Celebrity chef laments current Czech food culture
In his weekly TV show “Ano, šéfe!” or “Yes, Boss!,” Zdeněk Pohlreich sets restaurant owners straight. Some might say he is the closest equivalent that the Czech Republic has to Gordon Ramsay. And the Czech celebrity chef has some authority on the topic: he started cooking in 1975, then left the country shortly after the Velvet Revolution and spent some time working abroad. Since returning home, he has applied what he calls “the Western standard of cooking and service” to a number of restaurants around Prague. Zdeněk Pohlreich’s current operation is the restaurant in the city’s famous Hotel Imperial, where he talked about why so many restaurants fail at producing decent food.
What was some of the worst food that you have had to try when you were shooting episodes for the show?
“I can remember an incredible pasta gratin with broccoli, that you wouldn’t even serve in a prison probably, that was the most awful thing I have seen on the plate, you couldn’t even really talk about cooking in this case, it was pure garbage. Just imagine penne overcooked until it looses its shape, some overcooked broccoli and then some cheap cheese on top of it, and then all of that thrown under a grill and served.
In terms of the service side of things, do you think there’s still a lot left to catch up with, compared to the West?
“I am afraid that the Czechs are just not born to work in service, a lot of them still find it humiliating or frustrating. They don’t realize how important good service is. Thank god, or who knows, maybe not, but with so many restaurants closing down these days, there is a higher demand for a good waiter’s position and now there are some people available on the market. When we first opened two years ago, we could have posted an ad and waited for months without getting a single reply. Now that’s changing. Sooner or later, people will value that they can find a good job in service that they can make a decent living off of. But service is still very basic in a lot of places. What I’m missing in many restaurants is just a certain feel. I don’t care if you serve the food from the left or the right hand side, for me, what’s important is that someone gives me a smile and creates some sort of atmosphere, and very often, it’s not the case.”
So what do you think has changed since twenty years ago, since the Velvet Revolution- maybe as far as ingredients being available are concerned and cuisine in general?
You mentioned locally manufactured products. It certainly seems to have been a trend in recent years elsewhere to shop locally. Do you think that’s something that will eventually arrive here, too?
Why do you think that is? It seems a bit strange.
“I just don’t think there are enough producers. What would help would be a spot where the general public could have access to food and produce, that would also increase the demand for it a lot. Who rules the food market in this country are the supermarket chains, no doubt about it. They basically dictate the price and kill the manufacturers, and they don’t have any other place to sell their stuff, so they end up working for the supermarkets.”
I’ve been noticing that there is sort of a trend to go back to cooking traditional Czech food, but with an emphasis on good execution and making it from quality ingredients. There are a few restaurants that offer this type of cooking. Do you think that’s also something people at home still do, say, make knedliky from scratch or taking the time to make a good svíčková?
What do you think is replacing it, are there any larger trends or developments?
“In the better cases it’s probably replaced by Italian, sort of pan-European cooking, but unfortunately in too many cases, it’s being replaced by pure garbage. That’s what people are stuffing their faces with.”