Could One Georgian Restaurant Offer a Vision For a More Progressive Tbilisi?

 

It is near impossible to speak about Georgia and not talk about food. So much of the national mythology surrounds food. This includes cute tales of how the nation was born out of a failure to miss a meeting with God because Georgians were feasting. Throughout the images of the country’s most famous painter Pirosmani are images of food. Food is a major reason why tourists come en masse to Georgia and is always a reason they come back. Its rich vineyards and fresh produces symbolize the peculiar beauty and magic that is Georgia.

Despite Georgia’s growing culinary reputation, it cannot be said that many restaurants in the country have captivated the public’s imagination. There are a lot of reasons for this. Most obvious, throughout the Soviet Union restaurants were not readily available for working class people. Furthermore, the majority of Georgians do not have a tremendous amount of disposable income. It tends to be the case that the best cooking happens in the privacy of homes. As a consequence, a strong restaurant culture really never emerged in Georgia.

The opening of Ezo in 2015 really offered a seismic shift in the nature of restaurants. While hardly the first restaurant to serve amazing food, Ezo looked to offer something that was built on challenging the boundaries of what Georgian food is. They refused to pander to visitors by offering something beyond the same khinkali/khachapuri combo found in every restaurant, but instead look to older, sometimes forgotten dishes, and innovative cooking. They found a way to source their food organically as much as possible by working with smaller farms and opening their own greenhouse. Since then, the restaurant has become one of Tbilisi’s most popular and acclaimed restaurants thanks to its unique contribution to the city’s food culture.

Before any dish was served, Ezo founders and wife and husband duo Kristo Talakhadze and Gio Lomsadze, along with their partners, wanted their restaurant to be more than just a place where people ate but also a space built on respect, fairness, and quality. As such, they set out to make sure that every facet of the restaurant imbued those beliefs.

First and foremost, Ezo has foregrounded its relationship with its staff on a principle of mutual respect. Service industry jobs are often held in low regard in Georgia due to a lack of pay and respect. Because of these factors, Georgia had gained a reputation for poor service. Ezo quickly looked to rectify this by offering additional benefits far beyond those offered by the vast majority of other restaurants to make employees feel empowered and needed.

Starting off, Ezo invested in their staff by offering ample training and support. Ezo wanted to hire young staff that had little experience but a lot of desire to learn. They fostered a culture where young waiters were not disposable but an essential part of the experience. They understood through treating their workers with dignity that it would lower staff turnover and complaints while elevating the esteem of the employees and the dining experience. Working within the Toyota system, Ezo employees are encouraged to communicate with management constantly to overcome problems, which greatly levels the chains of command. A large segment of Ezo’s original staff continues to work there, including their first chef.

 

Located in a beautiful Italian garden in the romantic Sololaki neighborhood of Tbilisi, Ezo was not founded as a restaurant to be accessible to only tourists and upper-class but working class Georgians too. One of the sad consequences of the rise of tourism in the last number of years has been growing inequality and exclusiveness in Tbilisi. Ezo has tailored their menu so that it would offer fresh and high-quality dishes while also including dishes like fried potatoes that are not cost prohibitive for working class people. It was important that the restaurant was welcoming to their neighbors because they were the people that made Sololaki such an appealing location to open the restaurant.

Knowing what it was like to be a mother of two young children, Kristo realized that many women are forced to stay at home with their children because most restaurants did not have a child-friendly space. They wanted to make all women feel welcome in their restaurant by offering both a playroom and an unstuffy environment for children. This would help remove the burden of childcare on many women and channel some family friend vibes.

Taking on these decidedly inclusive stances, Ezo became a space of convergence where all types of people could eat together on those Balearic Tbilisi summer nights.

Looking to expand their business, this summer Gio and Kristo started to host tours of Kakheti. Just as their restaurant looked to elevate the restaurant scene, Ezo’s founders wanted to provide an experience to visiting food enthusiasts that was not being offered on the market. Over the last number of years in Tbilisi, there has been a rise of really lazy and poor quality tours to meet the growing demand of tourists. Ezo started offering tours to Georgia’s most famous region for food and wine with a focus on giving a foodie an insight into Georgian cuisine they’d never get on other tours. Having collaborated with Ezo a couple times, Gio kindly wrote me and suggested my girlfriend and I join them for the day on a tour in early August.

Initially, we were supposed to be joined by another couple that had booked a tour but they were a no-show. I suggested that maybe we could join them on the next day’s tour but Kristo insisted that we go just as friends. We set out on a road trip across Eastern Georgia.

We drove along the Georgian countryside that was basking in the August sun until we arrived at our first stop at the market in Telavi. The Telavi market has been known to be the best market for finding the best and most diverse products across Georgia. We walk through the market as Kristo explained the nuanced differences of products while interacting and joking around with the various workers we visited. We picked up an assorted mix of vegetables, cheese, meat, and an absurdly large floppy hat for Kristo. After a quick bite at a local restaurant, we got back on the road to head to a vineyard for a giant feast.

Passing by lush vineyards, we started moving beyond the basic conversations you’d expect to have while on a tour. Gio and Kristo open up about their own love story and living in Georgia throughout the 90’s. Kristo eventually left for the Netherlands to study while Gio worked as a video journalist. Eventually, they fell in love and settled in Tbilisi where they subsequently opened Ezo.

Both Gio and Kristo had seen how Tbilisi went from being an example of a post-Soviet failure to its current guise as a major tourist destination. Speaking to them in the car and seeing their 90’s parties, what was apparent was that although they were not nostalgic for the past, they had reservations about the rise of this hyper-capitalism that has taken over Georgia.

The community values of helping your fellow person and the belief that everyone was in this together had seen Georgia through the darkest days of the 90’s. These values had been slowly eroding thanks to a neoliberal economy of deregulation and greed. Recently in Tbilisi, there has been a growing elitism and materialism among the small percentage of people that have got ahead in the new Georgian economy. Kristo posed a simple question to me in the car: what happens next time Georgia suffered and all people care about is themselves? If the bonds and sense of community that helped Georgia make its way through its toughest times are lost then it’s difficult to see what will happen to Georgia the next time tragedy strikes.

Arriving at the stunning Zangaura Winery in Kvareli, we stepped out of the car to the sight of 40 hectares of pure Kakhetian bliss. We opened a bottle of rosé and lay down on a hammock while Gio and Kristo prepared the food. The first course included fresh fruit, nuts, and honey. The subsequent dishes included an aubergine salad, figs with cheese, mtsvadi, and a host of fresh desserts with all the proper wine pairings. For anyone into food, it was a once in a lifetime experience to have the owners of a city’s most acclaimed restaurant serving you a five-course private meal in the Alazani valley.

During our last glass of wine in the midst of a food coma, Gio asked us what we thought of the tour. My girlfriend made clear her only problem was that she’ll never be able to find a food experience to top this tour. Looking at Kristo and Gio’s response, you could tell they were not just pleased with the compliments but were genuinely satisfied at having provided an experience that was so pleasant for us. Sensing their tremendous commitment to their principles and trade, it was hard not to imagine what Tbilisi would be like if other businesses took the same approach.

What makes Ezo restaurant so interesting is that it runs in contrast to the majority of major businesses in Georgia. Unlike most other business in Georgia, Ezo is founded on a community-based approach. While the other businesses look to profit while being indifferent to the effect on the city, Ezo tries to elevate the entire community with their success. They offer an alternative vision of Tbilisi based on fairness, tolerance, love, and finding those elements in Tbilisi heritage that offer a progressive future.

Remarkably, it is these community-based values that have helped Ezo become such a success. In fact, their beliefs are part of the reason why people flock to Ezo. People not only appreciate the quality of food and service, but also the genuine nature of the restaurant. Those beliefs have turned Ezo into a reference in every guide to the city and a pleasant dining experience for locals and visitors alike. Maybe these values offer an alternative to the hyper-gentrification of the tourist-driven economy in Tbilisi? It is worth posing the question of whether Ezo can offer an inspiration for a more progressive Tbilisi.

Maybe it is not too idealistic to believe that paying workers a living wage can help improve a business instead of hindering it. Maybe environmentally-friendly policies make for a healthier and more enjoyable product. Maybe instead of trying to “rejuvenate” areas of Tbilisi by excluding those who made the neighborhood appealing in the first place, individuals can look to work in partnership with the community. It may be that running a restaurant like Ezo demands a lot of hard work but it does ensure that running a business based on treating workers and customers with respect creates a more sustainable success in the long run.

All these thoughts remain maybes while a neoliberal myth that nothing other than pure greed will enable Georgia to grow exists. What is certain though is there is a growing discontent among people in Georgia about inequality and the destruction of the city by capital. A new vision is needed for Tbilisi and maybe Ezo might provide some insight to what a more progressive Tbilisi would look like.

All photos by Kimberly MacKinnon except the cover, which was done by Jeanette Seflin