Attard, too, is well-known for its oranges and the nearby San Anton gardens, part of the President’s palace, still pride themselves of rich orange groves which include Bahia oranges.
We met Mr Colin Ciantar the energetic and ingenious proprietor of BAHIA, who confessed that leaving his original place in Lija was not an easy decision but he needed to evolve. He was at first unsure if patrons would follow, but quickly added: ‘After the first discussions with Corinthia, we realised that our strategies were aligned, but most importantly we felt there was synergy with the people, and it is the latter that tipped the balance.’
And now? ‘After many challenging months getting the place ready, we feel happy with how the whole team is interpreting our new home. The feedback from our guests is also very encouraging and we look forward to consolidating our position further.’
We wondered if food always ran in his blood. Was this BAHIA venture the most natural step? He was candid: ‘Rather than an interest in food itself, my original passion was entertaining guests and leading them to live a holistic experience. The joy for food developed in time, as a result of working with the rest of the team who have a greater natural predisposition towards gastronomy.’
We compared him to the Maestro of an orchestra who directs and breathes and engenders expression to an idea whilst the musicians give life to the music score within the ambience created by the Maestro? ‘More or less. The lead musician in the kitchen would be our Head Chef Tyrone Mizzi, and the rest of the team join in the development of the menu. Since our menus are also conceptual at times, there is a process that is developed beforehand so the kitchen team can work around the chosen concept.’
So, was it correct to say that BAHIA is not only a development of an idea but is also a development within Colin himself? Could he lead us through the process leading to the opening of BAHIA?
He looked up as if trying to recollect dates and facts and then slowly shared his recollections. “In 2012, after spending several years working with the family business in the wholesale and retail sectors, I took over the bar and restaurant called ‘the teambar’ within the Lija Football Club. Over the years, from a bar I evolved it into a restaurant, and the change-journey sucked me gently into the restaurant world. I felt energised and this experience encouraged me to venture into something different.
Then in October 2016, together with some key people I still collaborate with, we took the decision to create a restaurant in a townhouse that is over 200 years old in the village of Lija. Since there is no passing trade in this location, we were aware we needed to propose an offering that was attractive enough for people to visit. BAHIA needed to be a destination restaurant, that is one that has a strong enough appeal to draw customers from beyond its community.’
But has the concept message behind BAHIA changed or evolved by time? ‘The core values of BAHIA have always been to try our best to offer a high-quality contemporary product and service at a fair price. We are big fans of particular events for our guests, some of which are our Upside Down Dinner, which is a novel dining concept that promises to amuse the palate of the diners, taking them on an unusual gastronomic experience, our Blindfolded Event and our Fast Food Dinner. We love breaking the rules of communication and avoid stereotyped messages to and with our patrons. We have always promoted the value of our brand and the work of the team, rather than the work of specific individuals. BAHIA is a team-product and we concentrate our joint energies. We constantly try to draw ourselves towards one centre-point of perspective, which has the guest in prime position.
I must add that whilst before we considered our cuisine as Contemporary European, today we serve a very Mediterranean contemporary cuisine with massive importance to the Maltese culinary heritage.
‘In fact, we offer three menus – Past, Present and Future. The Past Menu is a seven-course menu inspired by different epochs of Maltese history, including Stone Age, Roman, Phoenician, and the Knights Hospitaller period. The Future Menu is also a seven-course innovative tasting menu where customers can explore new combinations of flavours inspired from traditional Maltese dishes such as Froġa tat-Tarja with capellini in black pepper emulsion, and Braġjolu with ham hock, beef short rib, daikon, smoked celeriac and confit egg yolk. Dessert would include Imqaret with almond & aniseed extra virgin olive oil cake, date & orange purée. The Present Menu is the à la carte menu. Vegans and vegetarians are lovingly catered for, with both a vegan tasting menu and a vegan à la carte available too. We focus on local ingredients delivered in a contemporary vein.’
We asked whether BAHIA also offers private dining rooms service? In Lija, they could not offer a private dining service without closing the whole restaurant for the guests requesting it. However, they are now in a position to provide private dining for up to twelve people in a dedicated space and with personalised service. ‘We also have some more flexibility for larger groups due to the way we structured the space in the restaurant.’
Joining Michelin must have been an exciting, rewarding and exhilarating milestone in the BAHIA story. Correct? Was it a surprise? Is it a long process? Colin’s face beamed and he automatically sported a V-sign. ‘It was indeed exciting, rewarding and exhilarating. Two seconds after we found out, we were all on a WhatsApp video call that looked like a group of supporters celebrating after the winning penalty kick during a World Cup final. We had been listed on the Michelin Guide the previous year, so naturally we were all eagerly hoping and waiting for this reward, yet the result still comes as a surprise and is certainly a vitalising shot in the arm.
‘Rather than a long process, I would say it is a mindset that needs to be ingrained in all staff members. Our goal is to make sure that as quickly as possible, all staff members recognise that our guests have given us the responsibility of taking care of their time and dinner, and it is our role to provide them with an impeccable experience. If we do this, the chances of earning a Michelin star are higher.’
We could see from his expressions and grit that Mr Colin Ciantar was an adventurous and industrious person. Was this correct? ‘Yes, undoubtedly. I am an adventurous person; I feel this after looking at some undaunted business decisions taken during my life.
‘I am also a very hard worker, and this is also thanks to the fact that I really enjoy what I do. I wake up at around 7am and dive into the day rather fast. I spend the first couple of hours on my computer doing administration work or analysing numbers. At around 9:30am I usually start my meetings and focus on strategic work. When possible, I break off for lunch and then pass for my son at school.
‘In the afternoon, the restaurant staff arrives and at that point I usually go into operations mode and do whatever is required to make sure we have a great service for our guests. In the late afternoon, I go back home to spend some time with my family and then, most days, I return to the restaurant to oversee the service. It’s time and energy consuming but I would not change my work for anything else.’
Certainly, he has his own relaxing hobbies and interests. ‘One of my great hobbies is football management. I played football for most of my life and now that I do not have the legs for the game, I try to apply my management skills at the Lija Football Club. Every now and then, I also go to the gym, but I am aware I needed to find more time for this.’
And the family? ‘I am married to Sharon, who is a very understanding and supportive person, and together we have two great sons. Lee is now 20 and our youngest, Luke, is 11 years old. The last months have been very challenging due to the opening of BAHIA. I feel rather guilty and sad that I haven’t spent enough time with them.’
I wanted to switch to some incident which Colin could not forget. He thought for a couple of seconds and then smiled. ‘Ah, yes! On the morning of 5th October 2016, we were all very excited because it was our first service at BAHIA in Lija. At 9.30am excitement turned to extreme worry. The carpenter informed us that the main double-fronted door of the restaurant would not be ready for the evening. We had sixteen people booked for the evening. I called my consultants and we discussed solutions. Throwing in the towel was not even considered an alternative
Believe it or not, at 10:30am we had an artist who visited the restaurant and was commissioned to paint an orange tree on two wooden pallets, which we would affix on a large piece of wood that would close off the main door of the restaurant. This was possible since luckily, the restaurant in BAHIA has the option of another entrance. I still laugh when I remember the artist’s facial expression when we told him that we needed the painting by 6pm of that same day!
Nevertheless, at 6pm, there he was, putting up what for us was one of the most important works of art we would ever appreciate, not only for its beauty but for what it represented then and what it still represents to us today. This experience mirrors an essential part of our identity and our desire to be creative and find solutions even in the most challenging moments.
The restaurant opened as planned at 6.30pm and the first sixteen diners at BAHIA had a great time, completely oblivious of our turmoil.’
Back to Corinthia. What were his feelings about the collaboration? ‘We are confident that whenever two or more brands share common values and collaborate, then it is beneficial for both. Corinthia has a long-standing reputation that has been going on for sixty years. We are only five years old, so we look forward to learn from this collaboration whilst doing our best to contribute towards making our restaurant and the hotel a sought-after destination.’
And what about a parting message? ‘Together with the whole team we have been on a five-year journey that has taught us immensely. We have learnt most from the feedback of our guests and we consider these experiences like placing coins in a money box. When seen all together these coins demonstrate all the work, effort and experiences that today represent the way we run the restaurant. We would like our guests to tap into our learning experiences by visiting BAHIA, and as a result, become part of our journey too.’