Last August I spent the first two nights of the press trip sponsored by Czech Tourism in New York at Prague’s Kempinski’s Hotel and the last three at Prague’s Four Seasons. I talked with the Executive Chefs at both hotels: Marek Fichtner of the Kempinksi’s “Le Grill” and Richard Fuchs of the Four Seasons’ “CottoCrudo.” Both are Czech-born but have lived all over the world. Richard Fuchs has risen through the ranks at Four Seasons hotels in Buenos Aires, Budapest, Cairo, Geneva, Paris, Sharm el Sheikh, Alexandria in Egypt, and Prague. Marek Fichtner has been the Executive Chef on several Celebrity Cruises ships and for the two Al Faisaliah five-star luxury hotels in Saudi Arabia, often cooking for members of the Saudi Royal family as well as the heads of state of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates at gatherings of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Returning home after 11 years abroad in 2008 to open “Le Grill,” for the past three years he’s also designed the in-flight business-class menus served on Czech Airlines.
Our tastes in food are closely connected to our childhood; what are your first memories of food?
RF: My grandmother’s cooking, especially her strong chicken broth with homemade noodles and her Moravian cakes with cottage cheese and apricot marmalade.
MF: I come from a mountainous region located in the northern part of the Czech Republic; it’s home to rather modest cuisine consisting mainly of potatoes, cabbage and mushrooms. I have very nice food memories from my childhood. My uncle was a gamekeeper, therefore he often brought various kinds of game to my parents and my mother prepared various dishes. I always enjoyed helping her in the kitchen and this interest in cooking remained in me until today.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
RF: Growing up in Prague, I was “into” sports, playing hockey from the age of five and eventually taking my hobby on ice to Canada. While my teenage teammates sustained themselves on who-knows-what, I did my own cooking with a keen eye on quality. I always searched markets for the right ingredients — the best quality oranges to squeeze my own juice, the best chicken for my dinner. The more I thought about quality, the more I thought maybe I could become a chef.
MF: I’ve always been fascinated by cooking, therefore becoming a chef was a logical choice as my future profession. Unfortunately, at the cooking schools in socialist Czechoslovakia there was no space for creativity. How to make dumplings, more dumplings and traditional Czech sauces was all I learned. Thanks to my aunt, who lived in Germany, I moved westwards and so finally discovered a new culinary world. It was the first time in my life that I saw a whole salmon or certain kinds of sauces. This made me want to see and discover more and more, so I decided to travel and gain experience in the kitchen.
If you look on my website www.lucygordan.com you will see that I have interviewed many chefs but never one who has worked in so many different places and on cruise ships like you. In all your years abroad, what did you miss the most about the Czech Republic besides family?
MF: I missed my friends and the region where I come from – the area of “Adrspach Rocks” located in northern part of the Czech Republic.
What Czech dish did you miss the most?
MF: I missed the dish of homemade beef with traditional Czech sauce called “svíková” prepared by my mother or grandmother – we have a special family recipe.
When you lived in Riyadh and worked for the Royal Family which of your dishes was the most favorite?
MF: From the Arabic kitchen it was the Lebanese mezzah (cold and hot). And from the European kitchen, my guests particularly enjoyed seafood prepared in various styles, especially my gratin scallops with rocket hollandaise.
Did they have tasters to test the foods for poison before they ate them?
MF: Usually not, but if the food was prepared for important state visits or directly for king Abdullah, the royal family had a team of tasters.
You have worked in many countries, can you tell me where and the names of the restaurants?
RF: I’ve worked for Four Seasons Hotels in Prague and Alexandria; and I did internships
at the Four Seasons Hotels George V, in Paris; Hotel des Bergues in Geneva; Gresham Palace in Budapest, and the Four Seasons Hotels in Cairo and Buenos Aires. I also worked for “Monastery Restaurant” in the Augustine Hotel, here in Prague. It belongs to Rocco Forte.
Who were your mentors and what did you learn from them?
RF: Vito Mollica, but I also have to mention our General Manager here at the Four Seasons, René Beauchamp. He has an amazing approach to people. It’s great when your boss understands your job and that’s his case. He is passionate about cooking, loves good products so what else could I wish for. I met Beauchamp first when we opened the Four Seasons here in Prague in February 2001 and then again when I returned in September 2011.
When they closed “Allegro” here at the Four Seasons, why did management decide to open another Italian restaurant when you’re not Italian?
RF: “Allegro” was opened at a time when there were no high quality Italian restaurants in Prague, and we decided to continue with “CottoCrudo” because Czech people just love Italian food. In 2008 Michelin awarded “Allegro” the first star to a restaurant in central and Eastern Europe. Management had been working with Andrea Accordi on setting up “CottoCrudo” for almost two years. [Then when Accordi left to open the Four Seasons in St. Petersburg] I was happy René Beauchamp, the General Manager, approached me with the offer to return to Prague. You don’t need to be Italian to cook good Italian cuisine. Your passport is not important in the kitchen. It’s your heart and passion for cooking that’s crucial.
I use as many local seasonal products as possible – the black pork is only one of the many. Our Bar or Room service menu also lists Czech delights including pastries.
What are the essential qualities of a top chef?
RF: A top chef must be humble, have respect for people and products, and be aware of the importance of teamwork. And of course, he or she should never comprise on quality even when using simple ingredients.
MF: I believe that a top chef has to be experienced, patient, has to have a sense of perfection, leadership skills and of course cooking has to be his or her hobby.
What do you like best about your work?
RF: I like the challenge in the kitchen, because life is one big challenge.
MF: Creativity. My job does not follow the instructions in a manual. I have to be creative every day. I have to put together new dishes, look for new ideas, products, and untraditional combinations.
RF: I don’t spend as much time with my family as I would like.
MF: Probably the paperwork in the office. I prefer to be in the kitchen with my team.
What’s your culinary philosophy?
RF: Cooking must come from your heart. And of course, your ingredients must be fresh, seasonal and local.
MF: I believe that the essence of delicious food is a combination of premium ingredients and striving for perfection in every dish. I always try to bring the best to my guests.
In a nutshell, how would you define your cuisine here at “Cotto Crudo” and at the “Kempinski”?
RF: A modern representation of Italian classics with an emphasis on local seasonal products.
MF: We always do our best to bring a real culinary adventure to our guests. As we have local as well as international guests in the hotel’s restaurants, we prepared a menu divided into two sections. The first part of the menu is inspired by international cuisine. Therefore its name is “Around the world with Marek.” And the second part consists of meals inspired by Czech cuisine. We named it “local favorites” and our goal in this part of the menu is to prepare untraditional combinations of traditional local ingredients or recipes.
What are your signature dish and other specialties?
RF: I love the black pork chop you ate and tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce.
MF: Very popular is “twice baked goat cheese soufflé with pecorino and tomato culis.” It is one of our favorite appetizers. And of course creamy white tomato soup; it’s prepared using a special process where we divide the clear tomato essence without the red pigment from the rest of the tomato. It’s really something special to offer a white tomato soup to our guests. From the local menu the favorite main course is a “Fillet from organic farm-raised Czech beef with smoked mashed potatoes, sautéed artichoke hearts with Lardo di Colonnata and Chioggia beetroot chips.”
How do you feel about guides and food critics?
RF: I admire them; tasting so much food and staying fit is so hard! Seriously, it is a very difficult job. When we get a good review, we appreciate it and think of it as a commitment to quality.
MF: I believe that listening to the opinions of other gastronomy professionals is very useful. The critics provide essential information about the quality of our food and other services and their opinions help us to improve ourselves.
Most of the chefs I’ve interviewed have their own restaurants, but two in particular, Peter Knogl in Basel and Heinz Beck in Rome, like you, have top restaurants in top hotels. They both told me they prefer that because it allows them to put all their energy into their dishes. Do you agree or someday do you hope to have your own restaurant? If so, where? In Prague or somewhere else?
RF: Yes, maybe in the future I can imagine having my own restaurant in the countryside with local Czech products. But for now I feel I’m at the right place.
MF: Kempinski’s concept is to be a “collection of individuals.” Every hotel in the chain is completely different and reflects the culture of the country where the hotel is located, especially through its restaurants. Therefore I have enough latitude to be creative and at the same time I have the backing of a strong international company, which allows me to focus entirely on my work. That is why I enjoy working for Kempinski. But maybe someday, when I will be much older, I might like to open my own restaurant in the region I come from.
Up to now you’ve told me about Richard Fuchs and Marek Fichtner the chefs; I’d like to know more about Richard Fuchs and Marek Fichtner as people. For example, what are your favorite foods?
RF: Anything simple and fresh.
MF: Since my return from abroad, I prefer light meals, preferably Mediterranean-style cuisine. Once in a while I enjoy typical Czech meals with dumplings and creamy sauces.
If you were in jail, on Death Row, what would you order as your last meal?
RF: Ha ha!
MF: Since I wouldn’t have to pay for this last meal of my life, I would order beefsteak prepared from a Wagyu beef.
A dish you dislike?
RF: Milk soup – I’ve hated it since my childhood.
Your favorite wines?
RF: Wines from Piedmont – Barbera, Barbaresco, Barolo.
MF: Light wines from the Czech Republic and elsewhere, for example Pinot Grigio.
A favorite dessert?
RF: All fruit desserts.
MF: All chocolate desserts.
Your favorite color, flower?
RF: Blue and I always buy gladioli for my wife.
MF: I don’t have any color preferences. All flowers are beautiful.
What zodiac sign are you?
What is never missing in your home refrigerator?
RF: Good speck from Italy.
MF: Butter, cheese, ham, and a selection of fresh vegetables.
Chefs are well known for having collections, often of motorcycles, fast cars, or watches; what about you?
RF: I can’t think of anything.
MF: Since I come from a small village, I like collecting old farming utensils. I have a great selection of vintage irons in my cottage.
Where do you like to go on vacation?
RF: Rome for its culinary offers. My favorite restaurants in Rome are “Il Pagliaccio,” “La Pergola” and the “Le Jardin de Russie” at Hotel De Russie, which belongs to Rocco Forte.
MF: Since I work for the Kempinski chain I prefer to travel within the chain, because I like discovering new cultures and every Kempinski hotel is unique and has its specific charm, which reflects the culture of the country.
Other chefs you admire?
RF: All the chefs I’ve ever worked with – it doesn’t matter what their position is or if they are famous.
MF: Michel Roux and René Redzepi. I met both of them personally and I really admire what they’ve achieved in the culinary world.
If you hadn’t become a chef, what other profession would you have chosen and why?
RF: Hard to say, I was always passionate about sports and food – so it would have to be something related to those fields.
MF: When I had to decide what to study, I considered two options: cooking or working with animals, for example, as a livestock specialist.