I took a break from interviews when I was in Prague to go with my wife on an excursion to Marianske Lazne in the western part of the Czech Republic. This is the famous Marienbad, the spa that attracted celebrities from all over Europe in the 19th century –Goethe, Chopin, Edison, Wagner – to take the waters and enjoy the crisp, clean air. We took our trip in mid-February and looked forward to walks in the snowy woods and evening saunas.
I was not counting on great food. Marianske Lazne is the destination of busloads of tourists expecting the traditional plates of pork loin, sauerkraut, and doughy dumplings, with occasional detours into roast duck and roast pork knuckle. What these dishes might lack in quality, they more than make up for in quantity. Along with the ubiquitous beer, Czech dining is an exercise in carbo-loading. It’s not a subtle cuisine.
But a quick look at the Internet before we got on the train from Prague revealed a curious thing. People on Trip Advisor were raving about, of all things, a tapas restaurant in Marianske Lazne. It would probably be quite expensive, I thought, but perhaps we could swing it for our last evening in the spa town.
When we arrived that afternoon at our modest hotel, I asked the young clerk at the front desk about this Medite restaurant. “Oh yes,” he said. “It’s the best restaurant in town, and it’s just gotten an award. I’ve eaten there many times.”
He didn’t look like a rich kid. How could he afford to eat so many times at an award-winning restaurant? I did some more research and discovered that one of the top food guides in the country had ranked Medite as the best restaurant on the basis of its food – in the entire Czech Republic!
Now I was really intrigued. We stowed our luggage and walked across town to the restaurant. We ate dinner. Then we went back the next day for both lunch and dinner. If we had stayed any longer in Marianske Lazne, we would have eaten all the rest of our meals there as well. The food was superb, and it was very reasonably priced.
Medite serves tapas in a Mediterranean style that draws from Spanish and Italian sources. The ingredients are local and in season whenever possible. I had shrimp with black pasta in a lobster reduction sauce that was mind-blowing. The prawns al siculi were served with zucchini in an intense pesto. The vegetarian dishes, like a vegetable napoleon, were just as good as anything on the menu. Even the cucumber lemonade was outstanding.
I sat down with the owner and the man behind the menu, David Bohm, to talk about the challenges of running a business in a small town in the Czech Republic. “You can imagine how difficult it is to survive in a little town of 15,000 people where you are the third most expensive place with a very abnormal way of serving food,” he told me after the last service of the night was finished. “Many people just didn’t understand it in the beginning. Some of them have never understood it.”
But the restaurant now has a devoted clientele that travels many hours for a single meal. “We love our people,” Bohm told me. “We are alive because of them, and they are great. They help us, and they are getting something very special. It’s a very special relationship. In Prague, you would pay three times more for the food and the whole ambiance. Last week, I had a guy from Munich, he said, ‘David, you are really crazy.’ He’s a really wealthy guy. He said, ‘I never get halibut of this quality in Munich.’ And you think, ‘Well, what should I do? Should I raise the prices?’ Then I think, ‘No, why? Our way of getting more profit is going to be based on more organized reservation bookings. We’ll keep the prices where they are.’”
We talked about the tradition in his family of working in the hospitality trade, his love affair with Spain, and the lineage of that fabulous dish of prawns al siculi.
How do much you remember of 1989 and the changes that took place in this country? You were relatively young.
I was 14 when it happened, this huge wave of enthusiastic movements. I was finishing what we call primary school. And I was going to study at culinary school.
And you were here in Marianske Lazne?
Yes, I was here.
But the change in 1989 wasn’t really a big change in your life, because you were going to go to culinary school anyway?
My father worked in Yugoslavia for two years, so when I was four we moved every four months in the summer to Yugoslavia. So I had some memories of how it worked abroad. In Yugoslavia, even though it was a Communist country, people could be self-employed. It was an interesting mix between East European Communist-style and the Southeast European communist-style.
So yes, we had certain expectations. After 1989, we could see the huge interest of people coming to visit, especially to this area of the Czech Republic, which was close to the West German border. The boom was massive. Where are you staying?
Hotel Romanza. It’s about a 15-minute walk from here.
If you would go from here to Hotel Romanza in 1991, it would take you around 1 hour, 1 hour 15 minutes, because the streets were so crowded. Anyone who opened any little business became quite wealthy, because it was that booming.
It was booming here and in Karlovy Vary?
There were three or four areas in Czech Republic. There was Prague. There was this west Czech spa town triangle: Karlovy Vary, Marianske Lazne, and Frantiskovy Lazne. Then there was Cesky Krumlov. And then there was southern part of Moravia, which was close to the Austrian border and quite attractive for wine tourists. It was a great time!
Before 1989, were there a lot of tourists coming from abroad to this area? Or were they mostly coming from other parts of Czechoslovakia?
You have to understand that the standards in this area were always quite high, up to the European standard, especially in gastronomy and catering hospitality. And it was very cheap. For West Germans, it was very attractive to come and get great spa treatment and gastronomy at the level they couldn’t afford back at home. Plus it was an area where many people from West and East were meeting up. This was a place where the StB, the undercover police, was watching everybody, because there was a lot of business going on.
In 1989, I remember the flow, which was going through especially East Germany and the Czech Republic because we were right on the border with the west part of Europe. From the boom point of view, we thought this was going to be big, really big. It was also in the peoples’ minds. It was amazing, because you saw people starting doing business, people who has been employed for generations. And then you could see how the society was changing. It was the right thing to happen. Czechs had become lazy after five or six years.
Yes. So let’s say 1995, 1997. But I think that we paid a tax for it. All those cheating attitudes of Czechs, which I absolutely hate, had become like a kind of cancer that needed to be operated on. You know: the people who give you a menu with two prices, who cheat you because you speak a different language. This is a result of the Communist period.
But it’s now 23 years after the revolution, so this is no excuse. I’m just trying to give you a point of view on how long it takes to recover. My father, for example, is sad because he thought it was going to go much more quickly. But I’m telling him that it’s going to take 100 years. He thought it would take 20. We also believed it would take only 20, but now being realistic, it will be 100.
Before the Second World War, the Czech Republic belonged to the top tier of European economies. Our well-developed industries were so good, in so many directions. But then we got two hits: the Second World War and then Communism right afterwards. It’s very difficult to watch the success of countries like Austria or Switzerland or Holland or Belgium, countries that are the same size as us, just 600 kilometers to the west. But it’s our responsibility, the young generation, to fight for it and to do our best. And that’s one of the reasons why we came back.
Well, there were two reasons. My parents, as I told you, had two kids. My brother lives in the United States. They’re really great parents to us. We decided that one of us can stay abroad and one of us should stay home and be with them. I’m not saying it as a sad reality. I’m saying it as one of the reasons why we came back. The second reason was patriotic. We wanted to give a great knowledge of our profession. We wanted to support the Czechs who are trying to bring the country back to the standards it always had.
Do you have any strong memories that stay with you about the communist period, either bad or good?
Many people make big Hollywood moves in their minds about it. The Czech Communists were really really bad in the 1950s, when I hadn’t yet been born. But the place where we are right now in the Czech Republic has always been influenced by the West Germans. No one could change that. That’s why I also speak fluent German—because we were always watching the German TV channels at home.
So you had free access to Western television?
Yes. It wasn’t free access, but we knew how to do it to get access. The Communists were absolutely crazy about it, because they were telling us propaganda, and we knew from the TV that their lies were not really true. But this was the west part of the Czech Republic. I can’t say how it was in the north part of Czech Republic, or in the center. We always had better clothes, because the West German clientele was coming here. There were many connections, many friendships. If you needed jeans, you could get jeans. I know it sounds very funny, but it was like that.
If the communists wanted to kill someone, they did it and didn’t have to ask anyone. If they wanted to get rid of someone, they did it. But, if you’re asking me if I’ve seen someone getting arrested on the street or beat up on the street, no, I didn”t anything like that. What I remember, for example, is that we went several times fishing with my dad, close to the border. As you went through some of the villages closer to the border, there were already people informing the border police. As soon as you got out of the village, straight away there was some car behind you. They’d just check you out. They’d ask, “Where are you going? What’s your intention for coming here?” But my father was a very successful and famous hotelier. He was a very famous hotel manager. So, well, I can’t say we had a really really bad life before the revolution. And we had an amazing good time after the revolution.
Obviously with some of the people I talked to in Prague, before 1989 they were in jail and after 1989 they were in parliament. So the contrast was very big. But for you the contrast was not as big.
I don’t want to insult anyone, but I think that many people made a career of it. Václav Havel had to be trained and supported by the West. You know what I mean? This is not a story of Huckleberry Finn coming out of the countryside. But I also believe that there are some really really sad stories about people’s lives being destroyed. Probably the most dangerous part of it was in the 1950s. My father is Jewish. My grandmother and grandfather survived the concentration camps. My grandfather joined Svoboda’s Army at the Slovakia border. In Prague, from 1944 to 1952, he became a lieutenant. In 1952, which was the most difficult period, he was expelled from the army, because of his race origin, and that’s the reason why we’re here in Marianske Lazne.
Yes, anti-Semitism. All Jews had to leave the army. He was deported to a logging camp. People were either sent to the mines or to logging camps to taste the bitter flavor of Communist power.
At what age did you go to the culinary institute?
I was 14.
And so that was right in 1989, just as it changed?
Yes, in 1989, I was in the eighth class of secondary school.
In that last year of primary school, did you see any major changes at school?
One of the first changes was that we had Russian language only for 3 months, because the revolution happened in November. The teachers who used to teach Russian language, they started teaching English language.
They weren’t necessarily good English teachers.
It was really bad English. That was the first and biggest change. My grandmother was really happy because she was Orthodox Jewish. My grandfather was really really scared, because a few months after they got married, they were both deported to concentration camps. After the Second World War, he ended up in a kind of jail again, and both things happened because he was Jewish. So I think he was the most scared man I’ve ever seen in my life. He didn’t want my grandmother to remind us of our origins, but my grandma always did.
Did your grandparents keep kosher at home?
No, they didn’t keep kosher because if you want to keep kosher you have to live in a Jewish society. The closest synagogue was in Plzen.
I saw that there was a marker in Marianske Lazne for the synagogue that used to be here.
Yes, next to the police station. It was burned down during Kristallnacht. After that, there were not even enough Jews to form a congregation. It was just three families. But my grandmother always kept Sabbath, always kept Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, Purim, all the main public holidays of Judaism. But they couldn’t keep kosher, because they were too far away from the Jewish community.
Did your father keep up the traditions?
No. My father had the right to choose if he wanted to be religious or not.
My grandmother always said, “David, to be the greatest Jew is to love your family.” It’s not about being part of something else. It’s inside of you. She always said, “To be a Jew is not a case of being blue or red. You are Jewish, you can’t change that. You have to just be with your family in the best way that you can be.”
You spent four years at culinary institute. Did you feel like you could see the institute changing after 1989? You said that there have not been such high standards since before World War II.
I can see that because I am the fourth generation of gastronomes in my family. Each generation has had some kind of input into my career. I knew almost everything before I went to school. I saw the differences between the expectations of the teachers, what you had to know — about certain techniques, certain rules – and what I’d been told at home. So, yes, I could see the standards going down. It was logical because, for example, even when my parents were at this school, the people who were teaching had been working abroad before the Second World War. Those teachers were in their fifties. I could respect them, because they had knowledge, had worked in many hotels in Marianske Lazne. It was the same thing I’ve seen in England. The people were officially working in it. It wasn’t something you read before class and then started talking about it.
It became something negative when we came back and started to be kind of successful. I wanted to help the culinary school, and I said, “I’m ready to help you with anything you need to explain to your students about eating and drinking in Spanish and Italian cultures. Gratis.”
So when you offered that, they said, “No, thank you.”
No, they said, “Yes, yes, yes, thank you!” But I know that they are never going to call. Because it would show their students that their teachers are not prepared enough.
Are some of the teachers teaching there still the ones that taught you or has that generation passed?
It’s almost passed. But it’s funny because some of the teachers are actually now my clients, and they refuse to work there. They said, “I have one or two more years before retirement, but I want to leave right now because I don’t want to be part of that.”
When did you decide that you wanted to leave the Czech Republic?
We had always been struggling a lot. My parents knew that if you want to reach the bright horizon, you need to travel. You need to see, you need to taste many things, try many things. So they were always allowing us to work abroad part-time. So, I’ve been visiting Italy for 20 years. In 2003, I decided to go to Italy. My girlfriend couldn’t get a job there because she couldn’t speak Italian. She was at that time still too shy. But the few months that we spent together in Italy trying to get her a job—I already had a job–was a great experience. For me, culture-wise, gastronomy-wise, Italy was a second home.
The sons of the owner of the hotel, who came back a few months before we arrived in Italy, took over the hotel. They said, “Why don’t you go to England? You speak very good English, your girlfriend as well. Go, it will be easier.” So we went to England, and I spent almost four years in Brighton. And my company paid for a one-year degree at what was called Nationwide Qualification.
The company you were working for in England, in Brighton?
Yes. They said, “We would like you one day to be part of the management. It was a big restaurant. We had 48 members of staff. We had 390 seats. There were three kitchens.
It seems the right place to go. Brighton is the British equivalent of Marianske Lazne.
Yes and no. From the cosmopolitan point of view, Brighton is much bigger. It’s been called London by the sea. Students from all around the world visit it – to get connected to different cultures and ideas, to get to know people and work with other nationalities. It’s a great place to become a very good manager, because you have to consider many things before you make a decision. Because so many people visit the place, you have to get used to a very fast tempo of working. The amount of business at every single restaurant is enormous. It was a great experience for me to work in an environment that never stops.
We had 180 seats in the restaurant. It was on the second floor. We had nine seats at the bar, which was kind of a lounge bar. We had 120 seats on the patio, where there was a third kitchen. It was an open kitchen. The chefs were cooking in front of the people. It was right at the harbor of Brighton, which is I think the biggest harbor in Britain.
And the cooking was…nouvelle English cuisine?
Food in England has changed so much. I studied there in 1985, and the food was…
Kind of dodgy.
Exactly. But I just came from England on the way here. I couldn’t believe the quality of food in London today.
This is the result of the cosmopolitan policy that England adopted. Many cultures are bringing their many traditions and techniques. It’s the same with the United States. I was there now in November, but before I hadn’t been for nine years. I was very positively shocked. Nine years ago, if you went to an Italian restaurant, you would get either tomato sauce or some double-cream thick stuff on the plate, which would be combined with spinach, mainly frozen spinach. If you go now, you can see the right techniques from the exact regions in Italy. And there’s now a lot of ingredient knowledge. That’s why my brother is so successful now in the United States, doing authentic European cooking in his restaurant in Little Rock.
When you came back here, did you know immediately that you would have a restaurant here or in Prague?
One of the reasons I came back was my parents. To open a place in Prague wouldn’t have made any sense. Otherwise, I could have just stayed abroad. But here, in Marianske Lazne, the standards and the quality were pretty bad. I knew that as long as I was well functioning, I would be among the top five restaurants.
As you see, we’re not an expensive restaurant. The quality that we are offering for the price is a fantastic deal.
I was really pleasantly surprised when I was talking to the guy behind the counter at our hotel, he was probably in his thirties, and I asked him about this restaurant. He said, “Oh yeah, I go there all the time.” And I thought, “Now that’s interesting,” because I had this impression that this was going to be an expensive place. But then when he told me that he went there all the time, I thought, “He can’t make that much money at his job.” So it seemed like this really was a restaurant that wasn’t just for rich people coming from outside, but for people who are living here in town as well.
This was our initial idea. I don’t like restaurants who are making tortilla de patata, and they are saying, “We are in the lead position of all the restaurants, and our tortilla is really special: it costs 300 crowns.” For fucks sake, it’s just egg and potatoes! I don’t care if you are really really good, it’s still a potato and egg. You know what I mean? I don’t like when a restaurant says, “We’re going to create a special technique so this piece of tortilla will do something special in your mouth.” It’s going to dissolve, or I don’t know! But it’s still egg and potato. We wanted a restaurant where it had to be locals first in terms of clientele. Then, if we are going to be good, we might get people from the hotels.
It’s absolutely ridiculous: we have 6,000 beds in this little spa treatment town. But if it works as it is designed to work, the town infrastructure doesn’t see anything. The hotels are offering breakfast, lunches, club sandwiches in the afternoon, dinner, coffees, cake break. The cheap travel agencies are filling up these hotels, and these travel agencies don’t want any changes. If someone tells me, “You have to sell the halibut for 120 crowns, because my clients won’t go otherwise,” I’d say, “You can take your clients somewhere else. I don’t care.”
It’s really sad. This town has a great heritage. I’m not going anywhere. I came home. If Marianske Lazne were in South Carolina, they would have made a gold mine of it. It’s all about knowing how to market a place, how to get it on the map. We’re still fighting against and living with structures from the past: people who should already be gone. Look, if you’re a bad chef and you don’t know what you’re doing, you should just go.
Was it hard to set up a restaurant here?
Hugely. After England, I went to Spain. The reason why our name is Medite is that I had many great experiences from Italy, and I always wanted to open an Italian restaurant. But when I graduated school in England and I became a part of the management of the restaurant, I was the head of recruiting. We recruited one Spanish waiter, and we’d become great friends. His parents had a restaurant in Salamanca. Because we were always cooking together, he once asked me if I would go to Spain to cook in a little countryside culinary feast. I went there, and the tapas were for me an immediate addiction. I started studying Spanish cuisine and culture. And then I was going to Spain five times, six times. I went there actually every month for five or 10 days.
Yes. The company Easy Jet had their two bases in London Gatwick and Madrid, so the flights were really cheap. Also, in 2006, the Labor Party won the elections, so they were regulating unemployment in England. They were forcing each employer a certain amount of workers for a certain amount of hours. I was glad that my boss told me, “David, I can’t give you 280 hours a month. I can give you only 190.” I said, “Great!” So I was working in this guy’s parents’ restaurant, and I was studying the Spanish culture from scratch. And because Salamanca is in the Duero region, which is the pearl of the Spanish wine industry, that’s why I started with Spanish wines.
But you were saying that it was difficult to set up the restaurant.
To introduce the concept of good food to people was hugely difficult because Czechs are used to consuming a big hill of crap food.
Huge quantities of sauerkraut, dumplings, pork!
Shit on a plate. Just imagine a guy, 29 years old, coming from this experience abroad, coming back home, and trying to introduce something different. It was not easy. I was working everyday for two years, and it was difficult, but I had a passion to do it. And I had a great team around me. My parents helped me out. My wife is right there behind the bar. There were many disappointments, but there were also many injections of energy and hopes. I borrowed a huge amount of money to do this.
It was kind of personal. My father was very famous in this trade, and I had the need to outgrow him. But much more than that, I just love the cuisine. I love showing people the same things that amazed me many years ago. When I remember the first time I ate cocodrilo de jamon, or when I ate tortilla, or when I ate the basic callos, any of the basic Spanish things, I was so in love with it. If you saw me working in Spain, you would say, “The guy is on drugs.” I was observing everything. On my days off, I worked in the vineyards. On my working days, I spent a huge amount of time in the kitchen. I spent a huge amount of time behind the counter. I just said, “This is it. This is where I want to be.” I wanted to take all this passion and bring it here.
My Spanish friend told me, “Don’t try to be anyone else. Just do it as you’re doing it.” And sometimes I said, “Well, what do I do if say, “He’s not even Spanish and he’s doing tapas?”
And he said, “David, you are more Spanish than any other Spanish here, so just do it as you love it.”
Really love it and always trying to guide people through the same way of thinking as it should be. Don’t try to eat boar before the faro risotto, for instance: it would be nonsense. Try to show the customer the way of thinking of the Mediterraneans or the Southern Europeans, because then you have the pleasure. Then you could say, “Ah, now I know why!”
Did you also encounter difficulties just from a business perspective, like business regulations?
The reason we came home in 2008 was that a friend of my father came to him and said, “I know someone who wants to sell his restaurant.” With my dad we had an agreement that if he sees something interesting we would possibly come back to Marianske Lazne. There were three meetings about one place, and the guy was getting divorced and didn’t want the restaurant any more. My father did two meetings by himself. For the third meeting, we came home to sign the contract. It all looked really good. So we returned from England. When we went to sign the contract, the guy said, “I’m not going to do it.”
He changed his mind.
For a few months we thought we would go back to Spain, because I loved it so much there. Probably if that had happened, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. I don’t know what’s in Spain, maybe it’s my Jewish origin, maybe my grand-grand-grand-grand-dad was living in Spain.
A lot of Jews were kicked out of Spain, as you know.
Yes. I had a very special feeling in Spain. I was working in a semi-mountainous area, so far away from tourism. It was the real Spain.
But you did eventually found this place.
My father was taking it personally, because he brought me back home for this. I said to him, “Chill out. Shit happens. You are alive, I’m alive, there’s no illness in our family. One little mistake happened. I’m old enough to make my own decision again.”
Then this guy came to my mom and said, “I know a place where they have huge hygiene problems with a Vietnamese guy.” So we went upstairs to this building, and it used to be a company producing working uniforms. And the landlady said, “Yeah, we are really really unhappy. The guy is selling drugs to young students.”
Was it also somebody’s restaurant?
It was in the basement of this building. The entry was from the other side. But the place had been closed already two years. And we said, “Okay, if you want to get rid of them, we will gladly take it over.” But then, at the second meeting she said, “From the legal point of view, we really have a problem to get rid of him, because he’s paying rent regularly and this is not a reason from the contract point of view to finish the contract.” We said, “Okay, if you can’t get rid of him, sorry, but it’s your choice.” And there used to be a shoe shop also in this building. My father said, “Let’s make it here.” The landlady agreed, and we started reconstruction.
So, you’ve been in business in England, you’ve been involved in the restaurant business in Spain. What’s your feeling about being in business here? How would you compare it to being in business in other parts of Europe?
From the profit point of view, it took us four years before we saw a profit. We opened the restaurant on December 19, 2008. Three months after this, all the radio and television programs start talking about the economic crisis. My father said, “If you get through this, you’ve won.” We really worked hard. We had to wait almost four years to make a profit. And we weren’t amateurs that didn’t know how to calculate food, how to purchase ingredients. We knew all that: we knew our expenses, we were great in math, we calculated everything. And we weren’t opening a hotdog place at the train station. It was really bad, and we knew the reality. We saw it in the numbers, and numbers never lie. You can read the future a few months in advance. Many times I wanted to give up and say, “Father, sorry.” But we have to thank God and ourselves, and thanks to the great support of my team, because they really picked me up many times.
You can form your own opinion, because you know the Czech culture a little bit. You can imagine how difficult it is to survive in a little town of 15,000 people where you are the third most expensive place with a very abnormal way of serving food. Many people just didn’t understand it in the beginning. Some of them have never understood it: “What the fuck are you serving us? Some little plates? I’m not going to be full enough.” And everyday you’re explaining what a “tapas” is and how to combine the dishes. Looking back now, actually it was a tough mission, and I think my father, even though he’s very proud of us, I think he’s still not getting it. I think no one is getting it…
The people who gave you this ranking, they obviously get it.
Yes, but they get it from this particular moment. They get great food, they pay for it, but they don’t know the story. They don’t know the beginnings. If you’re getting famous and people know your name and know your restaurant, and then if you say, “Well, this tomato is blue,” they say, “Yeah, yeah, it’s blue, it’s blue!” But before, you couldn’t say that.
Just with the changes of the menu, people were saying, “But I was coming here for the mushroom ragout.”
And I’d say, “Well, we created something new and —”
“No! I want the mushroom ragout!”
I’d say, “Please, just give me a chance.”
“No! We’re going!”
Then I was doing bets with the customer. I said, “Okay, if you think that the stuff you used to eat here before was better, you don’t have to pay for this, and I’ll give you what you used to have.”
Did you lose any bets?
Never. But then, we are very social. We love our people. We are alive because of them, and they are great. They help us, and they are getting something very special. It’s a very special relationship. In Prague, you would pay three times more for the food and the whole ambiance. Last week, I had a guy from Munich, he said, “David, you are really crazy.” He’s a really wealthy guy. He said, “I never get halibut of this quality in Munich.” And you think, “Well, what should I do? Should I raise the prices?” Then I think, “No, why? Our way of getting more profit is going to be based on more organized reservation bookings. We’ll keep the prices where they are.” Tapas are a very unique way of eating. Even though some of our ideas would be worth it to price them higher, I don’t want to. To pay 300 crowns for three tapas, or to buy one main course for 300 crowns, that’s the level we should be at. It took almost four years, but it was a break-even year.
The ranking came out last month?
In November. I was in the States.
Was it a complete surprise?
There was a rumor going around. This gastronomic guy was organizing some food festivals, and we tried a few food festivals in the past. The marketing of the festival was quite good. But the sign-up fee was quite high.
But they gave me a call at the end of October and said, “Don’t you want to sign up for a few festivals?”
And we said, “No, we are not interested. We tried, and it hasn’t worked out.”
And she said, “We don’t know yet, but you probably will be very highly positioned, and the interest of the gastro-tourists will be really increasing this year.”
And I said, “No, we’re not going to sign up for any festival.”
And on the 20th of November I flew to the States. The 28th of November was the date of the announcement. On the 27th of November, the owner of this guide Pavel Maurer came over to the restaurant here. I was showing my brother his website, and I saw my dishes, my pictures. I thought, “Wow! What’s going on?” On the 28th, in the morning, I received a phone call from Lidove Noviny, which is one of the biggest newspapers in the Czech Republic. I thought, “Some of my friends are taking the mickey out of me.” It was half past 7 in the morning. So I said, “You fuckers…” I went back to sleep. One hour afterwards, Mr. Maurer called me: “Congratulations!” And I received over 100 emails in one day.
This was unique. This competition doesn’t make any difference if you’re in Prague or Brno. But to achieve something like that in a town of 15,000 people where you’re really struggling with suppliers, because they’re telling you from Prague, “We come down here once a week, and you should be glad that we’re coming.”
It was a great boost for my team. They saw that the direction I’m taking them is the right direction and they are on the right track. So it was great success for us.
Your wife mentioned that you were maybe thinking there might be a possibility of opening a second restaurant. Where are you in that process?
This is a very difficult question. We are so deep in love with our food. We take it so personally. It always takes two months before our new menu comes together. One day I’ll write about these two months. It’s working four times, sometimes five times a week, from 8 till 10 o’clock in the morning: arguing, creating, failing, achieving. And I’m not counting on our journeys to Italy or Spain, which would be also interesting to somehow integrate into the document. Now I think that I know the feeling when a band is introducing a new album, and they are watching their fans for their reactions. We make the menu and we’re just watching the people: seeing, and thinking, and loving, and feeling, and smelling our food, what we have worked on for two months.
But I would say more than doing it for business, we’re doing it for the feeling. Of course, we like to buy new machines for the kitchen. We like money. No one is doing anything for free. But we are punk. We’re doing it because we’re loving it.
It would be exciting to reproduce the same kind of atmosphere.
Yes. But the reason why we haven’t yet made the decision to open another restaurant is: it’s the Czech Republic. To make such a decision could be very expensive. The Czech habit is to steal everything that you see if you don’t have a whip above your head. I’ve promised my deputy and my head chef that they will become business partners in my company. So, the second project will definitely happen. I’m just waiting to make the right team of people. Some of them are still abroad, but they are coming home, and then the time will come.
The easiest way would be to go to Prague. Marianske Lazne is a very well known area for golf. In the summer, 30-40% of our clientele are golf players, mainly from Prague. Plus, many people from theater and many already famous people are coming to Marianske Lazne in the summer. To get them on our side, definitely the easiest way would be to open a second restaurant in Prague. Also we wouldn’t have a difficult time in Germany or Holland where people know much more about food. From the profit point of view, both destinations are attractive because we are also importers of wine, ham, cheeses—we import everything by ourselves. When I’m importing wine to Germany, I’m in Germany every second week, and I’m eating in restaurants. In comparison, our prices are really ridiculous. If you know how to calculate food, if you know where to buy the best ingredients for the best price, then food doesn’t have to cost so much. The other thing is, some cartel agreements in the big cities, if you go too low, someone will knock on your door and say, “Don’t be stupid. Don’t try to make us look stupid or greedy. Please, raise the prices to our level.”
But we have many clients from Holland who love our food. I have clients from Munich, Regensburg, Nuremberg, Weiden, who are coming for Friday night, Saturday lunch, and then Saturday afternoon they go back home. It’s amazing to achieve this outside of Southern Europe, where traveling for great food is normal. But it’s not common in Germany, in Holland, in Belgium …
It’s changing though.
Yes, it’s changing.
You have that great restaurant in Copenhagen …
That’s the new El Bulli.
Which reminds me: have you ever thought of introducing the Basque kind of cooking.
You mean, like in San Sebastian?
In Washington, Jose Andres combines the two. He does tapas, but he also does the infusions, the foams, and so on.
Yes, for example, like Heston Blumenthal in England. It’s great to never forget the roots of the dishes. I can imagine that one day I’ll make a pecorino spaghetti. I would have to dissolve the pecorino and get the cheese back to what it used to be, and then you can create a pecorino spaghetti. You can get a foam of eggs and make a carbonara, which would look like it came from Lazio, though maybe a little fluffier. If people want to create a great future, they first have to know the real history. It would be a great mistake to try to be smarter than our roots. You have to be really brave to take some old technique and introduce a new coat. We made several dishes which we are really really proud of, and we are not worried to present it to any native cook.
That’s what makes the Copenhagen restaurant so interesting, or there’s this restaurant in Istanbul that goes back to recipes from the 19th century. They are retrieving some of the forgotten history.
That’s very important. Humans are very fussy. Anything that was bad hasn’t survived. What has survived has to be really good, because people wouldn’t keep on doing something that doesn’t make sense for them. Did you have our prawns al siculi?
This is an example of one of our fusions. The al siculi recipe is coming from Messina, from Sicily. I studied Spanish history. Between the 12th and 14th century, the Aragons were very powerful in the Mediterranean area. They conquered Corsica, Sardinia. They conquered from Campania and the Napoli region down to Sicily. They conquered the duke of Athens. When I worked with two chefs from Sicily, one day they were making this dish. I hadn’t seen the beginning of the preparation. I just saw when they were serving it on the plate with the pasta. And I was thinking, “Where is this coming from?”
And they said, “Well this is a very Messina-based thing. My mom used to do it.”
I said, “I’ve never heard of it, never seen it anywhere else.”
They said, “Well, this is called al siculi.” And they start telling me their recipe. We knew that the Aragons had been for more than 400 years in Sicily. One of the most well known ingredients for the Aragons are migas, or crushed dried bread. When the shepherds used to go up in the Pyrenees, they’d stay there for three or four weeks, so it didn’t make sense to take fresh bread with them. They always dried at home little pieces of bread, and whatever they were cooking up there, they always threw a whole handful of these migas into the food. Because it was dried, it just absorbed the sauces. It got humid in the middle, not mushy, and it has become a great, structured food. So we thought, “Well, if the Aragons were in Messina, why don’t we create this dish not with pasta, but based on migas,” and we made it in that way.
So you basically created a dish that very likely existed in the past but had been changed over time.
Okay, last question. What do you think is the situation of the Czech economy right now? How would you evaluate that?
It’s not bad, compared to the other countries in Europe. If people work hard, they should be rewarded well. It’s a very dangerous fact in Czech society that people are working, paying taxes, and then there’s always some affair and some politically oriented theft happens. I’m not naive. I know that politicians everywhere steal money. But the point is how much they are doing for the living environment of people.
Let’s put it this way: You win the elections for mayor. You create a great basis for business in the city. You are working on infrastructure. You are getting money out of the EU funds for the town, for tourism, for a new athletic stadium. And then we find out that you have stolen, let’s say, 10 million crowns out of the budget. I wouldn’t care. I would say, “Well, it’s his problem, but he’s a good mayor.” But the problem is that in Europe, the politicians have become so greedy that they don’t give a shit about people.
Now, the government of the Czech Republic is trying to issue many new fees and commissions and taxes. What does it create? More tax advisors. They’re not going to pay for anything more. If they’re going to make stronger controls, people will close their companies and create black business. It’s the same thing with the boars.
The wild boars?
Yes, the wild boars. They try to push them into a particular corner of the forest. But 10 miles from this corner of the forest, there’s a cornfield. So the boars say, “Fuck it, we’re not going to live in the forest. We’re going to live in the cornfield.” This is exactly what’s happening in Europe. People who are so fed up with all those taxes, they just leave. The reason I love America, it’s not socialist. When a country is socialist orientated, it becomes so expensive that it’s impossible to pay from your own pocket. And the hardworking middle class risks going into debt that their children or grandchildren will have to pay. For example, I employ 10 people. I have officially registered all of them. I pay taxes for all of them. The state should create optimal conditions so that I would have the ability and ambition to open a second Medite.
And employ more people.
And employ more people. But they’re doing exactly the opposite. They treat you as a fourth or fifth gear of the engine. They’re giving you bad oil and bad fuel. And it’s really not good.
Marianske Lazne, February 25, 2013