No dumplings please, we’re Czech – local cuisine throws off shackles of drab past

Andrea Accordi

The Czech capital Prague has just become the first city in the former eastern bloc to receive a coveted Michelin star. The world-renowned guide to fine dining singled out the city's Allegro restaurant - located inside the Four Seasons Hotel - for dishes such as "yellow-fin tuna caramelised with ginger on panzanella tartar with sesame seeds, red onion and orange and sour tomato sorbet". It's a far cry from goulash and dumplings. But as Rob Cameron finds out in Talking Point, the standard of Czech cuisine is very much on the up.

It's a quarter to twelve inside the kitchen of Prague's Allegro restaurant, and Italian master chef Andrea Accordi is checking everything's in order before the lunchtime rush.

The soft-spoken, 31-year-old chef from Verona has only been here for eight months and his delicate brand of Italian cuisine has already won the Allegro a coveted Michelin star. It's actually his second - the first came at the Villa La Vedetta in Florence - but this is the first Michelin star to grace the much-maligned menus of Prague and indeed any city in former communist Central and Eastern Europe. Andrea says people's expectations of food across Europe - east and west - are changing.

“People are travelling, and when they come back they expecting the same food, same quality of food, same quality and high standard they see around the world. And I wish all the guests will go to Italy! So they really know what eating means. Have a seat, enjoy, don't bother yourself to any other thing, just focus on the food, appreciate flavour, everything. That's very important. If I go out to eat at a special restaurant I don't go because I'm hungry. I just go because I really want to eat the cuisine of the chef. What the chef is making.”

It's fair to say that until recently few Czechs were devotees of fine cuisine. Traditional Czech food is hearty and filling - peasant food, meant to sustain hungry labourers as they toiled the frozen fields. That explains the plethora of pork and dumplings and potatoes...and more pork. Czech menus are full of dishes with no-nonsense carnivorous names - Executioner's Swipe, Giblet Soup, and the gruesome-sounding Bloody Head Cheese.

But all that is changing, and fast. Prague is full of international restaurants. Fresh ingredients from every corner of the globe now cram the supermarket shelves. And a generation of Czech chefs are rediscovering the delicate cuisine of their predecessors, giving the likes of Andrea Accordi and Allegro a real run for their money.

Across town, another Andrea, this time a female one - Andrea Petříková - explains the philosophy behind her restaurant - the Černý Kohout or Black Rooster, which she runs with her husband Vojtěch:

“The most important for us is to give the best service with old Czech cuisine, perfect service, perfect food. To have a good atmosphere, nice dinner, because my husband is very interested in food, in cooking, he studies a lot of international restaurants, we visit a lot of colleagues, that's why.”

To get the expert's opinion on the Black Cockerel's cuisine I invited Evan Rail - Prague-based restaurant critic for the New York Times among others - to dinner.

“You have what I think is called technically a timbale. It's a small tower, shaped like a cylinder, topped with some really beautiful looking cuts of lamb. Oh wow, and dressed you've got a salad on the side, that's probably fresh spring vegetables dressed in a light cream sauce, or a Hollandaise.”

I'm glad you remembered all that because I certainly didn't! What did you order Evan?

“I ordered the quail and actually I don't see the quail because on my plate instead I have a large bun, it looks like a big roll topped with black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, it's perfectly caramelised, a lovely golden brown, and I believe the quail is inside it.”

We shall find out if the quail is inside it and what the lamb is like. It certainly smells absolutely fantastic.

“Look at this! So inside this lovely - I guess you'd have to call it a brioche rather than a bun - is a lovely cut of quail meat which is known for being very fragrant, and it's also got a nice piece of foie gras, so it's sending the juices from the foie gras through the quail, inside this crisp brioche bread, with a nice piece of raddichio on the side and some more spring carrots. Really not bad for what you would call Central European meat and potatoes food.”

This is really not how I imagined Czech food could ever be to be honest.

“No. Well, it's not how Czech food often is. But it is how Czech food often is at home. I found that Czech food is very good in Czech houses. And you rarely find that in restaurants, and you rarely find that in pubs.”

Why is that?

“Well I believe that the food was dumbed down, standardised, and brought down to a lower level. You know all of the pubs, all of the restaurants under communism were classified by number. And they served standardised recipes with standardised ingredients. And I think that part of what we're recovering from is the sort of standardisation of the way things taste. Now, instead, the dish I'm looking at on my plate wouldn't be out of place in any restaurant in any capital city in Europe, and I mean Paris, I mean London. It's beautiful. But we're in a Czech restaurant, and this is Czech food."

So you think Czech food is now beginning to break free from the shackles of the past.

“Yes, I believe so. There are these wonderful cookbooks. About the same time as Brillat-Savarin in France was writing his great Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste), there was a Czech lady called Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová writing a cookbook here. Her book, written in 1826 I believe, explains all about Czech food and how to cook it and it includes a lot of ingredients that disappeared later. Some of the ingredients are a little weird. She would say – ‘Gather twenty thrushes or other small songbirds…’ Sometimes she assumes that people know how to cook. She’ll say something like – ‘Get half a bull. Cook it in the usual way…’”

Exactly where do you cook half a bull…

“Yes, and what is ‘the usual way’? Do you boil it? Do you steam it? Is it poached perhaps?...Anyway I’m optimistic for the future in the sense that I think that by returning to the past, Czech cuisine is going to find its way forward. It’s not like we’re trying to invent something new here. It’s not like Czech restaurants are trying to discover the wheel. It’s rather that they’re going to have to go back and find the great things that they knew, sixty or seventy or a hundred years ago. A lot of the restaurants are doing that, and the food is incredibly good.”

A TV chef on a Budapest-based cooking channel called Paprika explains an intricate recipe to the viewers in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It's a popular station in these parts, and a sign - as Evan says - that the region is slowly recovering from four decades of drab communist uniformity. This is really not about Michelin stars. This is about a whole region rediscovering the lost pleasure of food.