Paul Day – owner of Prague’s newly opened and much praised Asian fusion restaurant Sansho

Paul Day

Paul Day was born and raised in Stafford, in the UK’s West Midlands, where he started working as a butcher, his first food industry job. After working in two Michelin-starred restaurants in London, the chef came to Prague and has recently opened a restaurant of his own, Sansho. In its first weeks of being open, the Asian fusion restaurant quickly became the one place everyone was talking about – and now, Sansho is fully booked most days – even at lunch. I met the chef at the restaurant, where he told me about the flavors that fascinate him, how Prague’s dining scene differs from London’s, and what first sparked his interest in food and cooking.

Paul Day
“At the age of 13, I started to work at the local butcher’s shop, while I was still at school. And that really pushed me into the food industry. Early childhood memories are, some strange things actually … I always remember mashed potatoes with tomato ketchup, the hot and cold. I was always interested in hot and cold things in my mouth.”

When did you actually start cooking professionally?

“I stayed at the butcher’s shop after school as well, and that at the age of eighteen and a half, I owned my own butcher’s shop, which I sold, to move to London to become a chef. And I ended up working in Chinatown for nearly three years, as a Chinese butcher, in a big supermarket. I think I am still the only English guy to have held that position, but they taught me how to use a wok, and how to roast a duck, I speak some Cantonese.

“And I amassed a massive knowledge of South-East Asian ingredients, and I also worked in a few restaurants while I was there. There was a chef who was opening a big restaurant in Waldorf Street, a Pacific Room Restaurant, he promoted me over the next three months and then in the first six months, I became sous-chef there, and in the control of the wok section. And I really loved it there, it was great.”

You worked as senior sous chef at Nobu, a Michelin-starred restaurant that the Observer once dubbed “The World’ Sexiest Restaurant”. Surely, cooking at this level must be a high-pressure job. Can you tell me a bit about your experience working there?

“Up until opening Sansho, it was the best time I had career-wise. It was amazing. We had so much fun and we were cooking at a very high level and for a lot of people, sometimes 450 people in the evening and a couple of hundred for lunch. We had about twenty chefs on every service, and I said to all of them, people ask about the pressure and how it is to work in the kitchen, it’s pretty… the easiest way to explain it is to say fourteen hours a day is nothing at all and it goes pretty quickly, but all of a sudden, two minutes can be a very long time. That’s how it is.

“But chefs are born to be chefs, and I live it. It’s a big adrenalin rush. We were on such a high all the time. We had to come up with something new every day, we weren’t allowed to repeat ourselves, so I had, for the first time in my cooking career, so much creative freedom. I think back on it very fondly.”

So after spending such a great time there, what then brought you to Prague?

“After Nobu, I went and took a job with David Thompson at Naam, and I worked with him for some time. We gained one Michelin, and I think it is the only Thai restaurant in the world to have one star. He is a real master. The reason why I came to Prague is to be an executive chef in Prague’s first members’ club, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out. But anyway, it brought me to Prague, and here I am, sitting in my own restaurant. And I feel pretty happy, a little tired. But I really, really like being in Prague, it’s great.

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“I’m very interested in the changing Czech palate, I am in business with a bio farmer in Jihlava, so I am helping to reinstate the lost art of butchery in the Czech Republic, and unfortunately it was completely wiped out during communism. So I am really happy to be here, I love the city, my parents come over very often, they are still in the UK, and they like it here as well, so that’s good.”

What would you say are some of the differences between the restaurant scene in London and the one here in Prague?

“The main differences are that there is so many what I call tourist restaurants here, and not enough honest restaurants, that’s the difference.”

How do you source your ingredients? And do you find it more difficult to find your ingredients here than in London?

“I’ve gone out of my way to use as much Czech produce as possible. I’m horrified by the amount of restaurants in the Czech Republic that advertise Uruguayan or Brazilian beef steaks, when that does actually exist here, it’s just a bit harder for chefs to get it, it’s much easier to have Uruguayan and Argentinean. So all of the protein that we are using is coming from the Czech republic at the moment, apart from the chickens. We’ve got two guys that will start farming chicken for us in the spring, next week actually.

“And then, I am pretty fortunate because the Czech Republic has such a huge Vietnamese population here. So there’s an airplane that comes twice a week from Hanoi city. It’s not very good for Sansho’s carbon footprint, but we have everything we need, fresh lemongrass, herbs, fish sauce. And I got one of my guests, who was in London last week, to pop by Chinatown for me and he picked up three tins of preserved black beans with ginger, so if people do that, then it makes it easier for me.”

You mentioned all the places you worked, and also looking at your menu, it’s very obvious that you are inspired by Asian flavors. Could you describe some of them and maybe explain how the cooking techniques differ from European ones?

“It’s not just wok cooking, the thing that I have always been fascinated by is the flavors and the textures. And how it all goes together, the balancing of Thai food is fantastic. There was a big boom when I was growing up about French food, and I never got into that. In the UK, we have a lot of Chinese take-aways and Thai restaurants, and that was always my favorite food. And when I had my butcher’s shop, I was always cooking at home for friends, and I used to cook occasionally at the local pub, I used to make curries.

“So I’ve always been interested in this form of cuisine. The cooking techniques we use are fun and exciting. We do a lot of steaming, braising, marinating, and brining. The beef rendang curry that I have on at the moment we cook for about fourteen hours, but it’s in the fridge for five days. It has twenty-one different ingredients and it gets cooked two different ways.

“The pork belly that I have on at the moment, with the black vinegar and three peppers, gets cooked five different ways over a three-day process. This is real serious cooking, and it is fun.”

Would you say that receiving favorable reviews on food blogs is a very important factor in getting people in the door?

“It is a very, very important factor. We have also had some really good reviews in the national press here. It is a factor. I am amazed at the amount of bloggers that come in and just take pictures of everything. Sometimes I wish they’d just have a bit more fun with the food, because it seems to be all taken too seriously. But they are writing very good things about us, so it must be a good thing.”

You mentioned the changing Czech palate earlier. Could you elaborate on that for me?

“What we do at Sansho, and what I am teaching all of the staff, is we guide our guests towards enjoyment. And our Czech customers, whom we have a lot of, are very easily guided, we don’t make the food intimidating at all. And my Czech clientele are really, really happy with the food. And it makes me so happy, it’s great. Everyone is really enjoying it, and I think that the local Czech people are quite happy that Sansho is here.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on May 2, 2011.