The sweet life of Josef Maršálek – from Harrod’s pastry chef to ‘Great Czech Bake Off’ judge

Josef Maršálek, photo: Elena Horálková / Czech Radio

Josef Maršálek was born in a tiny Moravian village where half the residents were his direct relatives – and the nearest shop, let alone patisserie, was beyond walking distance. Yet, his early love of baking would one day lead him to become head pastry chef at the world-famous Harrod’s department store in London. Now, after a sabbatical of sorts in India, he’s back in Prague, gearing up to co-host the Czech version of the wildly popular show the Great British Bake Off.

Josef Maršálek,  photo: Elena Horálková / Czech Radio
By his own admission, Josef Maršálek, a burly man with a mane of curly brown hair and a wild beard to match it, has a bit of “an ego problem” – so much so that despite his prominence in the world of pastries, Czech public television nearly rejected him as a co-host of its upcoming series “Peče celá země” – which loosely translates as “the whole country is baking” but is strictly modelled after the BBC original. The producers were afraid he would “suck up all the oxygen in the room”, overshadowing the bake-off contestants.

I caught up with Chef Josef in the immaculate kitchen of his Vinohrady flat, where a tantalising bowl of chocolate-dusted treats was laid out between us. I began by asking him how a kid from Kyžlířov ending up baking for royalty – from the Emperor of Japan to the Queen of England – and a host of celebrities, from Sir Elton John to Czech footballer Patrik Schick.

“Actually, it (Kyžlířov) was not even a town. It’s a tiny little village with about 150 people living there. And more than half is my family and actually all of them have the same surname.

“It was a beautiful childhood. I was born in 1982, and even though it was a communist government, in a way in brought stability to people. Then, of course, the Velvet Revolution came, privatisation came, and my grandparents decided to get their land back and started farming along with their children, my father and uncles.

“And for me, that’s when my childhood actually ended. I was 10 years old, and I had most of my spare time around the farm or working the fields, picking potatoes, feeding the cows, pigs, chickens and rabbits.”

Although virtually the entire family worked on the farm, Josef Maršálek’s parents had another profession in mind for their eldest son – they thought he should become an arts and music teacher, something he had early on in life thought about doing when learning how to paint and play the accordion.

“At one point, I made the mistake of saying I’d like to do what Mrs Krsková was doing – she was the head teacher of my school and an amazing piano player, now in her late ‘80s and still doing well. And that was the only sentence from my childhood that my mom remembered! And she kept reminding me, ‘You’ll be a teacher.’ Even though I wanted to be a chef, I wanted to make cakes.”

Do you remember when you first got excited about pastries? What was your earliest inspiration?

Illustrative photo: TerriC / Pixabay / CC0
“I remember very clearly once I was trying to climb up on the table in my grandma’s kitchen. I wanted to know what was going on. I was three years old, so much smaller than the table, and I was excited about all the noise, about the smell. I could see the top of the kugelhopf (Bundt cake) and it seemed amazingly big, and I just wanted to get involved.

“A second very clear memory was with my other grandma, who was preparing a very traditional Czech sweet called rakvičky, which takes a lot of egg yolks. Back then, there were no hand mixers. You just had to keep stirring it with the vanilla and sugar for 15 minutes until it gets light and fluffy, and you get the volume. And I was annoying her so much, wanting to stir it. And at one point she gave up and let me.

“I was six years old, and the mixing bowl was bigger than me. A minute or so later, I felt my hand was going to break, and she kept looking at me and said, ‘It’s a hard job, isn’t it?’

“But I wanted to get involved. I was very clear from the beginning that I wanted to do food – especially sweets. I wanted to understand how it is possible that you get some eggs, sugar and do some magic, mix it, put it in an oven and get something beautiful.

“Imagine a three- or four-year-old child who sees a picture of a wedding cake and you have no idea how it’s done. But the one thing you know is that it’s edible – which is also exciting! You see this huge monster, and when you get older you start searching for the little details – flowers you can eat made out of marzipan, or even gold or silver.”

Despite that passion, rather than enrol in a hotel and cooking school, at first Josef Maršálek honoured his parent’s wishes. After grammar school, he applied to – and was accepted by – a number of Master’s programmes, including at Prague famous film school FAMU, in another of his early passions: animation.

“I had a very strong relationship, apart from to cooking, to art. One of my role models was Walt Disney, and the Czech Jiří Trnka, who was revolutionary when it comes to cartoon movies and animation. And during grammar school and primary school, I was painting and doing sculpture.”

Although accepted to FAMU in 2001, he was not given a scholarship, and his family did not think they could afford to send him there. So, for the time being, he decided to accept an offer to teach music, and art history, at his alma mater. But by the time he was 20, he’d packed his bags for Prague, and found a job working for a baking and catering firm founded by the parents of future professional footballer Patrik Schick and his model sister, Krystina.

“They had more than 30 pastry chefs in two different kitchens – one making the traditional Czech sweets and the other cakes to order, for clients like Prague Castle, the Municipal House (Obecní dům) and Barrandov Studios. It was a beautiful opportunity that they gave me.”

Josef Maršálek showed a talent not just for creative baking but also for managing people, and was soon studying what he had always wanted to while working in the kitchens. He earned chef’s and pastry chef’s qualifications in Prague and then entered a private university to study for a hotel and hospitality management degree.

Harrod’s,  photo: Jordiferrer,  CC BY-SA 4.0
It was during those three years that he catered to the Emperor of Japan. Soon, it would be the Queen of England.

“My friend came with the amazing idea to go to the UK for summer holidays – she’d just finished her studies at Charles University in physiotherapy – and she asked if I wanted to go somewhere in the UK for the summer to pick raspberries – and I was thinking that’s a ridiculous idea.”

Not quite convinced, as he doubted he could make enough for it to be worthwhile, he nonetheless found work as a chef de partie, or line cook, in the kitchen of a 5-star hotel in Bath rather than taking a more prestigious sous chef position in a 3-star hotel in Birmingham.

His travel companion decided to stay home, as she’d found a new boyfriend. Josef Maršálek went anyway. After a couple years of shuttling back and forth from Bath to Prague – to finish his hotel management degree – he rose up the ranks to the point where he felt stifled. He decided to do a take a few “temporary” assignments in the weeks leading up to Christmas through the same agency that landed him in Bath.

“So, I had a week in Buckingham Palace, a week at the Tate Modern, and a week at the House of Lords. After which, Fiona (from the agency) called me and told me the next day I had an appointment at Harrod’s. And I said, ‘What’s Harrod’s?’”

Josef Maršálek would end up spending nearly eight years at that department store in Knightsbridge, then owned by Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed.

“The moment I saw the beautiful terra cotta building and massive show windows – without knowing what was happening inside, I didn’t know it was the world’s most famous, largest department store, with 1 million square feet of selling space on seven floors – I felt very clearly it was made for me. I didn’t read ‘Harrod’s – but Josef’s. That’s me!”

He started off making apple pies – “a million of them” – and went home for Christmas. After New Year’s, he was offered a permanent job there – again as a lowly chef de parite. After a massive shake-up in the staff, he was quickly promoted. Before long, the executive chef left most of the creative work in the hands of Josef Maršálek, though he was far from senior man in the massive team of pastry chefs and bakers.

“Within the next three or four years, he promoted me I think seven times. And I got the offer to go to the very top two months before I resigned. I knew I was not going to stay because I had a dream when I came to Harrod’s – an objective. I wanted to change everything, and I thought I would need three years. In a thousand days, you can do a lot. In fact, it took me nearly six years.”

In time, he also came to know Mohamed Al-Fayed – having brought him to tears with a surprise 180-kilo birthday cake in the shape of a sphinx, with a 24-carat gold leaf edible face in the billionaire’s likeness. Everyone on the team got a 1,000 pound Harrod’s voucher as a bonus.

Josef Maršálek,  photo: Elena Horálková / Czech Radio
“He was also famous for giving couples Viagra. He was very charming and had this kind of sparkle in his eyes. You know, he was very cheeky – I think that’s the word.”

The Egyptian sphinx cake was the biggest project that Josef Maršálek worked on. I asked him what some of the riskiest ones were.

“The risky ones are always the ones with the combinations people are not comfortable with or that is very unusual. I mean, if you might not expect to see lobster and vanilla. So that’s a risk. It’s too very expensive things together. But actually, on the molecular level, they have a very similar flavour profile. That’s why it works together.”

He has also always liked taking risks when creating “edible art” pastries. For instance, using violets and roses – in combination with a meringue – or tobacco with chocolate. He is crazy for agarwood, a resin used in incense, Tonka beans from a giant tree found in the Amazon rainforest – which in large amounts, are deadly, and so banned in some countries.

“Of course this doesn’t make much money. Because people will be always buying the normal crème brûlée, tiramisu, cheesecake, carrot cake – of course. But this makes the story. In the age of Instagram, Pintrest, SnapChat and all of this, this is what people take pictures of. Who is taking a picture of carrot cake anymore? Nobody! But if you put in passion fruit flowers, people get excited. It’s colourful.”

“But it has to look accessible more than too artistic. Because when it looks like a Picasso on the plate, for many people it’s inaccessible. And that’s a problem. They say, ‘What is this? Where is my cake?’”

After his decade working at a frenetic pace in the UK, Josef Maršálek spent a year and a half in India, helping expand and streamline a friend’s French style patisserie – but always finding time for yoga – usually at four in the morning. He also took up painting again. In general, he says, he just slowed down and learned to appreciate the little things in life.

Now, he’s back in Prague and gearing up for prime time – literally – as one of two, admittedly very opinionated judges, on the Czech version of the Great British Bake Off.

“Everybody who is doing a top job is in a way controversial. You will never make everybody happy. You cannot satisfy everyone. And if you are where you are, you have to have a strong opinion. You can’t tell people, ‘I don’t mind. It’s ok. I don’t care.’ No. I do care. It’s not ok. And I do mind!”

After choosing a dozen finalists from thousands of contestants, the show, here called, Peče celá země, starts shooting in May and is set to air a year later. It is among the most expensive rights deal that Czech public television has ever made, and the post-production process is massive and meticulous. A bit like the award-winning chef himself.