Festival aims to embolden Czechs to try exotic foods, says founder Pavel Maurer

Pavel Maurer, photo: archive of Czech Radio

The 2015 Grand Restaurant Festival, an event that allows many to dine at the sort of high-end eateries they otherwise mightn’t be able to afford, has just kicked off in Prague and dozens of other Czech cities and towns. When we spoke, founder Pavel Maurer explained the thinking behind the popular festival – as well as discussing everything from foods Czechs are reluctant to try to his own “taste of childhood”.

Pavel Maurer,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“In 1997 we started to print a restaurant guide in this country, so it’s nearly 20 years ago.

“After some years our voters and also the people who like this guide sent us a lot of letters saying, We would like to try the restaurants that are in the Top 10 or Top 100, but it’s too expensive for us – we would like to have some opportunity.

“So we said, What will we do? Then in 2007 we started the first Prague Food Festival and in 2010 we opened the Grand Restaurant Festival.

“From that time every year we repeat the summer festival and the winter festival.

“The main idea was to give an opportunity to people to touch let’s say high gastronomy, to eat for the first time oysters or lobsters or some different fish or exotic food at a reduced price. That was the idea – just to give them this opportunity.”

You’re trying to cultivate a community of people interested in food, interested in going to restaurants?

“Yes, because in our work we meet a lot of people who are just afraid to try something different.

“I don’t know if we Czechs are so traditional or so conservative. I don’t know how it is in other countries.

“On the other hand, if I see Italians who are living here or Vietnamese people, they are still also close to their food. So maybe we are not so different.

“But from the statistical point of view, if you ask what are the top five dishes in this country it’s dumplings, svíčková, wiener schnitzel, goulash… so we are very conservative.

“A lot of people are just afraid to try new fish, new foods. So we try to give them the opportunity to try sushi, to try Japanese food, to try Vietnamese food, Chinese.”

What do the restaurants get out of taking part in the Grand Restaurant Festival?

Photo: archive of Grand Restaurant Festival
“I hope they enjoy many things about taking part in this festival. One thing that is very important is that we do it from January 15 until the end of February, which is a poor time from the economic point of view.

“After Christmas time people don’t spend so much money and the restaurants appreciate that they have a lot of guests. This is one thing.

“Another thing is that the menu is done before the festival starts so it’s clear what you will be eating.

“For a cook that’s a very comfortable situation, knowing what they will cook, how many portions. From the economic point of view, this is sure business, so that’s why they participate.

“And of course, last but not least, it gives them a lot of advertising, because we do a big advertising campaign around the Czech Republic – on internet media and also on the classic city lights, billboards and so on.

“For many restaurants which are, for example, freshly opened it’s a way to let people know that they exist.”

The price is the same at all the restaurants [CZK 600 for a three course meal, including drinks], but the range in terms of the quality of the restaurants, or at least of the original price, varies a lot. How do you select the restaurants that take part?

“We try to select the most reliable restaurants. Also the majority are from our Top 100. So we really select the best restaurants which we can rely on.”

The most popular restaurant is La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise. How many places do they have in the festival? My girlfriend tried to book it – she stayed up ‘til midnight on the last day of November, but within minutes all the places were gone.

“This restaurant only gives us two places a day. We are very glad that we have this restaurant, with a Michelin star, in our festival.

“But the system of their service, and of this degustation [menu], is very special. You sometimes eat 14 courses, paired with wine and other drinks.

Illustrative photo: Fabio Arangio / freeimages
“The restaurant insists on keeping this system, so they never sell more tables – not only during the Grand Restaurant Festival but at any time you never can enter it and find all the tables full.

“And as to why it’s so difficult to get in...”

It seems almost cruel – it’s on the list but it’s virtually impossible to get in.

“Every year we have 50 to 70 places and those places are really sold out in the first five to seven minutes on the night when we start to sell them. But I don’t know which people are so quick and so smart to get the places. I don’t know.”

What is your own favourite restaurant in Prague, could you say?

“I don’t have a favourite restaurant. I don’t want to have one. It’s very difficult for me to say which my favourite is because my work is to visit restaurants no more than two times a year.

“In any case, I’m not able to visit all the 700 restaurants which are listed in my book because of time.

“I must say I appreciate restaurants which really give you value for money, which are not so fancy, so snobby, where you don’t have 10 knives and 10 forks on the table. I appreciate being more relaxed at a restaurant.”

People say that Czech cuisine has improved a lot in recent years. Is that a broad trend? Or is it happening only in a select few high-end, better quality restaurants?

“I also see a lot of restaurants outside of Prague – in villages, in the forest, in remote places – that are growing, that are improving.

“I see that the chefs or the cooks have more opportunities to travel, so they can come with new inspiration.

“That’s one thing. On the other hand, the customers also travel more, so they would like to taste what they’ve seen or tasted in some other places.

“Another thing is that we have had in the last several years a big boom in farmers’ markets.

Illustrative photo: Clint Rankin / freeimages
“Many restaurants are now proud to put on their menus that a lot of ingredients have a clear curriculum vitae: where the cow is from, where the lamb is from, that they have cheese from some particular farm, or they have some organic food, organic vegetables.

“So I see great progress.”

The variety of cuisines that are available in this country has also increased hugely. But are there still some kinds of exotic cuisines that Czechs are wary of, that they’re afraid of trying?

“I think that we are not so prepared to eat raw fish. Also mussels or oysters are not so common…”

Which is also geographical, I’m sure.

“It’s geographical, of course. It’s also expensive for people. I meet a lot of people who have tried those foods at our festival, because they were available and they were not so expensive.

“They told me, If we go normally to a restaurant and spend a lot of money [on such foods] we are not sure what we will get. But if we go to the festival, it’s not so risky for us.”

Is price still the main criterion for Czech people when they go to restaurants? I often get the impression that price comes first.

“Unfortunately, the tradition of this country, if you look at it statistically, is that 80 percent of people prefer to have a full plate of food.

“They don’t care about the quality of the ingredients. They don’t care very much about the taste. They put a lot of salt and pepper on it. And if the price is low, they think this is the right way to eat.”

When it comes to classic Czech dishes, everybody tells me that they’re better when they’re home cooked. Would you agree?

“I don’t agree, because if you’re talking about the most popular meal in this country, it’s svíčková na smetaně, which I don’t know how you exactly…”

It’s hard to translate. It [svíčková] is translated sometimes as sirloin, but I think it isn’t really sirloin.

Svíčková,  photo: CzechTourism
“Sirloin is a kind of meat, but in our country if you say svíčková it means a kind of sauce which is very specific… And if you ask how many kinds of svíčková you can find in this country, it’s a million kinds. Every family does it in a different way.

“So you can’t say that people cook it better at home than in a restaurant. I think if you go to a restaurant and you would like svíčková, you are expecting some standard, obvious taste.

“But if you go to three different homes, you will get three different svíčkovás”.

Have you got a favourite home Czech dish?

“No [laughs]. We don’t cook many Czech dishes at home.”

You don’t have any comfort food from your childhood, or food that you associate with home?

“I grew up in Moravia in my grandmother’s house with a very big garden, so I was used to having vegetable soups, like minestrone. We had excellent vegetables from our garden.

“My mother and my grandmother made sauce from cucumbers, with dumplings, no meat.

“This is something which I still have in my taste buds. I’ll never forget this taste.”