Czech chefs serve goulash on Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge

Reports about the floods dominated the news from this country throughout September. One of the inevitable side-effects was a decline in the number of tourists who visit the Czech Republic. Recently Czech chefs decided to change that and let the tourists know that they are still here for them and cooking good food. To prove it, several hundred chefs gathered on Prague's famous Charles Bridge and served goulash and Pilsner beer to passers by. Daniela Lazarova was there and has a special report in this week's Magazine.

Prague's famous Charles Bridge -which dates back to 1357 -has witnessed many unusual events. However I am fairly certain that it had not before witnessed a gathering of several hundred chefs - dressed in starched white uniforms and chefs' hats - offering passers by goulash and Pilsner beer. There's a Czech saying that goes "laska prochazi zaludkem" -or love passes through the stomach which means: if you want to attract someone - give them a good meal.

Well, Czech cooks do want to attract someone - tourists from around the world who fled the city during the devastating floods last month and who have been hesitant to come back. Zdenek Pohlreich is executive chef at Prague's Renaissance Hotel :

"This event was actually meant as a message to the world that Prague is still cooking ; that restaurants are open . We haven't drowned, we're still here. All those cooks have gathered here to show that our business is still alive."

Charles Bridge has turned white with cooks. Can you tell me how many cooks there are here today?

"It is hard to say. It was supposed to be about 1000 people and I think we've come close to that number."

A thousand cooks?

"Yes, yes. A thousand chefs altogether."

Can you tell me what you are serving?

"The catering here is provided by some hotels. Corinthia Towers apparently and of course the beer is provided by Pilsner Urquell. But this was just goulash and bread - very easy."

Would you be kind enough to give me your recipe for goulash?

/Laughter from Pohlreich and chefs standing nearby/ " It's very easy actually. Just a base with some onions, garlic, paprika, a little tomato puree, beef . Some spices to make it sharper....There are many different recipes for goulash so you start off with the base and the rest is about each individual."

Can you tell me what people enjoy eating most when they come to Prague ?

"Most of the tourists like to sample the Czech cuisine when they first come -though a lot of it is relatively heavy. Italian cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in most restaurants around here. But I think that almost every cuisine is present in Prague today. Definitely many restaurants have a strong Italian accent."

What Czech food would you offer a foreign tourist who wanted to taste something traditional?

"Well, there is that cornerstone of Czech cuisine -the dumpling - which is a side order for most Czech dishes . I don't think you can find that in too many other places - maybe Austria or Germany. The roast duck is always a good choice, and a typical Czech is the traditional "svickova" which is beef braced in cream sauce. Roast pork is popular and also some poultry dishes."

We have some specialties that some cooks are worried we might lose when we join the EU. How do you feel about that?

"I wouldn't be too worried about it. There are some things that are really only made in the Czech Republic, but I saw on the news recently that it shouldn't be a problem. I don't think there's a danger of the Czech cuisine losing its accent. It'll stay, although Czech cuisine will probably have to undergo some change -be more modernized, lighter. Some restaurants are already working on that . It is going to be like any other cuisine in the world - retaining its own flavor but open to foreign influence."

Has the Czech hotel and restaurant business lost a lot of clients due to the floods?

"Thank God, our two hotels were not affected . We could see the water rise but we stayed dry. But of course it has been a blow for the tourist industry. Most tourist sites and attractions were heavily flooded so there was no reason for tourists to come to town. There were some shocking reports on CNN, some shocking pictures ...and we want to prove that it is not as bad as it might seem sometimes. You can see the activity everywhere...people trying to bring businesses back to life. Of course this season is lost but in the next one Prague is going to be as beautiful as ever."

How has the Czech restaurant business changed over the past ten years? You're a must have been abroad...?

"It has actually changed tremendously . It used to be very rigid. Not allowing much creativity. We were all cooking from the same books. The food supply, especially the vegetable supply, was very limited - close to non-existent. I can compare because I spent more than 20 years in the business . I used to cook in the old Czech Republic and now I'm cooking in the modern era and everything is there. You can buy anything you want. It is up to each individual what talent they have and what they make of it...Restaurants have mushroomed all over Prague...It has changed very, very much for the better."

You cater to different tastes. Does that mean you have had training abroad?

"I actually left the country a short time before the revolution , traveled around the world, spent some time in Europe and overseas before coming back in the early 90s. There are a lot of people like me who've been abroad and brought back different cultures, also foreigners brought different tastes, opened new restaurants. The restaurant scene has changed very much . It is difficult to recognize the old tradition. This city has become beautiful. It is fantastic. Restaurants everywhere. I like Prague these days more than ever before. For those people who saw it in the old days it's a dramatic change. It's really hard to describe it."

What did you pick up abroad - was there any special field you were interested in?

"I spent about three years in Australia and I really fell in love with the fish dishes, the fresh sea-food supply, the fresh vegetables and all these things. So I like to prepare fish these days. It's very versatile. I like preparing fish and sea food best of all now. A lot of people may argue that Prague is not a good place to eat fish or sea food but I would argue with that because it is just a couple of hours away from places commonly recognized as fish and seafood places. Our lobster -it takes eight hours to get here - I don't think that makes much difference."

What about the quality of service? I know that is not strictly your department....

"Yes, but I know what you are talking about. Service is becoming extremely important for restaurant success these days. A lot of restaurants are able to cook reasonably good food . The service lags behind. It should be a lot better . There's a huge demand for good service personnel and it is still hard to find. This country doesn't really have a long tradition. Right? Quality service has not been present. If you are working for an international chain there are certain standards which you comply with but there are a lot of places where it is absent. People don't have it in their blood. They need to experience it when they go abroad and then they bring this experience back and... it will work one day. It's not going to stay this way for ever. I know there are a lot of complaints about service here but I wouldn't be pessimistic . It has all been developing nicely so...."

Do you think that beer is a big attraction to people who come to the Czech Republic?

"I don't know if it is a big attraction but it is certainly the best beer in the world and that says it all."

How do you feel about Czech pub culture? There's a lot said about that...

"I don't think it is about pubs. It is about people sitting in the pubs. You can have good and bad experiences. You can find plenty of nice pubs and there are lots of new ideas, new concepts, people trying to keep the old tradition of good food and beer provided in a nice, clean atmosphere. It's like anywhere in the world. Sometimes you find great places in a hidden corner and if you know where to go you will find exciting places with good food, great beer and a nice atmosphere. But you need to know where to go."

You are a connoisseur of the first class -where are your favourite haunts?

"We usually go to the Golden Tiger. It is just around the corner from here /Charles Bridge/ . They have great Pilsner Urquel -the best I've ever tasted. The place has been kept the same way for years and years and years . The waiters have been there for twenty years, the bartender 's been there for 25 years they know what to do. And that's where we go."

And what do you order?

"We usually go for the beer and we don't need too much with that ! We just have some pub food, like some schnitzel . What I like about it is that it is very, very consistent . The beer is great, the service is exactly as it should be. And it's always packed. If you don't make a reservation it is very difficult to get into that place ."

So, when you are in Prague, you'll know where to go - the Renaissance Hotel has plenty of fish specialties to offer - courtesy of its chef Mr. Pohlreich -and as far as pubs go - the Golden Tiger comes highly recommended. Unfortunately, I can't promise you goulash and beer on Charles Bridge -but I must say that they tasted great out in the open.....and disappeared in no time at all. Interview with British tourists on Charles Bridge:

Married couple:

Do you know what this is all about ?

"We understand it is to encourage the tourists to come back to Prague after the floods - is that right ? "

Yes, its Czech cooks saying we haven't all drowned . We're still here cooking for you....

" Yes, yes, we'll tell people when we go back home....just to say that the food's good and everything's OK 'cause people have doubted it haven't they with the floods and all that but obviously the restaurants are good now."

Have you enjoyed yourselves?

"Very much. Yes. We missed the food though, we were too late!" /laughter/

Have you tried the beer?

"My husband has!"

Have a nice stay!

...Can you tell me how you are enjoying your stay in the city?

"Oh, very much so. It is lovely. We came here yesterday so this is our first full day and it has been lovely so far. And we are going to be doing the Castle tomorrow."

What about the food have you tried the beer?

"Oh yeah!" /both burst into peals of laughter/

Well, that should be enough as far as recommendation goes.....Czechs don't mind how you express your appreciation of their beer. As long as you are happy....