By the way he speaks, one might think Zdeněk Pohlreich doesn’t like classic Czech food. Ironic, since the celebrity master chef counts the famous Czech landmark Café Imperial as one of the three restaurants for which he is responsible. But the reality is, Pohlreich just abhors anything poor quality or status quo (and isn’t afraid to say it), a trait which has made him one of the most famous names in Czech gastronomy in and out of the kitchen.
In addition to being at the helm of Café Imperial and the Michelin award-winning Italian inspired Divinis, Pohlreich recently opened Next Door by Imperial (and you can probably guess its location and proximity to its sister restaurant by the name). Then there’s the numerous cookbooks, endorsements and of course, many appearances on television shows. Most notably, Pohlreich has been the face of Ano, Šéfe!, a Czech reality show similar to Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares.
Pohlreich’s story begins in Czechoslovakia, where he grew up surrounded by the same types of food. Everywhere. Under the normalized political system, prices, quality and even creativity were standardized, so there wasn’t a variety of cuisines available. Rather, Pohlreich recalls “there were 10 percent of the restaurants available today. And success was guaranteed, because there were no choices, and no arguments.” To him, Czech food was boring because “the recipe book was government ruled.” This was the reality of Czechoslovak “gastronomy” (though he hesitates to call it that).
In the 1980s, Pohlreich’s desire to explore the world outside of then-Czechoslovakia eventually led him to Australia. There, things changed. Suddenly, there wasn’t the same monotony of standardized dishes; but it was harder to find a job, too.
The master chef we know today spent his first weeks in Adelaide, Australia going door to door in search of an open position in whatever kitchen would take him. Finally, he found a gig at a French bistro called “La Guillotine,” a name which he joked is fitting because for the first time, his work was challenged. He remembers being surprised to hear, “this is not good enough, do it again” – something he had never heard in a Czechoslavakian kitchen. Already in his 30s, Pohlreich learned a new and important lesson about quality that has become one of his signature culinary priorities.
Returning to Prague, Pohlreich’s experience with Western cuisine and standards fit well into in upscale hotel restaurants like Renaissance, Villa Voyta, Radisson SAS and Marriott. In 2007, Pohlreich says he left the “safe” corporate hotel world to be the executive chef at the newly reopened Hotel and Café Imperial. Around the same time, his strong connections in “the small village of Prague” suggested he lead a reality TV show all about raising standards. Ano, Šéfe! (Yes, Boss!), has Pohlreich travel to restaurants all around the Czech Republic and help restaurateurs improve their establishments.
Pohlreich noted that, although the TV work was unexpected, it works for him. “There are no rules, you just comment on the situation,” he explains, and “I’m not having problems being…brutally honest.” He describes the Czech standard as problematic, but improving, reminding us that “in 1989, there were no veggies, and you were lucky if the toilets were clean.”
He has seen great improvements in the last 30 years, but fans of Ano, Šéfe! know he won’t hold his tongue when it comes to critiquing each restaurant’s food, decor and personnel. Pohlreich doesn’t mind his reputation, though, and at the end of the day, he knows “it’s just TV, it’s not your life.” This realization developed in the face of over-intrusive media exposure which has, at times, been the downside of TV notoriety. However, Pohlreich says he got used to the added pressure. He maintains that “it was good it happened to me at the age of 50, because then you have some wisdom…I was always thinking about my TV career…as something what started, and can finish overnight.”
Indeed, while he continues to record several TV programs, Pohlreich’s primary focus and passion is still the cooking itself. Last year, the owner of Imperial Hotel offered Pohlreich the chance to design and open a restaurant in the space across from Café Imperial. Pohlreich let his dream come to life inside the walls of Next Door by Imperial, which he calls “the most beautiful of our restaurants.”
Next Door consists of a series of three adjoining rooms, each with slightly different feel. There are high ceilings and earth tones, and the first two rooms have a calm atmosphere. By contrast, the third room is a bright, bustling space with tables around the edges and booth seating in the middle. Lit from above by a glass ceiling, one side of the room contains three open “windows” which directly connect the customers to the kitchen. There you can see the kitchen staff as they prepare a menu based on old Austro-Hungarian and Central European standards with a modern twist.
Pohlreich’s aim for the cuisine, as with the place, is to be “light, visual, and modern.” Though the quality is high, his intention was “not fine dining, but more of a Parisian bistro level.” He is very satisfied with the result of their work on this restaurant, and believes it is the “first hotel restaurant where people forget they’re in the hotel.”
At Next Door by Imperial, customers will find that the menu reflects Pohlreich’s culinary values of simplicity and consistency. They produce traditional Czech and Central European dishes like duck, schnitzel, and “svíčková” (beef tenderloin), as well as internationally-inspired choices such as Chilean sea bass and croque-monsieur. For Pohlreich, “the future of Czech gastronomy will be the ability to accept other countries’ standards, not just, ‘this is Czech, the rule, forever.” In his opinion, strictly Czech food “at the moment is not good enough – we need to be international.”
Rather than the traditional “filling, heavy portions” he grew up eating and preparing, the chef prefers something “light and well-cooked.” And for Pohlreich, the ingredients have to be good, but not always local. “Nobody wants to eat carp,” he states. “Number one, we want it to be good, then local. Freshness is important, and consistency is the key.” That, and simplicity. While Pohlreich is optimistic about the direction in which Czech gastronomy is headed, he warns that the modernization shouldn’t get out of hand. There are times “when you read the ingredients list and get to the end, and you forget what you read at the beginning. A lot of young chefs are getting lost in their own games, and that’s not for me anymore. I’m quite happy I did it the way I did it.”
Judging from the menu and atmosphere at Next Door by Imperial, it seems Pohlreich has found his sweet spot between high standards and simplicity. He has designed the restaurant as a place where he would want to eat, and as a place where he would want to spend time. And indeed, he still does.
Describing his typical day, the celebrity chef – and husband, and father, and friend – says, “I wake up early, about 6 a.m., whether it’s Monday or weekend…In the morning I run through my email, I go out with the dogs, make coffee for my wife… And I enjoy coming to the restaurant and talking to people.” Though he is not usually involved in the food production, he explains that “cooking is still one of the most comfortable things I find in my life.”
American chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain has a chapter (in Kitchen Confidential) where he describes his life – how lost he is in the outside world, yet how comfortable he feels when he is cooking just a piece of meat, because he can relate to it, no problems.” Pohlreich shares this sentiment. When Next Door by Imperial opened last year, Pohlreich was in the kitchen for six hours a day. He fondly remembers “the hiss of the dishwasher, the clatter of the pans and all that. That’s my environment… TV is just something I’m visiting. [Cooking] is, I think, in my blood.”
By Molly Emmett