Confectioner Mirka van Gils Slavíková: “Baking is my partner for life“

Mirka van Gils Slavíková, photo: Barbora Němcová

Mirka van Gils Slavíková is a Czech-born confectioner, holder of the prestigious French diploma Master of Confectionery Arts. She launched her successful career in 1980’s Communist Czechoslovakia, but the country soon became too small for her dreams. She first moved to South Africa and later to the United States, where she ran a popular pastry store. Today, Mirka van Gils Slavíková lives in Holland, and besides baking, she also appears on various TV programmes, writes books and teaches. She is currently one of the judges on the Czech edition of the popular show the Great British Bake-Off.

Mirka van Gils Slavíková,  photo: Barbora Němcová
When she visited our studio I first asked her if she still has a sweet tooth after more than four decades of baking.

“Of course, because without a passion for sweet things I couldn’t be in my profession. That makes sense.”

So even after a day of baking, you still feel like having something sweet at the end of the day?

“It is not about eating the product, it is about creativity, about creating a new taste and flavour and combining them together. That is what I love about it.

“Of course I need to taste what I am making, because when I create a recipe, I need to be sure I am creating the taste that I have in mind.

“After 40 years in the profession, I actually I have what I call a taste memory in my head. So sometimes, I can create things without tasting, because I know that this clicks together.

“For me, it is an adventure and I think creating recipes is actually very artsy work.”

Is it true that you originally wanted to become a glass-maker? What made you change your mind and pursue the art of confectionery instead?

“That’s true and it was actually my father who made me change my mind. Not many kids have a clear vision about their future at the age of 15.

“My father was very pragmatic and realistic and wanted me to have something I could do for my whole life to secure a stable income.

“So he told me: go to the food industry, because people will always need to eat. And because you are creative, you will do the patisserie, because there you can use your creative potential. At first I was really angry with him.”

When did you start to enjoy it?

“When you are choosing your profession, you have to do it with your heart.”

“It took me one year. I am a Capricorn and they say that Capricorns either do things very precisely and pedantically or they don’t do anything at all.

“So I thought: I have no other choice and I started to dig deep into the profession and I discovered lots of artistic skill from the First Republic in old patisserie books.

“That’s when I started to be enthusiastic. That’s when I conceived my dream of going to France and becoming the best! Of course I am not that naïve today.”

You launched a successful career in the mid-1980s in what was still Communist Czechoslovakia. Why did you decide to leave the country?

“My first success came when I was 18. It was a competition called SOTMO, it was my first international competition for patisseries in Krakow, and I won, although I was the youngest captain of the team.

“So success came quite fast, but back then borders were closed and I had this dream of going to France. But how could I reach France if I stayed in the country? So it was a logical choice for me.”

Why did you choose South Africa of all places?

“That really had nothing to do with confectionery. When I was a child, my father was planting tropical plants. We had a large greenhouse and we even grew our own oranges and bananas.

“I was raised close to nature and up to this day I have a huge respect for it. So I had no other option. I had to go to South Africa because of the nature.”

Photo: Barbora Němcová

What was it like, starting all over again?

“When we flew to South Africa with my husband and daughter, we already had a job secured. But I had a different problem. When we landed in Johannesburg, all I understood was: Johannesburg, good morning. That was all. I didn’t speak a word of English. So that was my beginning in South Africa.”

What kind of pastries did you bake in South Africa?

“First of all, I need to say that whenever I moved during my life, I first tried to learn what they were doing and only then did I try to pitch our own Czech patisseries.

“I am quite proud that up to this day, they are selling a dessert called Heart of Prague in Johannesburg and Pretoria, which is in fact what we call žloutkové věnečky or Pates a Choux. Such a simple dessert and it is still being sold there today!”

You returned to the Czech Republic only to move to the US. Why didn’t you stay in your homeland?

“Even at my age, I still continue learning new things.”

“I lived in South Africa for four years and I came back because my father died. But if once you leave the country for more than two years, you have a certain tension inside that urges you to go wandering again.

“Travelling opened up the whole world for me. I realised that there wasn’t just the border between the Czech Republic and Germany, but there was much more to see.

“The decision to leave Czechoslovakia for the US came naturally because the father of my boys was a Czech guy living in California. And my older boy was actually born there.”

You were already an established pastry chef and confectioner when you decided to further your education and you obtained a French Pastry Arts Diploma. Why did you decide to continue with your education?

“I think no one knows enough to stop educating themselves. All professions have some kind of development and they develop really fast. If I stop learning, how can I be successful and remain at the top?

“So that was an easy decision for me. And because I love chocolate, it made perfect sense to me.

“No matter what people say, the French bonbons are the best in the world. And I needed to know why. And even at my age, I still continue learning new things. I always say that once you stop improving yourself, it is your intellectual death.”

Mirka van Gils Slavíková,  photo: David Brázda,  CC BY-SA 4.0
You created tailor made pastries for many famous people, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, actor Daniel Craig. When you prepare desserts for such personalities, where do you look for inspiration?

“One of my side hobbies is psychology. And to create a perfect recipe for someone, you need to know who the person is.

“With Condoleeza Rice, people told me: you don’t have to be too precise with the dessert, she doesn’t eat sweets at all.

“But I read her biography and I found out that there was a point in her life when she was deciding between becoming a pianist or a politician. She chose politics, but in her soul, she remained a pianist.

“So I decided to make a very fine and gentle cheesecake, and after the dinner, she actually came to shake my hand and say thanks, which was a great honour for me.

“And the people told me that she slowly made her way through the dessert and she completely cleared her plate. And I thought: Yes, that’s it!

So that’s the biggest honour you could have received.

“I am not honoured just by praise from high-ranking people, but by anyone who gives me the impression that he or she is in seventh heaven by what I made. That is perfect.”

You are currently one of the jurors on the Czech edition of The Great British Bake-Off. What do you think about the Czech participants, when you compare them to people elsewhere?

“That’s an interesting question. I have to say that this is the first series, so none of us knew what to expect. The first 12 participants have my greatest respect.

“To be in front of so many cameras and to bake something –that is not easy at all. So all of them have succeeded, really.

“If I compare our Czech version with Britain or Holland I have the feeling they are not as creative, but on the other hand, we are a nation of improvisers, so I cannot say the Czech version is worse than the others. It is different.”

The reason I am asking is that you said in an interview that Czechs are a nation of bakers. Do you really think we have a special relationship to baking?

“I would definitely say so. I think it has a lot to do with history, when certain things were unavailable, so we had to create them ourselves.

Photo: archive of Mirka van Gils Slavíková
“Czech mothers tend to bake much more than mothers in Holland for example. That is such a rich country that it is normal that the weekends are spent in restaurants. But we still have that passion for the family sitting around one table. And that is fantastic.

“What is also very nice is that there are still many people who collect recipes from their grandmothers and grand-grandmothers. They are still using them and passing them on to their sons and daughters. I love that.”

Finally, what would you say is the secret behind your success?

“Love and passion. This is what I try to teach young people. When you are choosing your profession, you have to do it with your heart.

“You have to realize that your profession will be your partner for the rest of your life and you will spend much more time with your profession than with your partner.

“If you don’t love it and if you don’t have a passion for your work, it is misery. That’s what I think.

“You need to give it your all and I have been doing that, all my life. Sometimes I got angry and I wanted to divorce my profession, but I always ended up in the kitchen.

“When I am sad, I bake and when I am happy, I bake. So yes, it is my partner for life.”