INTERVIEW: Chef Marek Fichtner on Czechia's upcoming 'culinary Olympics' and why Michelin matters

A former MasterChef Česko judge, current president of Bocuse d’Or academy, and chef of Prague's Červený Jelen opens up about the industry.

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas Published on 28.04.2023 17:00:00 (updated on 29.04.2023) Reading time: 9 minutes

Marek Fichtner is having a golden year. The chef of the Prague restaurant Červený Jelen and former MasterChef Česko judge was recently awarded Gastro & Hotel magazine's Golden Chef prize for 2022 and is currently president of the prestigious Bocuse d’Or (Golden Bocuse) academy.

In advance of the Bocuse d’Or competition, coming to Prague’s O2 arena from May 4–6 as part of the Makro Czech Gastro Fest, we spoke to Fichtner about the significance of the competition for Czech gastronomy, Czechia’s ongoing Michelin controversy, and why he tries to steer foreigners away from fried cheese.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Marek Fichtner
Marek Fichtner

Congratulations on winning the Golden Chef. What is this award for?

The Golden Chef is chosen by a jury, they put together a list of 10 chefs and they give this to experts, journalists, and other personalities from the world of gastronomy. This is the result of the work of our team at Červený Jelen and the other talented chefs I have had the pleasure of working with. It is a great honor for me that my efforts so far have been recognized in this way.

You're so busy these days, running Červený Jelen, which is two restaurants in one, hosting a visiting chef series, and presiding over the Bocuse d’Or Czech Academy. When do you sleep? 

Every chef I know is the hardest-working chef. Sometimes I’m here for 12 to 14 hours or sometimes just 6, but when I leave for home and travel an hour on the train, work is still on my mind.

You aren’t a Praguer?

I need the countryside. I’m not a city person. I need a garden and grass, I have a kitchen garden. I grew up like that – since I was a child my parents were planting carrots, celery, potatoes. They still do so and more than me. I plant tomatoes, peppers, kohlrabi, radishes, red currants. Zucchini is my favorite thing.

Talking about basic ingredients is good starting point for talking about Bocuse d’Or. Why were potatoes and rabbit loin chosen as what the competing Czech chefs will base their meals on?

Potatoes belong to our cuisine. You can’t have Czech food without potatoes or garlic, onion, or rabbit. I think all the European countries share these most basic ingredients, garlic, onions, and carrot.

Bocuse d’Or|Known internationally as the "culinary Oscars," French chef Paul Bocuse launched the event in 1987 to raise public awareness of the extraordinary dedication, hard work, and precision needed to master classic dishes. The progressive competition starts with the national round, followed by the continental round, then the world final. The winner of the national round, however, does not automatically advance to the European round, which will be held in 2024 in Trondheim, Norway.

When it comes to the Bocuse d'Or event it’s more about what you do with those ingredients, right?

Well, it’s also about money because you are making these things over and over and spending a lot of time and money training. So we purposely didn’t choose truffles, for instance.

This event has been compared to the culinary Oscars and also the Olympics. Is the training that grueling?

As we speak, the chefs who will be competing are in the kitchen making these dishes over and over. They know the theme for the plate and platter, and now their task is to train again and again, down to the last moment. Most of them have a coach who is not cooking but giving advice, and wearing many different watches.

Bocuse d'Or awards
Bocuse d'Or awards

For me, it is the crème de la crème, every chef wants to be in this competition. I was there twice at the final in Lyon. I spent three days there, which made me feel very proud of the profession I have chosen, you see many of the most recognized chefs from around the world.

Marek Fichtner, President of the Bocuse d'Or academy

I read that when the American chef Thomas Keller was competing in the Bocuse d’Or he said he prepared the same dish 25 times.

We had the Swedish chef Sebastian Gibrand here [Gibrand placed second in Bocuse d’Or in 2019]. We invited him to cook at one of our events. He was telling me that he prepared for four months in advance.

Menu magic|For the Czech national round of the Bocuse d'Or, rabbit loin and rabbit thigh were chosen as the first course. The second dish, called the "Spring Platter," must include potatoes and garlic varieties from a list specified in advance. Everything else is left to the imagination and skill of the cook.

As a former MasterChef judge, this is familiar territory for you. Bocuse d'Or is kind of the original MasterChef in a way. How difficult is it to compete with lights and cameras and the added pressure of a live audience?

You can’t prepare for cooking under pressure with people watching you. There will be fans who will be loud, just like ice hockey fans. People are sitting in the tribune watching you, the jury is looking at you and writing notes, a cameraman is walking around, and you are on the big screen at the O2 universum. As a chef in the moment, though, none of this exists.

Paul Bocuse (middle) surrounded by the jury of the Bocuse d'Or competition.
Paul Bocuse (middle) surrounded by the jury of the Bocuse d'Or competition.

And this is the really exciting part of it, the glamorous side of it. You invited young chefs and students to see it.

We wanted to invite many schools to come to see Bocuse d'Or because we want to show the younger generation of chefs what we are proud of and show the students the beauty of this. 

There is another side to the industry though that isn’t so glamorous. I visited your kitchen a couple of years back with a group of journalists and you told us that it’s a struggle to keep young talent. Why?

I thought at that time this was only a problem in our country and in Europe, but it’s a problem in every country. During Covid people left gastronomy and never turned back. It’s hard. You are working 12 hours a day and every second weekend. So if you can have a job from Monday to Friday and go home and don’t have to work nights, well…

Do you ever see the industry changing to accommodate work-life balance?

Over time, if we come to a moment where there are no people and the reason is [the demanding] shift work, then this needs to change.

In terms of chef shortages, there is this theory that women are an untapped resource in the economy. Couldn't the same be said for the culinary world?

I have heard this discussion from several points of view. I pay the same money to women who are doing the same work as men. I like to have women in the kitchen. But I think it’s more about paying [everyone] the correct salary. And that is changing slowly.

Today a good chef can have really good money, but we’re still not on the level of Western European countries. And of course, the work is hard and shifts are long. In the kitchen, your job depends on your physical health.

You also said during that talk that apprenticeship and mentoring is important to you. You yourself apprenticed at Noma in Copenhagen.

In 2007, yes. Noma was at that time one of the top restaurants in the world. I think that at the time everything René Redzepi put on the menu was from Denmark. No products came from anywhere outside of his country. Scandinavian cuisine became very popular because of René.

Scandinavian cuisine is still having a moment. And those countries have been successful at Bocuse d’Or.

In the Scandinavian countries, the Bocuse d’Or winner was more known and was more appreciated than Michelin-star recognition at one time.

Michelin recognition is still what puts a country on the culinary map, though. What will happen if the Czech Republic decides not to pay for the stars?

People misunderstand the argument, it’s not that we want the government to pay so that two restaurants can keep their stars. Those restaurants have good business. It’s that we want our country to have many more restaurants with stars.

Czech Tourism’s main goal is to get people to come to our country and there are many people just traveling according to this guide, it has been proven. Michelin brings business to the country. I had this discussion with Gibrand. The Swedish government did a study on how much business the country would lose on culinary if they didn’t have Michelin stars.

How can the Bocuse d’Or transform a country’s reputation on the culinary landscape?

Part of hosting the Bocuse d’Or is showing the country to the world. In Hungary, they have hosted the European final in Budapest two times in a row. It was amazing. The government gave them a lot of money to make a European final in Hungary on a world-class level, to become a culinary mecca for the whole of Europe. And they won bronze. This was the first time a former Eastern Bloc country was standing in the winner circle.

What will this event show visitors about Czech cuisine?

The final isn’t only a competition, it’s also a trade show, presenting everything in the gastronomy world. It’s huge, you can’t see it in one day; there are many departments, representing products, services, and equipment. It’s like Lyon but on a smaller scale. The competition is part of the bigger Makro Czech Gastro Fest.

Here at Červený Jelen, you are doing some exciting things including collaborations with visiting chefs. Will you continue that?

We want to continue because it’s nice not only to offer our guests some culinary experience in the restaurant other than what we normally do, but also interesting for our chefs and staff to cook different cuisine so we become more educated chefs.

Spring menu at Marek Fichtner's Trezor (Vault)
Spring menu at Marek Fichtner's Trezor (Vault)

You’re a Golden Chef at the top of your career. So how do you keep things fresh? How do you continue your own culinary education?

Recently I was traveling with Thomas Buehner, the German chef. He was one of the first chefs to come to the Vault to cook with us. He appreciated our kitchen, how it was equipped, and the staff who works here, and he invited some of us to travel with him. I went with him to India for two weeks. He inspires me a lot not only in my cooking but also in my personal life.

He is a Michelin three-starred chef who could have the feeling that he's better than the rest of the world, but he doesn't have his nose up. Every evening after the job he goes around and shakes the hand of every person in the kitchen.

What I really love about your food is that it’s somehow both simple and beautiful with these earthy satisfying flavors. How does classic Czech cuisine lend itself to these kinds of modern interpretations?

Modern Czech cuisine is getting lighter, people don't need heavy food right now but they still like things like traditional dumplings and cabbage, so you can make it a little bit lighter.

In the Czech Republic over time we have seen progress. But we still have many great chefs and restaurants which are not recognized yet. I still believe that, outside of the country, Czech cuisine isn’t famous enough and that people don’t know much about it

Marek Fichtner

What should people visiting this country who want to eat good Czech food seek out?

If you have enough time, you should experience the traditional cuisine like it was many years ago and then go where they do modern Czech dishes to experience them both. Czech dishes – real Czech dishes; I am not talking about fried cheese, don't eat it – need a long time to cook.

What brings the most joy to your plate?

I really like to eat good food, proper home cooking, just simple food that is really well made.

Buy tickets now for the Bocuse d’Or competition, coming to Prague’s O2 arena from May 4-6 as part of the Makro Czech Gastro Fest here. Marek Fichtner is now serving his spring menu in the chef's Vault.

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