Czech Cuisine, Back to The Future

A trip to Prague in the Czech Republic to meet a chef intent on reviving classic Czech Cuisine with the help of an 18th Century cookbook.

Take a trip to Prague in the Czech Republic and you’re sure to pick up on the growing food scene exploding across the city. New restaurants, cafes, bistro style eateries and modern Czech menus are springing up all the time and a small handful of producers and chefs are taking it upon themselves to help form a new food identity for the capital.

For years the Czech Republic lay under the gloomy shadows of communism and this affected a number of aspects of daily life, especially the growth of creative individualism. Music, cinema, literature, the arts and food all suffered.

Menus became one carbon copy of the next, endless servings of goulash, dumplings, pork and red cabbage. A classic line of about seven dishes repeated across hundreds of establishments. Farming, which was nationalized, became about cost effective yield with any taste driven production forgotten.

The country shared just one National cookbook  ‘Recipes for Warm Meals’ and chefs proposing new dishes would need to have them approved by the State, it’s only in the past 20-years that Czech chefs have started to rediscover their culinary identity. Chefs like Oldřich Sahajdák from the one Michelin starred La Degustation restaurant in Prague’s Old Town.

“The Czech Republic is not very old, compared to France, Italy or Spain”, explains Sahajdák, “Czech cuisine is made up of bits of Hungarian, German and Polish cuisine. What we’re trying to do is introduce classic Czech cuisine to the world.”

Czech Cuisine, Back to The Future

To do this Sahajdák is using an old cookbook written by Marie Svobodová in 1849. The chef explains how the book has become a bible for him and his staff: “It’s a book full of advice. The title is Cooking School for Mates – made to offer young girls advice on cooking for their husbands. We find all of our recipes in the book, how to treat ingredients, how to use every single part of the animal. We’re trying to cook the old way – as they used to in the book”.

By going back as far as 1849, Sahajdák hopes to reconnect with a style of cooking and culture that was lost during the repressive years of communism. Not an easy thing to do: “There are so many ingredients in the book that are not here anymore like river oysters or fresh river crab. Many of the animals are also now protected so we are trying to replace them with other ingredients that work.”

Dishes such as Ratibořice rabbit with lard, beetroot essence and mustard or the chef’s signature smoked beef tongue, yellow pea purée, apple and marjoram. Sahajdák, Sahajdák and his team are breathing fresh life into the tattered yellow pages of Marie’s historic book.

The food movement taking place at La Degustation seems to mirror what started over 10-years ago at Noma. A team of chefs intent on rediscovering old recipes, local ingredients, forgotten flavors and helping lay the foundation for a new food culture to emerge in their territory. An observation that Sahajdák is more than happy to accept: “You didn’t hear about Noma or Danish cuisine 10-years-ago. This is inspiring for us…I used to be in Copenhagen many times and no one seemed interested in these places, now everyone is talking about this part of the world. This is a model that excites us”.

Sahajdák knows that converting the way people percieve Czech cuisine will be a slow process but hopes that young Czech chefs will start to find a pride in their country’s cuisine. He says that if you go back 100 – 120 years Czech chefs were on a level with French or Italian chefs and with the right efforts and a pinch of National pride, this balance can once again be restored. “The problem is that many of the Czech chefs who are taking their job seriously in Prague are not cooking Czceh cuisine. Who else is going to pioneer our cuisine? If Czechs are cooking French cuisine who is going to cook Czech cuisine? Certainly not the French”.

Read more here