THE PRAGUE FOOD REV­O­LU­TION

The Czech cap­i­tal’s culi­nary scene has been trans­formed

Business Traveller - - CONTENTS - WORDS DAVID CREIGHTON

When the Czech Republic was born in 1993, din­ing at Ham­burk pub of­fered an all too fa­mil­iar Prague culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ence. The meat-and-al­mostno-veg fare could be eu­phemisti­cally de­scribed as hearty, the am­bi­ence smoky. Twenty-five years on, a re­spected Prague restau­rant group runs its rein­car­na­tion, Lokál Ham­burk. The fug has van­ished, but the con­vivial at­mos­phere re­mains, and the pub stands in once grungy Kar­lín, now abuzz with new eater­ies. For these days, a food rev­o­lu­tion is sweep­ing Prague, just as it did when Cze­choslo­vakia emerged from the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire in 1918.

No longer just about dumpling moun­tains or hefty slices of pork, din­ing in the city now en­tails a re­dis­cov­ered pig breed, Miche­lin stars and bustling farm­ers’ mar­kets – to name a few. “When I got here in 1990, eat­ing for us newly ar­rived Western­ers was a big prob­lem. Now the choice of good restau­rants is

end­less,” re­calls Bri­ton Jo Weaver, direc­tor of the lead­ing PR firm JWA, and a Prague res­i­dent since 1990.

When she ar­rived, Prague teemed with can­teens serv­ing cheap but de­cent food. To­day, of the hand­ful left, Li­dová jídelna Těšnov is the best value. Still sport­ing the dé­cor typ­i­cal of 25 years ago – dark ve­neer pan­elling, blue checked table­cloths and net cur­tains – the can­teen vividly illustrates how much din­ing in Prague has changed. Its nu­mer­ous devo­tees, from labour­ers to blue-chip man­agers, keep faith with Li­dová jídelna Těšnov. And while the prices re­main retro, this tra­di­tional lo­cal bas­tion boasts a web­site with in­for­ma­tion in English.

Af­ter 1989, pizze­rias and other global eater­ies, of­ten of ques­tion­able au­then­tic­ity, opened in Prague. But Li­dová jídelna Těšnov con­tin­ues to serve lo­cal dishes, as does V Kolkovně restau­rant. Man­ager Luboš Havlíček states that “vis­i­tors al­ways want to start with Czech cui­sine”, which strongly re­sem­bles that of Bavaria and Aus­tria. Menus fea­ture sausages, smoked meats, sauer­kraut, beef and pork. Veg­eta­bles play a bit part, and flavour­ings stretch to herbs but not ex­otic spices.

Havlíček sug­gests it is best to visit a pub ( hospoda) at lunchtime, when they of­fer good value meals. Lo­cal of­fice work­ers opt for the lunch menu ( polední menu) of soup ( polévka) and a main course ( hlavní jídlo). Goulash in var­i­ous ver­sions forms a sta­ple of the lat­ter, as does svíčková na smetaně, beef sir­loin bathed in creamy veg­etable sauce with dumplings. Crisp pork or chicken schnitzel, other favourites, come with a hefty dol­lop of the ever-pop­u­lar potato salad.

But even this tra­di­tional world is chang­ing – thanks to the food rev­o­lu­tion. Prague din­ing is con­stantly im­prov­ing, but Havlíček ex­plains that qual­ity and va­ri­ety have rock­eted es­pe­cially over the last five years, fu­elled by greater con­sumer aware­ness of food. So­cial me­dia is also rais­ing the stakes, as meals are posted on Twit­ter or In­sta­gram. “Diners de­mand more and want bet­ter qual­ity in­gre­di­ents and an ex­pe­ri­ence,” he ex­plains. Bri­tish chef Paul Day, owner of Maso a Kobliha and San­sho, also notes Czechs’ fond­ness for travel and ex­po­sure to other cuisines. At Divi­nis, Zdeněk Pohlre­ich, the Czech Republic’s most fa­mous chef, pro­vides a third ex­pla­na­tion. “I be­lieve that it is the im­proved Czech econ­omy that is mak­ing the pub­lic more de­mand­ing.” And the healthy fore­cast con­tin­ues, with 3.2 per cent eco­nomic growth pre­dicted for 2018.

Pohlre­ich and other chefs are one fac­tor driv­ing the trans­for­ma­tion. They are most strongly in­flu­enced by French and Ital­ian ap­proaches to cui­sine, but Radek Kašpárek, ex­ec­u­tive chef at Field, con­tends that Prague cook­ing is sim­pli­fy­ing. “Restau­rants are no longer com­bin­ing cuisines, and fu­sion is wan­ing.”

At Eska, chef Martin Štangl, is in­spired by Nordic cui­sine, and he ar­gues that glob­al­i­sa­tion has helped his pro­fes­sion in the Czech Republic, and is thus trans­form­ing Prague din­ing. “Peo­ple travel more, and it isn’t as dif­fi­cult to land an in­tern­ship in the world’s best restau­rants as be­fore.” Ad­di­tion­ally, Radek Kašpárek states that “young chefs with lots of po­ten­tial are ar­riv­ing, and the old

“The im­proved Czech econ­omy is mak­ing the pub­lic more de­mand­ing”

guard in Prague is on the way out. These young guys are open­ing new bistros and bring­ing a breath of fresh air to the scene.”

Chefs are also pro­mot­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion of pro­duce qual­ity, an­other fac­tor chang­ing Prague’s food scene. Kašpárek notes the trend to­wards “sea­sonal, re­gional and fresh in­gre­di­ents”. Mean­while, Paul Day uses meat from his butcher busi­ness, The Real Meat So­ci­ety. In turn, Czech or­ganic farm­ers sup­ply him. They are en­joy­ing a surge in pop­u­lar­ity partly thanks to greater con­sumer aware­ness of flavours. “Seven years ago, when I met the first farmer sup­pli­ers, we didn’t have enough. Now, many rear their an­i­mals out­side and have much more meat to sell.” Martin Štangl con­curs: “Credit to the farm­ers, who are in­ter­ested in do­ing good busi­ness by pro­vid­ing restau­rants with the high­est-qual­ity pro­duce.”

Be­sides pro­duce qual­ity, sourc­ing, on which Paul Day re­fuses to com­pro­mise, is con­tribut­ing to the rev­o­lu­tion. “Sev­eral years ago, ev­ery­one in Prague was ad­ver­tis­ing meat from the US and South Amer­ica. I was de­ter­mined to have only Czech protein on the menu.” The en­thu­si­as­tic English­man’s com­mit­ment also mo­ti­vated him to pop­u­larise a lo­cal breed, the Přeštice Black-Pied pig, which he re­gards as one of the best around. “They are out­side all year and lead happy lives. You can taste that,” he adds, grin­ning.

Prague food lovers are pos­i­tive about the fu­ture, in­clud­ing the con­tin­ued im­prove­ment of cus­tomer ser­vice. “There are still wait­ers who aren’t ser­vice-ori­ented,” points out Is­abelle du Plessix, al­though she is con­fi­dent that this will change.

And food com­men­ta­tors view the em­pha­sis on pro­duce and lo­cal­ism as an op­por­tu­nity for tra­di­tional ap­proaches to Czech cui­sine. Oldřich Sa­ha­jdák, ex­ec­u­tive chef at La De­gus­ta­tion Bo­hême Bour­geoise, is re­garded as a cham­pion of such cook­ing, which he pro­motes at his Bistro Mi­lada restau­rant. By con­trast, the chefs also pre­dict the growth of Asian cook­ing, partly thanks to the city’s large Viet­namese com­mu­nity, which set­tled here dur­ing com­mu­nism. In ad­di­tion, high-qual­ity in­gre­di­ents are avail­able from the SAPA Asian mar­ket. “I think there will be many more Asian restau­rants in the fu­ture,” says Sa­ha­jdák.

LEFT: La De­gus­ta­tion Bo­hême Bour­geoiseABOVE: Li­dová jídelna Těšnov

TOP LEFT: Jams at the farm­ers‘ mar­ket ABOVE: Divi­nis BE­LOW: Mod­ernist cook­ing at Field

LEFT: Cof­fee Room ABOVE: Eska restau­rant, café and bak­ery BE­LOW: V Kolkovně’s frontage, and draft pil­sner

RIGHT: Chef Radek Kašpárek of Field restau­rant BE­LOW: Přeštice Black-Pied pig

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