Prague has become a mecca for food lovers
At the age of 13, Paul Day started working as a “Saturday lad” in a butcher shop in the West Midlands of England. Early on, he knew that he loved cooking and that he really loved meat. By age 18, Day owned his own butcher shop. At 20, he sold it and shortly thereafter made the move to London.
Day knew that he wanted to be a chef, although butchery is clearly his first love (as you will see). He worked as a butcher in London’s Chinatown while also working in numerous restaurants (mostly for free), learning to make Cantonese food while honing his knife, wok, roasting and other culinary skills. From there, the rise seems meteoric.
Day’s first real kitchen job was at Mezzo, a Sir Terence Conran restaurant. Within three weeks, he was promoted to chef de partie. Within two months, Day had a dish on the menu (a fermented sausage dish). He cooked a lot of Asian food and went on to become the sous-chef at Nobu Old Park Lane. He started consulting, helping others to open restaurants, which took him to Spain, Tokyo, Istanbul, Pakistan (although he freely admits going to Pakistan was more about watching cricket) and Italy.
Ultimately, Day wanted to get back in the kitchen. He heard of an opportunity and made the decision to come to Prague. In the process, he met the woman who would become his wife and purchased the space that, in 2011, became Sansho, a restaurant that would be at the forefront of Prague’s culinary revolution.
I first dined at Sansho in 2013 and to say that I was blown away would be an understatement. Ethereal and soul-satisfying are more accurate descriptions. Dining at Sansho piqued my curiosity about Prague’s culinary scene, but without question, meeting and speaking with owner/chef Paul Day that night, solidified my desire to come back, which I finally did earlier this year.
Prague is, straight up, a beautiful city. It mostly escaped heavy bombing and large-scale destruction during World War II. Under communism (1948–1989), though, the culinary soul of what used to be one of Europe’s cultural and gastronomic centres was decimated. Farms were nationalized (wineries included) and cooks across the country were directed to prepare dishes using a single state-approved cookbook called Recipes for Warm Meals. Dishes used pork, dumplings, red cabbage, pork, goulash and — did I mention pork? Culinary creativity was stifled and cooks across the country opted to offer the same few dishes using the same ingredients prepared the same way.
After the fall of communism, it was difficult to get fresh produce and quality meats. And, even when quality ingredients were available, few people knew what to do with them. However, according to the restaurateurs and local diners with whom I spoke, over the past 20 years, the country’s food culture has been shifting. Nowhere is this shift more prevalent than in Prague.
The evolution of Prague’s culinary scene in the five years since my last visit is remarkable. Day refers to the changes since he opened Sansho as “tremendous, massive and still changing.”
Prior to opening Sansho, Day decided that he only wanted to use Czech meat. Most Prague restaurants at the time were advertising meat from central America, the US and other countries. When Sansho opened, the restaurant was closed on Sundays and Mondays because those were the days that Day was butchering at the farms. Today, says Day, more Czech farmers understand that they can leave their animals outside and raise them slowly, the organic, natural way. He originally worked with three farmers, but now he says there are more than 40 working in this manner.
When Sansho first opened, the biggest challenge, according to Day, was his hefty CV of working in Michelin kitchens and the Czech perception of him being a luxury chef. Day did not want that image to conflict with his vision of relaxed, communal, scaled-down dining with the emphasis on the food. And, from Day 1, says Day proudly, it was the food that won the public over and Sansho took off.
With respect to the food, Day didn’t feel the need to change his style of cooking to meet a “Czech palate.” He explains that Czechs are quite adventurous, travel extensively and have a love of offal. Day didn’t hold back his Asian-inspired, nose-to-tail cuisine, which he describes as “Sansho-style” (and then quickly follows the description with his infectious laughter).
He is strongly influenced by his time working in Chinatown (Czech diners thought the softshell crab slider — a standard at Sansho — was fusion, but Day explains it’s actually a Chinatown classic). Day loves to cook with fish and meat together. For Thai dishes, he likes to use fish sauce on meat. He loves to combine anchovy and lamb; clams with beef tendon and yuzu; and prawn confit (in pork fat) with candied walnuts and broccoli (Day calls it another Chinatown favourite). Whenever possible, local Czech ingredients are utilized.
After opening Sansho, Day’s roots as a butcher led to his opening a butcher shop in 2012 (and then expanding it in 2017). The Real Meat Society (RMS) exclusively carries hormone and antibiotic-free, free-range, organic, naturally raised animals. The objective of RMS, according to Day, is not just to have a consistent source of quality meat for his restaurants, but also to make quality Czech meat more accessible to Czechs. The shop carries several heritage and local breeds of beef.
Day tells me that a group of young lamb farmers with whom he works have formed a cooperative (organic, hormone- and antibiotic-free, naturally raised) and are now helping older farmers adapt to the natural raising of animals. Before RMS, Day would, for free, show farmers how to butcher to improve quality. Day also gets his restaurant team into the shop to learn butchery. He especially wants the young chefs to learn the craft.
To Day’s delight, other restaurants have also started to be more concerned with the quality and provenance of the meat they are using. He is adamant that one “can’t be a serious chef unless you know where your meat is coming from.” A number of butcher shops have now opened in Prague. Day’s view is that “the more butcher shops there are, the better it is for all ” — consumers, restaurateurs and farmers.
Going back to butchery after 25 years of chefing is invigorating for Day and, significantly, his experience as a butcher and passion for naturally raised animals is transforming the Czech meat industry.
Because a busy restaurant and butcher shop weren’t enough, Day purchased a pub just across the way from Sansho. Maso a Kobliha (“Meat & Doughnuts”) serves a mix of British and Czech classics like Scotch eggs, beef pie, smoked tongue, fried cheese sliders, curry tripe and chips, smoked salmon cake, schnitzel and, of course, RMS sausages. The pub also serves as a commissary for making breads and desserts for Sansho and is another establishment that the butcher shop can supply with cheaper cuts of meat, allowing more prime cuts to be sold in the shop. Within six months of opening, Maso a Kobliha was recognized with the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand for good-quality, good-value cooking.
While Day’s establishments are at the forefront of Prague’s culinary revolution, he is not alone. At Day’s suggestion, I ate dinner at Eska. The restaurant is a two-level, casual, warm, sleek, lively, open-concept-style room with lots of two-tops that can be pushed together to encourage large groups and communal dining. The food was sublime with clean, unfussy preparations, including smoked beef tartare, Jerusalem artichoke soup, savoy cabbage sautéed with goat cheese and buckwheat, potatoes with smoked fish and grilled wild boar. Even more impressive were the wine pairings and the knowledgeable, relaxed and comfortable service. For each pairing, the server brought the bottle and poured the wine at the table with just the right amount of information about the producer, region and production. It was exactly what casual, proper wine service should be.
Day also directed me to go to Veltlin, a wine bar, which provided another “I love this city” experience. On the wall is a map depicting the Austro-Hungarian empire from 1912. This is relevant as, according to my server, Veltlin only serves “minimal intervention, environmentally friendly” wines from regions representing areas that were part of the former empire — namely, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria, Alto-Adige and Veneto. Furthermore, the bar has more than 1,000 wines, yet no wine list. As my server explained, customers let their server know what style, colour or whatever they feel like drinking and are brought two or three wines to taste and then decide — so “you don’t drink anything you don’t like.”
I asked for a fresh, minerally white with good acidity. The selections brought for me to taste were dead on and I decided on a Czech wine, the 2015 Novak Pinot Blanc from Moravia — one day on the skins and 12 months in acacia barrels, it possessed good acid, texture, depth and length. For my next glass, I selected the Milan Nestarec GinTonic 2015 with the message on the back label “I am feeling supersonic. Sauvignon Blanc is my Gin & Tonic” — it had pleasant acidity, lemon citrus and was nicely bitter. I finished with the single-vineyard Petr Kocarik Novosady Pinot Noir 2016 Moravia Czech Republic.
My server was knowledgeable and able to relay information about wines, producers and the vintages in a very relaxed and informative manner. He explained that the Czech wine industry has grown over the past five to eight years, but only a few smaller wineries with limited distribution are doing it at a high level. He went on to explain that Czech consumers are drinking Czech wines, so the producers don’t have to rely on tourists or exports. And because local wines are selling, local producers can reinvest in their vineyards and wineries. When I asked if he was an owner, I was stunned to discover that he had only been working at the wine bar for a year.
As much as the culinary scene in Prague has evolved, I was most impressed by the rapid evolution of the city’s wine culture over the past five years. There are numerous cities that did not have to deal with communism and that have had access to great-quality wines for decades, but do not come close to the casual, comfortable, knowledgeable and relaxed professionalism I experienced from the servers in Prague.
The culinary scene is Prague is exciting, vibrant and growing. New restaurants are being opened by locals and foreigners (the amount of foreign interest and investment is growing rapidly). Day has played and continues to play an integral role in Prague’s culinary revolution. He is heavily involved in the community, whether making haggis sandwiches at the Prague Whisky Festival, working weddings and special events with his repurposed Land Rover Defender (he took the side off and installed a charcoal grill to create Prague’s first “food truck”) or serving RMS’ ridiculously delicious sandwiches and Maso a Kobliha doughnuts at events promoting British culture.
I asked Day what he would like to see as the next evolution in Prague’s culinary journey. He indicates that a number of Czech chefs left Prague and are working in London, Australia, New York and other parts of the world. Day is looking forward to having them come back to Prague and reintroduce Czech heritage dishes, which are currently missing to a large extent.
Day is enthusiastic, passionate, joyful and committed. His objective has always been to cook for Czechs. As Prague’s culinary scene is receiving greater global recognition, culinary tourism to the city is on the rise. Day says tourism keeps him and his staff on their toes — Sansho is in Prague, but if they could pick up with all their local proteins and move the restaurant, he believes it would be successful anywhere. Day maintains that idealism with his staff. He has no good reason not to.