Ari Munandar- executive chef at Prague's Hilton Old Town Hotel restaurant

Ari Munandar

Prague-based chef Ari Munandar moved to Prague in 1997 from his homeland Indonesia. The city is, at least for now, his latest stop after cooking jobs in Bali, South Africa and the UK. In May 2009, the Prague Hilton Old Town Hotel recruited Munandar, then the executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental, to help launch their new restaurant Zinc, a sign that he had truly arrived as a chef. When we met at his restaurant, I asked Mr. Munandar about the beginnings of his career that started 20 years ago.

“When I finished high school, I didn’t really know where to go to continue my studies. At the time, my mom was a chef at home, she cooked a lot, so obviously when someone said to me: Maybe a hotel school wouldn’t be bad for you, I thought it was maybe a good opportunity. And then, when you apply to hotel school there are two choices: unfortunately, they took me in the second one, which is in the kitchen.”

And then, where did you work before you came in the Hilton Hotel in Prague?

“Actually, it’s a bit on and off, I’ve been with the Hilton for 15 years now, I worked at the Hilton in Bali, that’s where I met my chef, he is now the area chef for the Hilton in Europe. We met in Bali and then we split, I moved to South Africa before I moved to Prague, after three years my chef moved to Prague and he asked me if I wanted to join his team again, that was back in 1997, and so here I am, and we’re both still in Prague.”

What would you say were the highlights of your career?

“The highlight was when I moved from the Hilton Prague to do the opening at the Mandarin Oriental. I came there as a number two, as the executive sous- chef, but then, a few months later, the executive chef left and they gave me the acting position and finally I became the executive chef, so I think that was the big challenge for me, the big step.”

Often on television, you see these shows where all these crazy things happen in the kitchen. What was the craziest thing that you ever experienced in your career?

“Yeah, actually, the top of the list was not long ago, and I had just moved to the Hilton Old Town. One time, there was a guest who came here with his family and he demanded to speak to the chef, so I came out and talked to him and he basically just told me to prepare something that was good and said that he ate everything. And then he asked me if I went shopping this morning for my meat. And I said: No, and I wanted to explain to him why I didn’t go shopping because it is different in the Czech Republic, we don’t go shopping everyday because a lot of the ingredients are imported, all the meat and everything. So it’s not like you go to the market every morning to do your shopping and then you go back to your kitchen, which they do in other developed countries, the chefs go to the market daily. I told him that I hadn’t gone shopping today, that I went a few days ago, but not today, and so he stood up and started leaving the restaurant, but on his way out, he turned around and literally screamed at me: How come you didn’t go shopping, you’re the executive chef, you have to go shopping! And he was really yelling. I just stood there, and that was definitely the top of my list so far.”

How has the cooking and restaurant scene changed in Prague since you came here?

“A lot, I’ve seen a lot of changes, but changes for the better. When I came here 12 years ago, almost 13 now, when you wanted to go out you didn’t know where to go because there wasn’t anywhere to go, only limited places, there was some good Czech places, but when you wanted to have international cuisine, it was still quite limited. But nowadays, when you want to go out somewhere, you don’t know where to go, because there are so many choices.”

So when you talk about good food or good cooking, what is essential for a restaurant to offer great meals?

“That’s a very difficult question, because most chefs will tell you: We’re using the freshest products, the freshest ingredients. We do also, but the most important thing is to know what the market wants, you can cook good food but when people don’t recognize that, they won’t come to your restaurant. We are trying to do that, to prepare the best possible hotel food that we can produce, but it’s still difficult because we are a hotel restaurant and people tend to choose a freestanding restaurant. And there are lots of reasons that people like a restaurant, in the summer, people want to sit outside. So there are a lot of different elements that go into making a good restaurant.”

And what trends are coming to Prague?

“Nowadays there are more chefs from Prague that go abroad and then come back and use their experience to produce something different. Nowadays, you can see all kinds of things on the television, on the internet, buy recipe books, and the trends allcome here because Prague is in the middle of Europe.”

Is there a specific trend right now that you have noticed?

“Right now, a lot of Czech chefs are doing modern Czech cuisine, they are playing with the ingredients and are making lighter, more modern dishes, on the level of international fine dining, so that’s very popular right now. There are lots of trends and it’s difficult to say what is the trend in Prague.”

And if we look back at when the country was just coming out of communism, I remember I ate a pizza topped with ketchup and peas at a small place in Smíchov, do you remember any scary dishes you ate here?

“I won’t call it scary, if you travel a lot, you will know what the original food is supposed to be. But if you do not, you just eat what you like to eat, you eat pizza with ketchup, and the Italians will tell you that you are crazy, but if people in Prague like it, and me, too, I put other sauces on my pizza, so I won’t call it a crazy thing because it depends on the culture, on the taste of the people in the country. In Indonesia, it’s the same, we have a Southern taste, you will find pizza with Asian ingredients there, which the Italians won’t find normal, but for us, it is the way we eat, so I don’t think it’s crazy, I think it’s innovative, based on the country’s taste.”

Have you had many celebrities that you have cooked for?

“Not here at the Hilton, not until now, but at the Mandarin Oriental, because it is a prestige hotel, so we had celebrities there a lot and artists, and lots of famous people, I can’t mention all of them because it was so many, but probably the most important was the Dalai Lama when he was here, and the also the family of Robert de Niro when he was here.”

What does the Dalai Lama like to eat?

“Everyone will be surprised when I tell you what the Dalai Lama likes to eat, but he likes his Spaghetti Bolognese, believe it or not.”