The Czech cooking scene – chef Ondrej Molina
We met the chef Ondrej Monlina who told us about special and interest things about the life of being a chef and managing an own restaurant.
A journey for profession
Did you want to be a chef right from the start?
Honestly? No! I didn’t do particularly well at school, which meant I had only a few options when choosing a career and I decided to begin training as a chef. Back then I didn’t know anything about the cooking scene. I was extremely lucky, because I fell in love with my work and the profession, and early on as a young trainee I had the opportunity to work in Italy, which simply intensified my love of the profession. So in retrospect I can thank my average school grades but also Italy, where the cookery profession is synonymous with passion and appreciation.
How was your experience of working as a chef in New Zealand and England?
Experience abroad did me a world of good and was somehow necessary for me to develop further as a person and in my profession as a cook. Everyone should go on a journey like that if they can. It’s not as if it will do them any harm. No matter how much, you always gain something that will help you later on.
When I arrived in New Zealand, I was a young and inexperienced chef. The team never made me aware of this, instead giving me the confidence I needed to believe in myself and my work, which was crucial for me at that stage.
In London, especially in the Michelin star environment, things were different and very tough. There was little teamwork there, and many people weren’t bothered by the dog-eat-dog atmosphere or if colleagues crumbled under the pressure. You could say it was more about getting your stuff done and surviving. I’m not being judgemental, but just telling it like it was. Thankfully, my previous experience meant I was able to deal with it, and of course no one forces you to work there.
Where would you like to work?
In Norway. It is a beautiful country, and for me as a cook it would be a completely different and therefore enriching experience. Scandinavian cuisine as such is very authentic, and given all the modern reinterpretations I find it highly appealing as a chef.
Running an own restaurant and future dreams
You first had a restaurant of your own at the age of 25?
Yes. I cooked seasonal menus in my own little restaurant. I closed after two years and am now on the move again: It’s time to move on.
If I were to open another restaurant, it would be in the style of modern European cuisine, because that wouldn’t restrict me too much.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Hopefully I will have found the right balance between career, free time and enough money to live. What I can imagine very well is participating in a number of mini-restaurants. I love the idea of small, specialised restaurants with a lower risk. I’d also be open to working as a personal chef, or as a chef consultant for larger restaurants which would value my experience as a chef and use it to their advantage.
What are your thoughts on Michelin stars?
No thanks. If it’s a question of gaining experience as a chef with Michelin-starred cooking, like when I was fortunate enough to work with a chef who held two stars, then that’s fine. But all the rest of it is pointless in my opinion: It’s all just about money.
In Moscow, Vladimir Mukhin of the restaurant White Rabbit is reinterpreting Russian cuisine – and he’s proving hugely successful. Is there anything similar in Prague or any other Czech city?
Yes, we have that too and the trend is growing. One of the best-rated Michelin-starred restaurants here in the Czech Republic is La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise (www.ladegustation.cz), which is very similar to the likes of White Rabbit and Dinner by Heston (www.dinnerbyheston.com) in London and Melbourne. Essentially, what they do is simple: They use very old local cookery books, reinterpret them and combine them with modern cooking techniques, which all results in amazingly good food.
Cooking and eating in Czech
What typical Czech dishes would be the basis for this?
Unfortunately, during the communist period many of these dishes took a back seat and were no longer practised, meaning they weren’t passed on from one cook to another. Now Czech chefs are really keen to trace their origins.
Braising is an integral part of Czech food, followed by really heavy sauces and very slow cooking. So it isn’t all that removed from French cuisine. And of course – and there’s no link to France here – dumplings, dumplings, dumplings, … pork, and beer.
Are there any good Czech restaurants abroad?
Yes, for example in England and Australia. With this trend we currently have at home towards reinterpreting local dishes, there will no doubt soon be a lot more restaurants opening abroad. People abroad are more open to this kind of culinary and historical journey of discovery than we often think, and unfortunately it’s not possible to simple pop over to the Czech Republic whenever you feel like it. So it makes sense to take your cuisine to the people who are interested in it.
In addition to these reinterpretations of Czech cuisine, what are the other current trends among chefs in the Czech Republic?
The larger cities are experiencing a major boom in very small restaurants, which are more like bistros, which can always cook food fresh to order.
There is currently also a considerable influence from Nordic cuisine.
What is more or less declining would be the fine-dining places away from the international hotel chains.
A huge number of Czech chefs are still working abroad. This trend is here to stay – and may even increase. Young chefs gather experience abroad in order to add value before returning to their home country one day; they can then put that experience on their CV or use it to start a business of their own.
At the moment it’s still very tough for chefs who have spent a long time working in highly sophisticated restaurants abroad and then struggle to find comparable employment in the Czech Republic. Like me, these cooks then often attempt to start something small of their own or try their hand at something new.
How well established are food trucks in the Czech Republic?
We had a big initial wave, which only a few survived. We’re currently experiencing a second wave with a few new providers. How long it will last, and how many will survive, is anyone’s guess. I think the idea of food trucks, in the sense of big caravans, will fizzle out at some point. What seems much more interesting is the idea of individual food trucks for supplying lunch near offices or for booking for events. That shifts the focus back to the individual chef and his or her expertise.
Besides food trucks, the area of street food and good fast food has far more potential, and probably not just in the Czech Republic.