Pavel Maurer: the Czech Republic’s gourmet crusader
Our guest for One on One this week is Pavel Maurer, who is arguably the Czech Republic’s best known and most influential gourmet. Besides establishing the highly successful Prague Food Festival, which every year gives people a chance to sample the fare of the Czech capital’s best restaurants for rock-bottom prices, Pavel Maurer is also the man behind the highly respected Grand Restaurant guide.
For over a decade now, this book has compiled lists of the best restaurants in the Czech Republic based on reports from ordinary diners. It is considered by many to be the most trustworthy restaurant guide in this country and has undoubtedly helped raise standards in the rapidly evolving Czech catering industry by encouraging restaurateurs to lift their game in order to be included in the publication. We started by asking Pavel what first inspired him to publish his Grand Restaurant guide:
“Around 1995 or 1996, a very short time after the Velvet Revolution, I saw a lot of changes in this country, not just in its political life but in the gastronomic sphere as well.
“It was very interesting for people to see other food besides typical Czech cuisine. Before the Velvet Revolution, you only had a chance to taste three different types of food besides the local Czech fare.
“There was one Indian restaurant, one Chinese restaurant and one Russian restaurant. And to give you an example of what things were like: if you wanted to get a table in this one Chinese restaurant in Prague, you had to book it at least a month in advance.
“So it was very interesting that a lot of Italian restaurants started appearing along with plenty of Chinese, Vietnamese and even English restaurants, etc.
“A lot of restaurants emerged and I and a group of people decided that we would like to come up with some sort of map or evaluation system for the restaurant scene, which we could use to recommend places to each other.”
In the years since you set up your gourmet guide to Prague, how would you describe the development of the catering industry in the Czech Republic?
“Now. 11 years later, you can try more than 40 different cuisines, ranging from Japanese, Thai and Indonesian food to Irish and Jewish cuisine.
“I think you can really compare Prague to other European cities now in terms of the variety of food on offer.
“I’m not saying the quality is there yet. Naturally, we cannot compare with London or Paris, but in terms of the range of food on offer, I think we are in a very good position.”
Speaking of the standard of the food on offer here, one typical benchmark for the quality of restaurants a city has is the number of establishments with Michelin stars. Prague still doesn’t have a single Michelin star to its name. Why do you think that’s the case?
“I know the Michelin inspectors came to this country one or two years ago and that they are still observing. I think the Michelin inspectors are going to be a little bit careful before they give any stars to a former socialist country, because it’s a matter of some prestige for them.
“I think the first step was taken last year, when they recommended some restaurants, not just in the Czech Republic, but in Poland and Hungary as well. I think that they are now observing how things will evolve in the future and that we are very close to getting some stars.
“By the way, here in Prague, there are now a lot of chefs who have already cooked in Michelin-star restaurants in Europe. So they already have some experience of these standards and hopefully some stars will soon be awarded.”
In what areas does Czech dining still lag behind the restaurant scenes of other countries?
“In the United States, for example, if you are a waiter you have more personal interest in taking care of your guests because you are also getting a lot of tips. Tips are nearly a duty in countries like the States.
“In the Czech Republic, however, this is not the case. So the waiters aren’t motivated by tips. That’s one thing.
“Another thing is the fact that Czech people who go to restaurants are still not prepared to pay for the quality of the produce. If they order fish, they don’t care if it’s fresh or frozen. And if it’s fresh, they are not prepared to pay twice or three times the price for it.
“So attitudes need to change for this to improve.”
And would it not simply be the case that most ordinary Czechs still cannot afford to pay extra for good food in restaurants?
“She told me that she has a customer who drives a car worth four million crowns, but that he wasn’t prepared to spend a thousand crowns on a good meal.
“This is also something of a mindset with many people. They don’t mind investing in a good jacket or a nice holiday or a beautiful car, but they don’t care what they eat even though eating good food is more important for their lives.
“This is a very big mental block people have.”
And what about Czech cuisine? It doesn’t have the best of reputations. As a food expert, so to speak, what local specialities should visitors coming to the Czech Republic make sure to try?
“We say our typical food is dumplings with cabbage and pork, but I’m sure if you asked a German he would say that this was German food.
“The same applies to goulash, which is the second popular food in the Czech Republic. This is a typical Hungarian dish.
“The same applies to the schnitzel. It’s actually a Wiener (Viennese) schnitzel not a Czech schnitzel.
“I think we must view Czech cuisine as the food of a country that formerly belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which comprised a lot of different countries thrown together.”
“That’s why you see big Hungarian, Balkan and German influences. Jewish cuisine also had a big impact, especially on Prague.
“I think our cuisine is a mixture of all these influences. The only food that could be seen as a typical Czech dish, which you can’t find anywhere else, could be beef served with dumplings and a special sauce called svickova.
“Svickova is hard to describe, but it’s essentially a combination of milk, flour and some vegetables, which are mixed together to produce a kind of sweet-and-sour sauce, which is a very traditional Czech speciality.”
And what Czech dish would you yourself go for?
“If people go to Bordeaux, they first order some wine and then think about what food they will have to go with it.
I’d recommend food that goes down well with the beer, such as pork, cabbage and dumplings.”