When Gordon Ramsay abandoned his Maze restaurant in Prague after barely a year, many saw it as evidence the Czech capital wasn’t ready for the sophistication and the price tag that comes with a culinary master.
How things can change in three short years.
Today, the city is home to two restaurants with Michelin stars -- both headed by Czech chefs -- and six venues with a Bib Gourmand. Tourists may still come for the beer and the Old Town rather than for fine dining, but there’s no question Prague now has something to offer in terms of great food.
“Prague gastronomy is experiencing an enormous boom,” said chef Roman Paulus, whose Radisson Blu Alcron restaurant received its first star this year. “I feel really lucky to be in my most productive age now, because I have the unique chance to help create the new school of Czech haute cuisine, rather than follow in someone else’s footsteps.”
Decades of communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia took their toll both on the culture of dining and on the quality of ingredients. Land appropriation, followed by the creation of cooperatives in the 1950s, wiped out small farmers and shifted focus solely on quantity.
By the time the regime collapsed in 1989, the country was a culinary wasteland dominated by greasy sausages, rubbery dumplings and deep-fried cheese. It took Czechs two decades to start appreciating quality food again, said Paulus, who honed his skills at the Savoy in London and the Hilton Vienna Plaza.
Czechs represent more than 60 percent of Alcron’s patrons. That’s a shift from the days when the expensive restaurant, whose Art Deco interior is adorned by Tamara de Lempicka’s dancing couples, was frequented mostly by well-heeled tourists. Paulus said he tries to use as much local produce as possible, helping to revive small-scale production of quality ingredients.
“It’s still a far cry from France or Germany, where farmers weren’t trampled by the communists,” he said. “But farmers are beginning to understand that mass production is no longer profitable, and they’d better concentrate on quality.”
Ordinary Czechs are increasingly willing to pay a little extra for quality, said Tomas Vesela, a representative of Bohaemer Spargel Kultur, which specializes in growing asparagus.
“People are finally becoming respectful of good produce,” he said. “Czechs used to shun quality because of the price, but no more.”
Top-notch seasonal local produce is also at the heart of the success of La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise, the other Prague restaurant that earned a star this year. Chef Oldrich Sahajdak draws inspiration from a 19th-century cookbook written by Marie B. Svobodova.
Sahajdak showcases the Czech terroir. A recent seven-course menu included cold smoked south Bohemian trout with buttermilk, fennel, chives and trout eggs; a south-Bohemian catfish in Moravian sparkling-wine sauce; a rabbit with juniper and beetroot essence; and the pungent, fermented olomoucke tvaruzky cheese.
The Czechs still have a long way to go, according to Pavel Maurer, the founder of the annual Prague Food Festival, who publishes a “Top 100” list of Czech restaurants. The really good restaurants are too expensive for most people, while most of the cheap ones compromise on quality, he said.
“What we’re missing is the middle tier, the affordable but good bistros,” Maurer said. “The problem is that we don’t yet have a strong, affluent middle class, and even wealthy people aren’t necessarily willing to spend money on food. It’s about culture. We need to rebuild it from scratch.”
Still, the proliferation of cooking TV shows, food events and culinary courses indicate that a growing number of Czechs is once again taking interest in what’s on their plate.
“It’s true that a typical Czech still wants a full plate for as little money as possible,” Maurer said. “But there is a growing group of mostly young foodies who love good cooking, and that warms my heart.”
(Ladka Bauerova is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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