I kept looking back at the menu he created. Short – I wrote down in my journal – unlike most of the menus in hotel restaurants, refined yet simple, without blatant allusions to the Jewish roots of the neighborhood, no groats. A short investigation confirmed my suspicion that this PURO restaurant in Kraków’s Kazimierz offered a fresh and unpretentious cuisine where seasonal touches and nicely-sounding names turned every day into a celebration.
Kasia Pilitowska talks to Miłosz Kowalski*, chef at Halicka Eatery & Bar** at PURO Kraków Kazimierz.
I had a plan. I wanted to enter a bright hotel patio with its patinated rose walls wearing a lemon dress for a tasty contrast and enjoy a conversation about food and cooking with Miłosz. My plan didn’t work out. Miłosz – a devoted father and soccer fan – suffered a minor injury during a match on his son’s school soccer field. He welcomed me in his home in Wieliczka near Kraków. This means that, for now, I’ll have to resist sharing with you my impressions of the unique Halicka interior and move on to talking about food, Kraków, and one chef’s curious life.
How did it feel to become a chef at 25?
Scary. And I won’t lie if I say I was petrified but also felt incredibly excited at the thought of having absolute independence and being able to try out all the ideas for wonderful (or so I believed!) dishes I had in mind. My head was literally bursting with thoughts. The notion of me taking full responsibility for the kitchen was a bit paralyzing, though. I was shook. Everyone was five years older than me. Luckily, the team that came with me immediately found a common language with the one that had already worked there. Beginnings were tough, all about pushing our limits, observing one another’s work and setting up boundaries to find balance. You know, working in the kitchen means you’re in a constant rush, but my new position had me slow down every now and then and look at how other cooks worked. I would look at their faces and know what they were about to do. That’s what helped me understand them.
Do cooking schools in Poland live up to our times?
I’m not as into cooking schools as I used to, but I do appear at different competitions and watch emerging chefs at work. Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with living up to our times. Especially since I know what it’s like abroad. That’s where the young aim high, but they usually begin with dishwashing and then climb the ladder while gaining experience as interns. If they want to serve an apprenticeship with an excellent chef in a restaurant of their dreams they do everything they can to accomplish that. They will follow him/her on social media and go to great lengths to attract their attention and eventually cook with them. This is far from easy and that’s also a kind of approach that doesn’t exist in Poland. Here, students are mainly exposed to theory, taught by people who were thought in exactly the same, passive way and still don’t know much due to lack of experience. In the era of the Internet and open access to information, you should develop your skills and gain new experience on a daily basis. Students are indulged and babysat but what they really need to do to work in the kitchen is grow thick skin.
What does traditional cuisine mean to you?
It brings memories of home and evokes emotions. All I want to say is Poland and home, not old formulas and traditional recipes. I’ve learnt this from Scots who have so few characteristic dishes in their traditional cuisine. Haggis, for example, is cooked all over the world but still makes them beyond proud.
You speak so beautifully of home but work in hotel restaurants. We don’t usually associate them with warmth.
And it’s a challenge considering that sometimes a hotel becomes our second home. I wanted to change the persisting image of hotel cuisine as bland, expensive, eccentric, and often microwaved. That stereotype really gets on my nerves. If you work with people who think like you and do not prioritize costs and percents at all cost, things can be changed. All you need is devotion and a broader perspective. Halicka Eatery & Bar together with MAK, our bakery, are here to prove it. We’ve successfully accomplished our goal.
Why did you choose PURO?
PURO is the fourth hotel I’ve ever worked for. When I started I thought it would be like a corporation that follows certain schemes while I wasn’t (and still ain’t) someone who follows beaten paths. I’m more of a rebellious outsider. What I instantly liked about PURO was the environment where I could continue growing as a chef, as well as people who gave me a lot of freedom. I not only want people to stay at PURO – I want them to come and eat at Miłosz Kowalski’s.
How do you come up with the menu?
I choose whatever a given season has to offer, so – in my kitchen – you won’t find strawberries in winter. I go to Targ Pietruszkowy farmers’ market to buy fruit and vegetables, meet people, and see if I can get anything new and from whom. I look for inspiration but also balance – especially in winter when I pick less popular vegetables like a root parsley or a beetroot. The latter gives so much to work with!
What matters to PURO apart from food? Imagine entering the restaurant as a guest for the first time.
No one has ever asked me that question and it’s pretty difficult to get rid of what I already know, but I’ll try. Atmosphere, I think, is what matters a lot, obviously. It’s like entering someone’s home and being greeted with hi, welcome, let me take your coat, do you need something to drink? lemonade, perhaps? make yourself comfortable. That’s how I see it. The interior design of a restaurant should suggest what kind of cuisine we are to expect. Halicka’s design implies originality, difference, and something out-of-the-hotel-ordinary – no famous high-end hotel scallops will be served here. One look at artworks and designer furniture and you know you’re going to be surprised.
If you went to a farmers’ market today, what would you bring?
A pumpkin and potatoes. Carrots, pears, apples, and plums. I would also take shallots and onions and look for good-quality maturing goat or sheep cheese.
What are your favorite local products?
Brown trout from Ojców. I’ve liked it even more since I found out that Agnieszka Sendor, the owner of the farm, grew up in my neighborhood in Prądnik Czerwony where some of the best thing in life happened to me and, of course, where my home is... I also like apples from Łącko, cheese from Kozia Łąka from Ms. Bożena Sokolowska, as well as delicious goat halva and niedźwiednik cheese. The trout and these particular types of cheese feature prominently in the the menu at Halicka. I once dined at Koziarnia owned by Mr. and Ms. Lorek. Ms. Jadwiga prepared home-made pasta with mushrooms and butter, heavily sprinkled with home-made cheese – everything was delicious. We have a local soup on the menu that comes from the Skały region and it’s called “łojoki”. There’s a story behind it, actually. One of my colleagues, Damian, comes from Skały and his grandma prepares the soup quite often. Łojoki is a name for boiled dumplings made of flour, eggs, and beef tallow left from the cooking of broth used as one of the soup ingredients. When Damian told me the story I pictured a wooden hut with his grandma inside, hens clustering around her and cows mooing in the distance. I loved that scene! I revamped the dumplings with a hint of foie gras and introduced the soup to the menu.
At home, what do you usually prepare for breakfast?
My older son is a challenge because he doesn’t eat sautéd vegetables. I have to smuggle them so that he doesn’t know that’s exactly what he’s eating. My frequent Saturday or Sunday choice is English breakfast, especially since my son loves fried bacon. If we want it sweet, I prepare pancakes, but serve them only with powder sugar and a bit of lime juice. If we want to boost our energy after a workout, I’ll serve pancakes with home-made nutella. For my wife I usually cook vegetarian, gluten free meals, low in lactose, with a lot of vegetables. She loves avocados and seasonal fruit. She’s another challenge of mine.
Any must haves in your fridge?
Cheese, butter, good wine. And maturing ham -- I always have it stashed somewhere.
What would you use potatoes for?
Potato pancakes with pumpkin. And why? Because it’s another son-related challenge – making vegetables invisible. I would top them with very creamy yoghurt and add a low-salt cucumber.
What will the autumn-winter PURO taste like?
Like classics – a thick piece of meat braised in red wine, a beef cheek or pork. One such dish in a winter menu is a must. I’d also love to use parsley root, I think it’s a really nice vegetable that makes for a sexy purée! Beetroots too – red, white, yellow – I always think of using them. I’d love to serve something potato-based yet extraordinary, e.g. chips made of potato peelings, something I haven’t done yet and may soon have a chance to prepare. It somehow happens that PURO attracts people who don’t eat meat and that’s why we find it relatively easy to think of and prepare meat-free dishes. Yet it’s also a challenge for me. I’m all about beef, whiskey, red wine, porto, and fat cream, but I also like the taste of beans with butter or potatoes with a fried egg and kefir I remember from childhood. I once made a very simple dish here at PURO: cucumber yoghurt in a glass, young potatoes, fried egg and fried asparagus. Everyone loved it.
I haven’t noticed any groats on the menu.
Perhaps it’s high time we introduced them?
*Miłosz Kowalski, chef at Halicka Eatery & Bar, distinguished by Gault&Millau in the Traditional Cuisine category. A pioneer in proving that hotel restaurants can be places where top-quality products equal incredible taste and affordable price while simple ingredients can be transformed into marvels. He worked at a UK-based Michelin-star Mallory Court Hotel and Ashorne Hill. In Kraków, he was a chef at Radisson Blu and Hilton Garden Inn Kraków Airport. A father of two sons with whom he shares his passion for soccer, American football, swimming, and F1.
**Halicka Eatery & Bar takes its name from the street where it’s located. More than a restaurant and a cocktail bar, Halicka is where you can enjoy meetings with art during open air movie screenings in summertime, late night jazz concerts and unique events organized as part of the “OKO na Krakow / EYE on Krakow” series hosted by Usta Magazine.