A philosopher by profession – a cook by birth. A man with a mission, enthusiast of regional products, lover and worldwide propagator of Polish cuisine – finally – a magnificent orator you can listen to ceaselessly. Today, he is the Chef of a restaurant recommended in the Michelin guide – the Ed Red in Kraków.
Adam Chrząstowski in conversation with Kasia Pilitowska.
You graduated from a cooking school in the 1980s. Was there anything to cook from back then?
No, there wasn't. I graduated from school in 1987 and, back then, everything was being sold for ration stamps, but you would always figure something out - that was the country's way of living. We were cooking mainly flour dishes, from potatoes, to provide substitutes of some kind, you know. When I started my training period in, I have to admit, some of the pretty decent hotels, nothing changed: trickery, alcohol, deals. At the time I was graduating from the cooking school I didn't expect I would ever come back to the cooking industry.
But you chose your school consciously, didn’t you?
Yes, I did. I've always enjoyed cooking. We can say I've been cooking since childhood. I used to prepare wonderful and nutritious soups for all household members who came back home later than I did. So I chose the school with a belief it would be fun. However, there were no products to cook from and nothing to cook on. The curriculum didn't correspond with reality. The focus was put on theory – time had to be filled somehow if we were to spend hours without real cooking. But of what use is for a cook to know details about the structure of amino acid? It is needed at certain point in order to cook consciously. Nevertheless, I kept having an impression I was going to become a chemist, biologist or a food technologist. I became really discouraged.
You went to a university anyway.
Yes, but my major was by no means connected with cooking. It was a period marked with youth revolt, I was interested in sociology and philosophy and I wouldn't go to the army for love or money. Back then, you used to spend two years in the army, but if you studied you had to serve only a couple of months after graduation. And I, orthodox as I am, despised the idea of putting on a uniform. Fortunately enough, there were two universities whose graduates were not welcome in the army of Polish People's Republic: the Catholic University of Lublin and the Academy of Catholic Theology (Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw). Paradoxically, my studies didn't let me forget about cooking. Back in that times, students of these infamous universities didn't have any trouble getting passports because Polish authorities hoped that unwelcome students would stay "in the West". Every summer vacation I spent abroad. I wanted to travel; therefore, I had to work. Hence, I kept wandering from one restaurant to another, telling everyone I was a cook by profession and I finally got a job. My hands still remember when, one time, they had to cut tones of veal into schnitzel sized pieces. I was earning money and moving from place to place.
Did you stay somewhere for a longer period?
Yes, in Switzerland. Because I had a year-long legal visa, I got a job at a restaurant that belonged to a brother of a farmer I'd been working for. The moment I saw the restaurant for the first time I thought: “If one day the cooking industry in Poland looks like that, I will want to work in it." I was in total awe. I came back to Poland, obtained my degree and found a job at the Bristol hotel.
There are legends going around that your menu from the Bristol hotel served as an inspiration for the whole Poland.
First of all, I was not the only author of the menu. There was the whole team with Kurt Scheller at the head. Kurt, a Swiss, appreciated my CV, knowledge of English and the fact I was acquainted not only with the Polish culinary environment. Using capital letters, he wrote "GUT” (a German word for "good”) on my job application and that’s basically how I got employed.
What were you cooking out there?
Everything I’d had in my mind until I started working in the hotel was turned upside down! The Bristol was an open space – open to people and the media. Kurt himself was an incredible media darling. His beret, bushy mustache... He didn't hide anything but took pride in our cuisine and what we did in general. And there was a lot to be proud of. It was a revolution. He was the first to import lobsters, caviar in hundreds of kilograms, oysters, shrimps, tuna, lamb from New Zealand, foie gras – products the majority of people had never tried before. For us, the cooks, it was a perfect occasion to finally cook like the rest of the world.
Did you have skills the rest of the world had?
This cuisine was not complicated and our bosses treated us like children. It was necessary to distance oneself from the Polish past in order to be successful. First of all, change the basic thinking: forget about powdered products, half-products, substitutes, coatings and gigantic amounts of oil. Get rid of a deep fryer. You know, now, when I visit various places in Poland, take part in numerous meetings and enter a kitchen or read a menu, I have an impression that if it was prohibited to use a deep fryer in the cooking industry, 90% of restaurants would go bankrupt.
What is your cuisine like?
It is a new Polish cuisine. The Bristol experience let me get to know products and new techniques. However; no cook can escape from traveling if they want to develop themselves. You cannot taste or experience anything through a computer, TV or even a book. It is indispensable to keep acquainting yourself with new tastes, ways and techniques of cooking. Only on such an experience can cooks build their own career and set up their goals. When I was travelling China I realized that, in my case, there was no sense cooking anything but Polish food. I grew up surrounded by the Polish cooking tradition. In the 1970s, neither “Polish ham” nor a glass bottle of Pepsi were things I strived for. I grew up in one of the Polish ethnic regions – Kurpie, in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains. I used to spend summer vacations at my uncle’s where, together with other boys from the village, I was catching burbots and crayfish with my bare hands. We were catching quails as well; though, by means of some unconventional methods. Simultaneously, I was learning to respect food and products. I remember when once, for fun, I caught a bunch of roaches and other little fish and fed them to cats. My aunt got really mad at me and said that If I wasn’t going to eat what I caught I should not be doing it in the first place. She told me to dress what was left of fish and use it. So I decided to make chops for supper. These tastes occupy space in my mind even today. And I miss them. I cook Polish food because an Italian will always know better how to cook Italian, and a Chinese how to cook Chinese.
You left the Ancora restaurant for the Ed Reda restaurant. A local product was substituted by...what?
It was the philosophy of the place that really changed. The style changed as well –Ancora is more of a fine dining restaurant, whereas Ed Red is casual. Cuisine remains the same – still based on products that hide nothing from us: where a cow comes from, what she ate, how she was grazed and slaughtered. The quality of our meat depends on these factors because we are the first in Poland to start dry steak seasoning. This technology requires us to strictly control meat before it arrives at our restaurant because what really matters is the taste of meat itself. I can feel it if a cow is kept under a roof and fed with silage only or if it is grazed properly: then, you can smell a meadow. That is why I serve properly cooked steaks on a board with salt, pepper and herbs served separately. I want a client to taste meat and decide whether or not s/he wants to season it. Instead of olive, I use Polish rapeseed oil.
You used to hold a position of a Culinary Consultant at the Department of Coordination of Polish Leadership of the Council of the EU at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Poland, you are active in Paris where you promote Polish cuisine under the aegis of the Polish Institute, you write. Why do you bother with all of this?
Yes, the first title is probably the longest title in the world. I want to contribute to changes in how people perceive Polish cuisine. It stems from the need to share my knowledge, experience and thoughts, but also from anger. On the one hand, because Polish cuisine has very poor and negative PR all over the world and on the other hand – we, Poles, are still not proud of what we have. I go to Białowieża and hear women complaining that they cannot buy mascarpone cheese to make tiramisu. They live in the heart of Białowieża Forest replete with goats and cows - I am so stubborn I would milk even a bison – whose milk can be successfully used to bake some traditional pies reminiscent of the region. I try hard to change people's mentality through my publications, workshops and trainings. I teach that products we possess are special and only a hint of knowledge and skill as well as a little bit of insight into our tradition suffice to create dishes that meet international standards. I dream about Poland becoming a culinary destination just like Italy, Spain, France or even Japan.
What cuisine do you like?
A product always stands as a point of departure. Of course I won’t be eating crayfish, tenderloin of deer or sturgeon on everyday basis. I can’t afford it; besides, it is something we eat only on special occasions when we celebrate significant moments of our lives. There is a whole range of delicious and cheap food we can eat with relish every day: variety meat, fish, cheese, vegetables.
Is it true you love herring and look for it in every region of Poland?
I love herring – I'm a real herring eater. Whenever I can I go to Szczecin and visit a culinary club where a dozen men gather at the Nights of Herring Eaters. They have an ambition to prepare and eat only herring dishes – every time prepared differently. The Nights have been organized for 6 years now. I happened to win the competition once – I marinated herring in the lapsang souchong tea and smoked it.
What is the most extraordinary dish you have ever prepared?
Saddle of venison coated in Porcini mushrooms – an absolutely seasonal dish I'd never prepare in the off-season. It is the quintessence of what I think. Top-class Polish game meat, seasonalness, autumn. Another dish is cream of crayfish which is a variation on lobster bisque.
Where else would you like to travel?
I haven’t been yet to Bilbao, San Sebastian and the Basque Country. Allegedly, in these places people are crazy about cooking – there are clubs where they meet and cook together. And that's what I would like to experience. I have never been to Copenhagen either; though I don’t know whether I’d visit Noma… And I’d gladly go to Sao Paulo to Alex Atala’s restaurant D.O.M. – one of the greatest restaurants in the world. My second culinary guru is Thomas Keller from the American restaurant The French Laundry whose career full of ups and downs is fascinating. Doing all this, I would remain a humble man full of distance towards myself and respect for others.
Thank you very much for the conversation!
Photos of people: Basia Wadach
Photos of food and interiors: Bartek Senkowski
You have to drop by to Ed Red!