When we talk about Tomas Karpisek, the founder of the ubiquitous Ambiente group of restaurants, on our Prague food tours, we often describe him as the “Steve Jobs of the Prague culinary scene”. Sure, it's overstatement, but it’s not that far off. If there is anyone who sets food trends in the Czech Republic, it’s Tomas. The appearance isn’t that far off, either: we’re yet to see Tomas in something that even barely resembles a business suit. He’s more of a jeans-and-a-t-shirt guy. Also, just like the late Jobs, he’s a visionary of sorts and has a bigger plan, too. And he’s undoubtedly one of the most respected personalities on the food scene, as witnessed by our interview with Hana Michopulu, the owner of the popular Sisters bistro.
What does not stick in the Jobs analogy is the demeanor. Despite his achievements, Tomas is one of the humblest and most approachable people we know. He also clearly thinks a lot about his job, and it is hard to catch him off-guard with anything food-related. But interviewing him is fascinating: he’s very open and his twenty-plus years in the business mean he has stories to tell.
Interviewing Tomas now is more interesting than ever: the Ambiente group is now on the cusp of a generational shift marked by the openings of the Eska restaurant (this interview was held two weeks before it opened last week) and the Bokovka wine bar, both co-created and run by a young generation of chefs and managers, a trend started by the Nase Maso butcher shop over a year ago.
We met over coffee to discuss a few things. We planned for an hour. We ended up rushing the last questions after nearly two. We talked about the past, the present, and the future of Ambiente and Tomas, too. This is what he told us.
The first Ambiente restaurant opened 20 years ago. Are you happy with how the group works? Any complaints?
A difficult question. I am happy. I am aware of our weaknesses but I also have the experience to know that what works now is only periodic, and it is due to become the weakness we’ll have to work on eventually.
Is this what you wanted when you opened the first restaurant?
When I was a chef in Austria, my goal was to come back to the Czech Republic and become the most famous Czech chef one day. I was 23. So when we came back with Katka Vesela (co-founder of Ambiente), we wanted to open a restaurant. A restaurant group was not our ambition back then. I just wanted to be a chef.
And when did that change? Or did it? Do you still want to be a chef?
I still feel like a chef. It’s the most important part of what I do. I am at a stage where I try to look for people who could assume some roles that I do and that are not even in my job description. I try to create a system of long-term, sustainable substitutability. That’s why we created the team of Ambiente’s executive chefs who steer the focus back on the fact we sell food. Cooking should still be at the heart of what we do. That’s my role. Keeping the focus on the food. If the group was run by a waiter or an accountant, it would look different.
Are you happy with the culinary environment in Prague? Are people here ready to recognize quality?
We’re not London, for example. People there are used to a different standard of service. But we get lots of visiting travelers, and the competition is much smaller, so the conditions for cooking are similar. And Czechs are quick learners. Look at specialty coffee. We look at what’s happening with coffee in London and Berlin, but if you look at the smaller towns, comparable in size to Prague, we are much better off here.
But isn’t it because coffee is more accessible?
Yes, coffee is a segment where anyone can afford luxury. Of course, people in Prague have less money for what you’d call fine dining, but there are some people who do, and if you compare Prague to similar-sized towns, we’re okay. And we should not make excuses saying that people in the Czech Republic don’t appreciate food and recognize quality. Because many do and travel for food exclusively.
Is there a trend in Prague you like? And a trend you don’t like?
I really like Bogdan Trojak and his natural wines campaign. He was ahead of the market. Today, the best restaurants in Paris serve only natural wines. He made the Authentics (an association of Czech natural winemakers founded by Bogdan Trojak) synonymous to natural wines here, to the point that he even created a small backlash against them, too. I like this campaign and we will support that trend. I was recently in Pizza Nuova (owned by the Ambiente group) and wanted natural wine. The new sommelier said nearly all their wines were natural wines. And he was right. I was really happy with the wine list. I had no idea. I was really happy that it all worked that way without my involvement. And I think natural wines will shake Prague the way they did other cities.
It’s hard to say what trends I don’t like. I don’t like to talk about negative things. But perhaps what we miss - and what is present in other cuisines - is the principle that true value is created in the kitchen. Here chefs try to buy foie gras, truffles and other expensive ingredients, and sell them for lots of money without actually cooking that much. And we don’t have much of the trend of using waste and cheaper local products like in Nordic cuisine. Chefs should take something cheap and give it value through their own work. And we don’t see much of that around here.
Ambiente has 700 employees now. Isn’t that too big of a commitment? Don’t you want to throw it all aways sometimes, and start again? Just cook? Do you actually cook at the meetings of Ambiente chefs?
I do. When I know we will cook something with the chefs, I cook it at home first to make sure what I want to say actually works. But you’re right. I was driving with my son one day and he asked me where he should go for study - he learns English and Spanish in school. I told him it would depend on what he wanted to do in his life. "If you wanted to be an architect, for example, I’d go to Spain, and if you wanted to work with food and take over the business, I wold perhaps go to Spain too.” And he said: “I should probably take over after you. But it’s a huge commitment. Lots of families, right?” But it’s not a burden. It’s motivation to make something that will survive for generations to come.
I’ve always thought that the manager should be a role model for those working with him. I’ve been working hard, day and night, getting things done. But I’ve come to realize I should also be a role model in my own life and show that there’s paradise after a life of hard work. So I am now working to reach a stage where I come to work four times a week for four hours to show that that's the ultimate goal. You should not just work yourself off. That's my direction now. I don’t want to just sell it all and open my own restaurant.
That said, I do think about it from time to time. Exit Ambiente and open my own restaurant. I even have a name for it. I don’t know if it will ever happen actually. I do sometimes think of my original generation, the people who opened the first Ambiente. As we get older, we thought of opening a restaurant with the working title “Old School”, something of an old-folks house, where we, pensioners, would work to have something to do. Something like the legendary Cafe Hawelka in Vienna, where the old Mr Hawelka would sit around and sometimes bring coffee to a regular.
Do Czech chefs have more social prestige now than in the past?
Absolutely. Lord praise Chef Pohlreich (TV chef who presents the Czech version of the Kitchen Nightmares show) and all these TV shows.
Does the same apply to the waiting staff and other professions in the restaurant?
Sadly, no. But that applies to all crafts and professions today. We are now about to renovate La Degustation and finding a good carpenter is really hard when Ikea is selling furniture for nothing. In our profession, pastry chefs, butchers and bakers are really hard to find. Chefs have moved on but the rest hasn’t. We want to support these professions. We have succeeded with butchers thanks to Mr Ksana, but we’d love to do the same for bakers, for instance.
Do you plan to open a culinary school maybe?
Sure, we’re thinking about that. We wanted to create an elite classroom in a culinary school where we would take care of the hands-on classes. But the problem is the people entering the schools. We’d like to create a brand and choose the candidates as they are admitted, and give them care and attention. Smart kids who want to make a career in our industry. We want to create a viable alternative to becoming an arts student, an opportunity to become a personality to be seen. That’s where we’d like to start and see what happens. But coming up with a 4-year study plan is hard.
Or maybe a 1-year, paid academy. Something like the CIA, an incubator of businessmen in the food industry. They would work their way through our restaurants, take part in an opening, and get all they need to open their own restaurant. See it hands on and turn theory into practice.
Hana Michopulu did an interview with us and she named you as the person she respected on the food scene. Do you have an idol? A mentor? An inspiration?
I really like Rene Redzepi. This is where I look for inspiration. What he managed to do for Denmark, or Scandinavia as a whole, with one restaurant, is something Ferran Adria or Heston Blumenthal never managed to do. They just had successful restaurants. But Redzepi has created a social movement and gave food a cultural and social dimension. Food is much more important than just entertainment.
Another important model for me was Vito Mollica. He was a man who opened our eyes here in Prague. And he has showed me we have to focus on Czech cuisine. He did his own, Italian cuisine, but using Czech ingredients. He found a farm near Frydlant where we have a cottage, and the farmer, an older lady, would send her goat cheeses by train to Prague once a week. That easy. He showed me it does not have to be complicated.
Czech produce is as good as any other produce. Today, Czech farmers are much more open to listen to us, chefs. I saw Vlasta Lacina having a huge impact on cattle farmers with AMaso. The first farmers were not willing to change anything. Did not trust us. But then the first farmers gave in and today we have 20 farmers who started raising cattle differently. And that has raised awareness among other cattle farmers.
You have just opened Lokals in Brno and Pilsen. Was it more difficult to open Lokals outside of Prague?
It's easy to open a pub and spend 10 millions in investments. But it’s not easy to find the right person to open it with.
Do you get lots of franchisee applicants?
Yes, many have the money, but they ask us to find a manager for them. That’s what we don’t want. We’ll see what regions look like in a year or so. We tested in Kunratice on the outskirts of Prague, learnt a few things, and now we’ll see whether we can replicate that in Pilsen and in Brno, and then the expansion will accelerate if it all works out.
What about Liberec? Why the franchise failed there?
It’s all about human stories. Liberec was our first franchise. Very good project, financed by a bank, with the franchisee owning the property. And then the wife, in charge of the restaurant, fell in love with the manager, prompting the husband, the owner of the property, to raise the rent beyond the restaurant’s means. And it was over.
What do you see as your biggest failure? Were there any?
Oh, there were so many! Usti nad Labem. Opened for a year only. Or Rudy Baron in Korunni in Vinohrady. They approached us whether we wanted to take over. What a mistake: I think a restaurant concept should be based on the food you’re cooking, and the pottery, the design, the size of the place, and the rest just follows. Another failure was the Vinohradsky Pavilon cafe.
“The road to success is paved by failures that you don't repeat.” I read that somewhere and I like it. For me, the Hospoda restaurant in New York City was an economic failure but a culinary success. Perhaps people here saw it otherwise, but the positive feedback of New Yorkers and the people I met made me think it was a success in other than financial aspects.
Would you like to return to New York City with Ambiente?
Being global is perhaps a role for our children. We have come to the conclusion that our role is to cultivate what we have here. There is so much work to be done here.
Now you’re opening Eska and Bokovka. Are you excited?
I am always excited. I am also a bit scared. When we opened Lokal, the Xantypa magazine had a party there, and everybody was waiting for Vaclav Havel. But suddenly the door opened and Eva Jiricna came in, without anyone noticing. She asked me whether I was afraid when we opened Lokal. I said I was. She replied that she is afraid every single time when they open one of her buildings. I loved that. Such an icon, and she’s afraid. And I am afraid, too.
Let’s talk about Eska. Is it a stretch for Ambiente, or natural development? Opening a great restaurant, a great cafe and a great bakery is a feat in itself. But opening all these three together?
I don’t think about it that way. I just see lots of talent there, and my role is to create the right conditions for them. The same applies to Tereza Fronkova, our architect. The design is so naked, industrial. Nobody’s done anything like that yet here. But we did not want to imitate London. We just wanted to take the truth. “To be as truthful as a concrete panel house.” The structure is old, but all the technologies are new. In Eska, you’ll see everything: what it takes to run a restaurant. How much technology is needed to prepare a meal.
Why did you choose Karlin? Or did you just like the space?
We liked the space, and I personally like the community that is growing in Karlin. A small Silicon Valley in Prague, with all the tech people and journalists. We took what we learnt in Nase maso: it crams a butcher shop, production facilities, bistro, restaurant, and an e-shop in the back all into one whole. And this is similar: a bakery, bistro, breakfast place, small shop, and restaurant in the evening, all in a relatively small footprint. But it’s located in a place where many people live and they need to eat, or want to get some coffee. And at night, it will be a destination restaurant, just like Cestr or Savoy.
How important is the bakery?
Very important. We’ve been gathering experience with baking for quite some time, traveling to Italy or England and also working with old Czech bakers. So we have tons of information. But the bread can only be done when you first fire up the oven. And the oven is the foundation. We are still testing it out. The bread we make may not end up to be the bread we wanted, and people may be complaining for a year before we get it right. That may well happen. We’ll see.
How about Bokovka?
Well, that’s something very close to my heart because of all the friends involved and because of Roman (Novotny). Such a personality! He decided to leave La Degustation and move on, outside of his comfort zone. Roman grew up professionally in La Degustation. He has a bit of a tunnel vision and it was hard for him to accept a few things, the “punk" we are aiming at there. Like the glasses we use, because they are just ordinary, regular glasses, nothing fancy. We’re opening a place for the people. Like a Lokal for wines. So you may have some more expensive wines by the glass, but also buy bottles home. More of a wine shop than a wine bar. And you can buy to go or to stay and don’t have to spend a fortune.
Are you planning to open more of them later on, just like with Lokals?
I don’t think about it like that. So far we have one, and it’s my pet project. Of course, we don’t only build a small bar with twenty people. It’s more than than. We see the potential here in bringing new wines to Prague, finding new winemakers we could work with, opening a new e-shop. That’s Roman’s job.
What do the original partners of Bokovka say?
Well, they are the group that is revolting agains the Authentics. They are a bit more conservative. I spent two hours arguing with Ales Najbrt (one of Bokovka’s partners and the designer behind Cestr, among others) while we were mushrooming in the woods about natural wines, because that’s what I’d like to focus on.
Let’s talk about your future plans. What’s in the stars for Ambiente? A specialty coffee place? Cocktail bar? Grocery shop? Something more approachable, like a chain of bistros?
Grocery shop makes no sense. Amazon will just roll over everyone. I’ve watched the new iPhone keynote and everybody’s talking about “changing the world”. I think sooner or later people will talk about “keeping the world as it is”. Food is an anchor in the virtual world we’re heading to. That’s what Redzepi is doing and it’s contradicting the technology. I also think we can expect the return of small shops where you can have some face time with the small owner. But I’m afraid, in the nearest future, it will be Amazon all over the place.
But of course, coffee is a big topic for us. We think it’s hard to find a niche in coffee: cafes pop up organically and the investments are not as high as in restaurants. But we have lots of talent in Eska and perhaps we’ll come up with something.
Will you focus on coffee in your other restaurants? It seems overlooked.
Yes, I know. It’s similar to beer. We have pushed the quality of beer in our restaurants very high, and we’d like to do the same with coffee. We want to create a philosophy around coffee that we can replicate in other restaurants. But the biggest weakness in our restaurants is bread. And that’s what we'll try to change in Eska where we’ll make Czech bread. We will start baking Italian bread in Pizza Nuova. Savoy will do finer baking, baguettes and croissants. We have a few things planned for meat. Something like the old “Koruna” delis.
How do you create the concept of a restaurant? How long does it take to open one?
It takes about a year. We have a start-up meeting where I present my vision to the entire team. Then we start looking for people who will implement. And that starts a process that takes about a year. But you open a restaurant for the future. A restaurant doesn’t reach full capacity before its third year: it’s in the red for the first year, it breaks even after a year, and it keeps growing until the third year. And that’s where many restaurants fail: they don’t include the money you have to spend throughout the restaurant’s first year in the overall investment. They run out of money and can’t spend on the details.
But the idea is always yours? Do you talk about it with the CFO?
Yes. Dana (Daniel Krondak, the CFO) is my main partner. I tell him my ideas, and he crunches the numbers. He has a different way of seeing things. We have this spreadsheet we put it all in and see if the idea will work in real life. The details, that’s teamwork of chefs, architects, designers and so on. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But the fun and the details should never overshadow the food. That’s crucial.
Do you still see a niche on the Prague food scene?
We try to focus on the basics. We don't want to teach Czechs to eat good ramen, for instance. We want to teach them to eat good bread instead.
So which of the basics Czechs haven’t learnt to eat yet?
We have a list of basic produce we want to cover and there are still some blank spots there. Vegetables will always have it hard here, because historically we haven’t eaten much of them. We do try to sell more vegetables, but we will not turn Czechs into a nation of vegetarians. I think it makes more sense to teach people to eat fresh water fish again. That’s a huge niche. The first mention about food in Bohemia said we ate mash and herring. It was the cheapest thing. Fresh water fish is something that has a future and makes sense.
It seems that in the last few months, Ambiente has become much younger than before. You look at the people in Nase maso, and nobody’s over thirty. And your style of communication over social media seems much younger today. Is that true? Do you target younger people deliberately?
Absolutely. We are now reevaluating our values as a group, and we have a new one: freshness. That applies to produce, but also to people. We want to give more opportunity to young people. I am not getting any younger myself, and neither does the company. It may sound absurd, but the fact I’ve started sharing my life with such a young person (Bara, Tomas’ wife, a food lover and cookbook author also known as Bjukitchen) has had a huge impact on all this. It has opened my eyes in so many ways.
Because the truth is, we don’t have famous old chefs, for instance.
We don’t, really. We are the generation that creates new traditions. Our kids will be purer than we are. Bara, although very young, was still affected by Communist education. Our kids will be untouched by all this.
Can you describe your ideal Saturday?
My ideal Saturday is virtually my every Saturday. I really do live a happy life. The person I love wakes me up and serves me great breakfast. Then we go jogging or take the boys to the park. We follow with good food and so on. Good food, family and home. That’s my ideal Saturday.
Your guilty pleasure?
I don’t know. There’s one thing I do that goes against everything we say about beer: I mix beer with soda water. Our bartenders go crazy. But I like it and I don’t need to get drunk every time I drink beer. I personally don’t think it’s wrong, but our bartenders don’t approve.
Is there anything people don’t know about you?
Oh, there’s so many things! (Smiles.) I like to go fishing: I used to a lot when I was a kid, and then I’d always wanted to again. Now we go with my boys. Some parents like to make their dreams happen through their kids, right? But they do love it. The boys do all the fishing. I only put the bait on. We bought a small fishing shed. It’s a mess, but we like to go fishing from time to time. We hardly ever catch anything, though.
What restaurant would you open if nobody knew it was yours or part of the Ambiente group?
I actually plan to do that, so I can’t tell! It’s like when a member of a band does a solo record as a small side project. I could see myself being a silent partner in a restaurant. That’s very appealing to me. But I can’t tell you, obviously. (Laughs.)