“I remember Zagreb from childhood times, when life seemed to be more relaxed. People approached their problems differently, you could feel a certain degree of optimism. I can still feel that spirit in this neighbourhood.”
Soon after its foundation, the Mak na konac cake shop at the corner of Popa Dukljanina and Tomašićeva streets became one of the best known and most esteemed hospitality businesses in Zagreb. Anybody who has tried the cakes, macarons and cookies baked by Petra Jelenić swears that there are very good reasons behind the excellent reputation she and her team enjoy. What is special about Mak na konac is its dedication to most carefully chosen groceries among which there are no prosaic or unhealthy ingredients such as margarine, as well as the limited offer of products that are never overstocked and change seasonally. However, a constant in the offer is the Mak na konac cake, named after the shop (or perhaps it was the other way round), which personifies all of Petra’s love towards poppy seed, her favourite ingredient, in a recipe she inherited from her grandmother. We visited Petra in the cake shop in order to find out at least some of her culinary secrets, but also to hear what motivates her for constant exploration end experimenting.
Petra Jelenić: Mak na konac was established nearly three years ago. We started out modestly, because this was supposed to be just a take-out cake shop; it was a small space opened within the Put do hrane company. People often think that I own the shop, but I’m the manager, not the owner. However, the concept is mine, I am developing it and I knew from the start that I wanted to work with cakes and sweets. I knew I didn’t want to be a slave to limitations.
For example, I like cremeschnitte, but no matter how much I liked them, you can get them in every cake shop in the city, so it didn’t make sense to include them in our offer. I wanted to express myself through the cakes, namely through the specific way in which I have learned to make them. I have been doing this for 23-24 years; I spent 18 years in five-star hotels, where I was able to really dedicate myself to different aspects of cake making, from a la carte courses to different themed evenings that were sometimes very free and creative. That is the approach I wanted to take with Mak na konac.
I wouldn’t say I was too wild with ingredients and flavours at first, but when I made a ginger cake with green pepper and lots of other stuff that are considered standard today, people would look at it sideways at first. It couldn’t work right away, so I had to settle down and continue little by little. However, our clientele has meanwhile become so distinctive that we basically always have to make something new because we are expected to. The space of the shop was expanded by chance — the owners had decided to close the restaurant that used to occupy the space, and we were searching for a new space because we needed a place where people could sit down and consume their food.
I don’t have a clear concept of the development of the shop. Naturally, we do have a general business plan, but apart from that, I mostly listen to my intuition and try to function from season to season. When I find an ingredient that inspires me, I introduce it in our offer and I change them frequently.
Our menu has become inconceivable without the poppy seed cake that I have been making for so long it has practically become our signature. It is a very old recipe for a cake with strong and intense flavour that is still very popular. Another Mak na konac best-seller is the chocolate raspberry cake, made of tasty, caramelized white chocolate, with a full flavour that reminds you of both caramel and vanilla at the same time. I often change cakes because I have chosen a relatively small showcase on purpose. There is room for twelve kinds of cakes, three to five of them are always present, while others change seasonally, as I come by different ingredients.
The suppliers have improved significantly, they often come with their own ideas, and the guests themselves have started asking for specific things because they have become more informed and know what they are looking for. A few weeks ago I got the so-called pearl lime, Australian pearl lime that looks like a cucumber, but is actually a lime. It consists of numerous small cores with plenty of juice, shaped like little balls. Fantastic. I have used them to make a cake that looked like caviar. Naturally, I primarily use local groceries, but sometimes it is nice to combine them with something exotic. Also, buying groceries from local producers whenever I can is very important to me. For example, I buy my hazelnuts from a small Sisak family farm, and those are really first-class hazelnuts, certified and everything. I try to use as many such quality ingredients as I can, which requires everyday juggling, but I manage.
— We were also wondering how the environment she works in affects Petra’s approach to making cakes and if it favours the growth of her business.
Petra Jelenić: I started coming to Zagreb in 1991, when I enrolled in high school, during the worst war period (nowadays I still live in Samobor). But I also remember Zagreb from childhood times, when life seemed to be more relaxed. People approached their problems differently, you could feel a certain degree of optimism. I can still feel that spirit in this neighbourhood. There are lots of little shops with their own story and style, you can find many diverse and inspirational things within the radius of some 20 m. I like being surrounded by people who think positively because the common positive energy also influences my work. At least I like to think so.
I am somewhat autistically tied to the kitchen here, so I don’t recognize many people who come here, but the girls always say: “Here is this person, and there is that person…,” so it seems that a really wide circle of people comes here. All kinds of people, from high school students to older citizens, but I think most of them are people between 25 and 45 who like trying new things and socializing. I would like for this to be a multipurpose space, suitable for different contents, but I function in a very unplanned manner. Most people didn’t find out right away that we expanded the space a year ago because we are developing quietly, nothing can be done recklessly. Now I know how business can advance more quickly and easily, so there will surely be all kinds of new plans. The neighbourhood and the whole environment are growing in quality, and one good thing leads to another — it is a logical process.