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Krishan George

‘The service isn’t the best in the world, but they are students, they start learning and they start getting into the philosophy of the place.’

I was first here in December 1995, as a consultant. I had a two-year contract working with the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Agriculture, looking at the development of a privatisation policy. Today I’m doing a range of things. My latest venture is a water buffalo farm. I bought an old state farm in 2006, located in the middle of Transylvania about 15 kilometres from Rupea. I saw it from a distance; at first look it had two or three roofs on buildings. When I went back two months later everything had disappeared; electricity lines going into the farm, all the roofs, bricks – half the walls were demolished…

So your property had been stolen.

Absolutely, but now I have buffalo on the farm, water buffalo, about 150 for their milk. I find the animals fascinating. I’m selling the milk to a local sheep farmer who is making cheese with it. I don’t have the facilities yet to actually produce my own cheese or bottle the milk but that’s the intention, to bottle raw milk on the farm. There’s this huge raging debate on raw versus pasteurised milk, and I’m getting involved in that slowly. I also started a permaculture programme, planting a ‘food forest’ and an integrated garden system to look at ways of using permaculture systems in our own production process. I’ve been looking at these traditional food systems, in Romania, in India, South America; especially fermented types of traditional foods.  

Like pickling in autumn for the rest of the year?

Yes, these are traditions that people have had forever: – how to store fresh foods – common throughout the world. I would say most of the food products in the supermarkets or in shops today have nothing of their original food value. Rice is polished, sugars refined. Preservatives, binders and even tastes and smells are added to food products to make them cheap, last longer and travel further. We take the good things out, put questionable stuff in and then sterilise everything! We planted about two and a half hectares of what is referred to as food forest. You find examples of these in Morocco, in India, in Asia. These systems have been growing for centuries, without any sort of mechanical maintenance, chemical fertilisers or annual planting…

We’re sitting here in the Barka Saffron restaurant. This has been going quite a while.

This has been going 13 years almost. I lived around the corner for a long time and it was a derelict building – no roof, burnt out. Homeless people used to reside here on cold nights, build fires; it was quite a scary place. I made an offer to the owner, ‘If you rent this to me, I’ll clean it up, do something here.’ That was in ’99. He’s my neighbour upstairs – used to work for some authority at that time. I started working on the place, doing it up and he came along and said, ‘No, no, you have to make the walls thicker. Consolidate the walls, the structure is falling down!’

‘It’s not falling down!’

‘No, no, consolidate the walls!’ All he wanted was to build another floor on top. He sent along his friends, the inspectors. Basically they stopped the work for about six months until I agreed to consolidate the walls so he could build another floor on his building. After we got over that I put the place together. I always wanted a bar on the beach to look out on this turquoise water, palm trees, that sort of thing but I didn’t get that here.  

So now you look out on this boulevard with the trams!

I’m not a restaurateur so I didn’t know what kind of food to serve. It started out as Italian. I had an Italian chef; he didn’t last very long. Then an Indian guy walked in one day and said, ‘Can I cook?’

I said, ‘Kitchen – go ahead!’ Then there was a Cuban guy so we had a bit of tapas moving in. There was another Indian after a few years. Somebody from the Thai embassy called me and said, ‘Look, we have this lady here, she’d like to work.’

I said, ‘Carry on!’ It became a bit Thai, a bit Indian, a bit Mexican; it was an eclectic mix of food. I just let them carry on.

A variety of people come here. Used to be a lot of the advertising crowd, the bankers, embassies, ex-pats, Romanians, a lot of writers, artists, people that wanted something different. Every time I come in here I’m fascinated to see what people are writing on the walls. Barka works in a very different way because there’s no manager. There’s a lady that does the accounts but the students run their own show. They hire themselves, fire themselves. They can only stay three months maximum after they graduate. Barka will pay for their education during the time they work here. We’ve had about 25 or 30 graduates from the Barka system. They always find somebody else. When they leave they have to replace themselves with somebody to whom they would entrust the key to their grandmother’s house. That’s how they find new people. Not many people know it and we don’t publicise it. The service isn’t the best in the world, but they are students, they start learning and they start getting into the philosophy of the place.

How did you come up with the idea?

Kerala. You know Kerala has a lot of grassroots organisations, a lot of empowerment of people. Everyone said, ‘You’re mad, this is a bar, there’s cash, they’re going to steal it from you.’ I don’t have the key to the safe, I don’t have the key to the door actually. I said, ‘Well look, if you give them responsibility, they will take it.’ It’s an experiment here. It’s a working living experiment; it does work.

Do you find Romanians very passionate, focused on particular things?

I’ve had the privilege of climbing with top climbers here. They’re passionate about it, being out there in the wilderness, on a rock somewhere. There is that passion. I got involved with a guy called David Neacşu. He had this dream of taking a Romanian team to Everest. He came to me and I said, ‘Great, let’s put this team together, the only request...