He was 7 years old when the Bosnian war broke out. He grew up in the quaint village of Sokolac, which is now a borough of Sarajevo. “Eighty per cent of my friends lost their fathers in the war… I got lucky, my father survived.” Chef Milos Mirjanic recounts.
He is the head chef or Chef de Cuisine at a modern Middle Eastern restaurant in Dubai. A Cordon Bleu-certified professional, whose journey from waiting tables in Belgrade at the age of 19 to the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton in London is all about how grit, passion and dedication will see you to the finish line.
Life was not easy growing up, especially post the war. His mum worked as an accountant and father with a hotel’s concierge desk, in the hospitality industry. From his parents he learnt to always look at the bright side. “Looking at the positive is what we Bosnians do.” And this tour de force of determination has stood the 37-year-old expatriate in very good stead.
“I left Sokolac to study in Belgrade, Serbia. Most kids who go from small towns into a big city get distracted… by partying, other things. Nobody expected me to complete… finish studies. But, I did my degree in mechanical engineering from the Polytechnic Academy in Belgrade. I did it for my mother.”
To make ends meet, he started doing odd jobs in the kitchen, and waiting tables in restaurants. He loved the energy of the hospitality industry, meeting and working with new people. At the age of 24, he took a holiday to China with his then Serbian architect girlfriend Milica. It was a culinary revelation.
“We spent 40 days … we went to Hong Kong, Macau, Chengdu, Beijing, Shanghai… discovering spices, tastes, cooking. It blew my mind. I came back and told my girlfriend I want to be a chef.” He had discovered his calling in life. Milica was extremely supportive. He started working in kitchens. Then she moved to London, UK, for higher education in architecture. So, he followed her, “And that was a game changer. All the best chefs in the world were in London at that time … it gave me an opportunity to learn from the best.”
We spent 40 days … we went to Hong Kong, Macau, Chengdu, Beijing, Shanghai… discovering spices, tastes, cooking. It blew my mind. I came back and told my girlfriend I want to be a chef.
Milica brought him his first chef’s knife, which he carries to this day as part of a daily toolkit. “She got it for me when I started working in a proper kitchen.”
Mirjanic worked hard and was a fast learner, soon he climbed the ranks. However after a year in London, he felt the need to further elevate his skills, which only one place could help him achieve – Le Cordon Bleu. “In my opinion you can be a good cook but to be a good chef you need at least 10 years of experience… good chef is someone who understands food.”
He enrolled for the Grand Diploma with Culinary Management and graduated at the top of his class. Soon, he was functioning as the Sous Chef, or second in command in top London kitchens. He worked in the kitchen of the prestigious Savoy Hotel in London. In the rush of London life, as both Milica and he pursued their careers, they decided to take some time out and get married.
“Working in London, working in high-end kitchens takes a lot from you … my working day was at least 16 hours per day. My wife, Milica, and I were running around to get our things done.” Success required the sacrifice from both but, “I love food, for the last 10, 15 years everything about my life has been about food….” So, it didn’t seem like much of an ask – nearly 10 years passed in London. Then Georgia, the eldest of their two daughters was born. She is now two-and-a-half years old.
When you have kids, you need to think a little bit different. Once you get kids, you need to prioritise your family. Your kids cannot be young again, they are only kids once … you miss it, that’s that. No more.
“When you have kids, you need to think a little bit different. Once you get kids, you need to prioritise your family. Your kids cannot be young again, they are only kids once … you miss it, that’s that. No more.” It was time to re-think the fast-paced lifestyle of London. Luckily Dubai came calling over a year ago.
“It was a win-win… Dubai gives you little more flexibility. You also have a lot of great chefs here. More will come. The Michelin Guide came last year. You mark my words, at least 15… 20 more UAE restaurants will get Michelin stars this year. It will be, if not already, the top culinary destination, like London, New York, Paris….
“What I can do here in Dubai is that I can have every morning with my kids and still do what I love at a high level ….” His second daughter Mariya is eight months old.
Dubai has given Chef Mirjanic the perfect work-life balance with a workplace and team that bring him joy every day. He talks about how elsewhere it might be okay to yell and scream in your kitchen but not in the UAE. “If I shout and scream, I will be the only one left in the kitchen after seven days,” he adds with a laugh.
He explains that there is a greater sense of kinship and community among people from the hospitality industry in the country, they always help each other out, welcome newcomers and treat everyone with respect.
“A job in the kitchen used to be a very tough place once upon a time … very brutal. It has changed dramatically, today, people are interested in a chef’s work. It has changed, now it’s a creative job, people in it are well educated, trained and with exposure.”
(Note: This article was first published on May 23, 2023)