UK-born chef Sofia Smith on life in Prague and her love of Czech Christmas cookies

Sofia Smith, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Sofia Smith is a British-born chef of Irish-Malaysian heritage, who has been living in Prague since the late nineties. She started her career at the British Council and has since become one of the most respected experts on Asian cuisine in the Czech Republic. She is currently Executive Chef of Cafe Buddha in Prague’s Vinohrady district. That’s where I caught up with her to discuss her life in the Czech capital. I started by asking what made her leave the IT sector and pursue cooking professionally.

Sofia Smith,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

“I worked in IT a million years ago! I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore. I wasn’t happy working in the office. I wasn’t doing something that came naturally to me.

“I was bored and I came to a point where I quit my last job and I didn’t know what to do. And since I have always cooked, I thought I would give it a go. That was it, really.

“And because I came visiting here. I knew some people at the British Council and I got a chance to open the café at the British Council way back when it was on Národní Street. I did that just to see if it was something that I could really get into.”

So you basically started your cooking career when you came to the Czech Republic.

“Properly, basically, yes. So I got my initial experience here and I did it at a time when there wasn’t much around here. For somebody who is not trained, apart from working in restaurants as a student, or waitressing or helping out in kitchens, this was a good way to do it for me.”

“I think Czech Christmas cookies are the best in the world. It is a tradition that I have really gotten into.”

I believe you first visited the Czech Republic in the mid-1990s.

“First as a tourist in 1994, I believe.”

What was your first impression of the country?

“It was very grey. The hotel was very grim. It was cold, I think it was winter. I was shocked by the quality of the toilet paper. All the restaurants and pubs had curtains, it was all very closed and there were a lot of “reserved” signs.

“So for me, then, it was incredibly exotic. Growing up in the West at that time, during the Cold War, there was a certain exoticism about Eastern Europe.”

So what made you move to this country in the end?

“I didn’t really move. It’s just that when I started working in gastronomy and I was trying different things, I just had a lot of opportunities here. It wasn’t a conscious decision, such as that I love it here or have some family connections here, I didn’t have any of that.

“I was in Prague in the early days when there wasn’t a lot going on in gastronomy. It gave me the opportunity to try my skills and gain more confidence.

Czech Christmas cookies,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“I was already in my 30s, so trying to do this in London, it would have been more difficult for me. I also like that there was, on some level, less stress here. “When I was living in London, I was commuting and it was quite hectic.

“And projects came up, because I did a lot of special events for different restaurants and they were incredibly popular. So I had more and more opportunities here and I established myself here.

“I guess the easy answer for that is that it was because of my career or vocation that I have chosen.”

Did you find it hard to adapt to Czech lifestyle?

“The hardest thing for me has always been the language. I have absolutely no talent for languages. I was terrible in school.

“I think during the job that I do, what would be difficult would be getting supplies, people’s attitudes towards unusual foods. There is nothing like that today!

“Of course I had to adjust to everyday interactions with people. People were not, and sometimes are still not, as polite or friendly.

“I never got used to Czech food, apart from cukroví or Christmas cookies. I have got quite a few really good friends here. I met a lot of wonderful people. So apart from service I don’t really have any problems here. Never did.”

Is there really no Czech meal that you would be fond of, apart from cukroví?

I wouldn’t say fond of. As I mentioned earlier, I think Czech Christmas cookies are the best in the world and I can eat my way through a lot of cukroví every Christmas. Oh, and I do like bramboračka, the soup, and I make a good one myself.

“And I am not a huge meat eater. I don’t eat any red meat and I am not into really heavy food. Si it is really difficult to adjust.

“I was in Prague in the early days, when there wasn’t a lot going on in gastronomy, which gave me the opportunity to gain more confidence.”

“However, there has been a massive improvement in Czech food over the years. People are using better ingredients and they are paying more attention how things are cooked. So it has improved immensely.

“But it’s actually really not the kind of food I like to eat. I can’t say that I miss Czech food when I go home for several weeks.”

What do you miss about the Czech Republic when you go home?

“Probably the people that I know here, because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

How has the Czech food culture changed over the years?

“It has developed as anywhere else. I remember in the UK, in the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t that great either. People travel, and I think travelling and having an open mind really helps your cuisine.

“It’s just like anything else. It’s time. When borders are open and people see other things, of course the cuisine develops.

“What I also find interesting here is the Vietnamese cuisine. You have a massive Vietnamese population here and for many years, in the early days, I never really saw any Vietnamese food. Until the last ten years, when it has almost become the equivalent of Indian food in the UK.”

Do you yourself use any locally sourced ingredients?

Cafe Buddha,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“We use a local meat, whenever we can find it. Obviously, a lot the Asian spice and herb we can’t get here. Actually we can, there is a massive Vietnamese market, but they are not locally produced.

“Many years ago, when I started, I even had to get good quality eggs from France, because we couldn’t get nice-tasting free-range eggs. Now, all our eggs are locally produced and really tasty as well. So things have evolved, and changed.”

You spent twenty years in the Czech Republic. Do you feel at home in this country?

“I feel at home here and I feel a home in London. My partner lives in London, so we always joke that we have two homes, here and in London.”

Are there any Czech traditions that you have adopted, apart of course, the cukroví?

“Well I am obsessed with cukroví and I was actually going to mention again.”

Do you bake it yourself?

“No! Why should I? I feel totally indulged when my friends and colleagues bring me boxes of cukroví. So that is a tradition that I have really gotten into.

“But to be honest, I am not of a traditional background anyway. I am British from London and I am totally secular.”

What else do you like about this country, apart from your friends?

“I love Beskydy and that area because I do events there. I met wonderful people out there, really open and really friendly, a little bit different to Praguers, I suppose.

“Every summer we drive around the Czech Republic and it is beautiful all over but I especially like that part of the country.”

And are there any places that you like in the city?

“I would say I love Vyšehrad. Also, because I go back to the UK quite a lot, every month, when I come back, going from the airport and passing by the castle, it catches my breath every single time. Even today!

Cafe Buddha,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“I don’t go to do the tourist thing very often now, unless we have got visitors. But it catches my breath every single time. It’s just astounding.

“And there are also little streets of Malá Strana, a little bit hidden, and there are particular buildings that I like. I still have those places that I go and visit.

“But to be honest, I haven’t done a lot of that as I used to do when I first arrived here, because it is so crowded.

“I have been really lucky to get here so early. I could have a midnight walk up at the Castle and nobody would stop me and it was empty and breathtakingly beautiful. So I kind of miss that.”