Legendary Prague deli chef, Jan Paukert, dies at 91

Jan Paukert, photo: CTK

On Thursday the Czech Republic lost one of its oldest culinary personalities, heir to the First-Republic delicatessen that bares his name: Jan Paukert. Credited with the “invention” of one of the staples of the traditional Czech menu, the chlebíček, a kind of open sandwich on one piece of bread, Mr Paukert’s family delicatessen was also a hub for high-society in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Jan Paukert,  photo: CTK
In its heyday in the 1920s, Paukert’s delicatessen on Národní Street in Prague was considered one of the top such establishments in Europe – a standard-bearer of quality and the place where the crème de la crème of the day got their French cheeses, foie gras and fine spirits. Even today it remains one of the only places in Prague where you can procure either a gourmet sandwich or a 40,000-crown bottle of Armagnac.

Today the main thing that Paukert’s Deli is known for is its “chlebíčky” – open sandwiches with a hotchpotch of meats and cheeses that Jan Paukert is often credited with creating and that have become the quintessential Czech snack.

Mr. Paukert’s parents started the family deli in 1916. He prepared to continue in the business when he came of age during WWII, working at famous hotels, like the Grand Hotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. But after the communist coup d’etat in 1948 the family’s enterprise was nationalised and their home confiscated. While he worked as a labourer for the next forty years, his deli continued to bring its state owners a large patronage, who still called it by its well-established name, “U Paukerta”.

When the deli was restituted after the fall of communism, it was taken up by Mr. Paukert’s son-in-law, Richard Švec, who has been keen to restore its former glory and he’s been doing so by the book: not only is the atmosphere authentic, the Paukerts had the old recipes subjected to analyses to make sure their roast beef and duck galantine is as close as possible to that which graced the table of the first president of the new republic, T. G. Masaryk, in the 1920s.

Jan Paukert died of a short but serious illness on Thursday at the age of 91. His memorial service will be held next week.