Meet a local: Chef Sahajdak of La Degustation

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise is the best restaurant in Prague in our book, and one of the only two Michelin-star awarded restaurants in the town (the other one being Alcron, which we have visited recently). It’s always a treat whenever we go there for a very, very special occasion. And it’s a shrine of Czech cuisine, so definitely worth a visit when in Prague.

We also have a confession to make: we have been watching the work of La Degustation’s executive chef, Mr Sahajdak, for a few years now, and on our first visit, we were even contemplating his kidnapping (he would be joined in our small cellar by the sushi master of Mash Hana, barista Adam of EMA Espresso Bar, our friend Klara who makes the best plum jam kolachees, and a few others). We rarely get starstruck but when Jan said to Zuzi that Mr Sahajdak agreed to the interview and we would meet with him on a Sunday afternoon at La Degustation, she was like “OMG! OMG! I want be able to say a word! You’ll have to speak the whole time!” But she did well: Mr Sahajdak is a nice, personable guy who makes you feel at ease. He is also clearly proud of and passionate about what he does, and it’s a very contagious emotion.  

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How did you become a chef?

That’s easy. My mom and my grandma were chefs. I was thirteen and I had to choose a profession. I chose to be a chef, but I didn’t care for it that much. I was there in the kitchen when I was a kid but more because I wanted to be with them and I liked the creams and doughs when they were baking. I knew nothing about cooking when I decided to be a chef. 

And when you entered culinary school, did you fall in love with cooking?

Not at all. It was 1988 and I entered the “hotel school”, as they were called back then. It was full of people who wanted to get rich quick by cheating. I felt frustrated there. It was a waste of time. Was I a better cook than somebody who cooks at home when I graduated? Not really. I still wasn’t sure if cooking was for me. 
And then Communism ended and people began to travel. In 1993, I got an offer to go to Germany and sub for a friend who had to go serve in the army. I loved it: people liked what they did, talked about cooking and visited other restaurants after working hours. It was very inspiring and that’s when I fell in love with it. Pure luck. I stayed there for three years - that was the real school for me. 

Do you work with students today?

We’d love to but it’s very difficult here. I think that culinary schools as they operate here today are worthless. Society here thinks that anyone can be a chef. But that's not the right perception. I am proud to be a chef. Let’s take Charlie Trotter: a lawyer who decided he did not want to practice so he became a chef. When Thomas Keller speaks, he’s clearly a smart guy. 

Is that perception getting better?

I am sure of it. I see analogies between Prague and Copenhagen. All of a sudden, everybody began to ride a bike, restaurants became very popular and they just sell their local stuff and they are proud of what they do. And I think we can get inspired by them and I think 10, 15 years from now we can be where they are today.

And how did you end up here?

I joined the first Ambiente restaurant in 1996. I was getting home-sick. I worked in the two first branches at Manesova and in Americka. I liked it a lot: they did their job right and were ambitions. After a short stint in New Zealand, I came back. At that time, Ambiente provided culinary services: they created the concept for the Potrefena Husa restaurants. We would create the menu, train the staff and then just supervise it later on. They became very popular - we opened about ten of them. Originally, they were designed as the Lokal pubs for the Staropramen brewery but it turned out differently. I wanted to leave but Tomas Karpisek, the owner of Ambiente, asked me if I wanted to do the same thing for them. I would set up the menu, hire and train the staff, find an executive chef and then supervise. But we always wanted to open a Czech pub. We opened Cafe Savoy but that was a more of a Belle Epoque, Viennese and Paris-inspired cafe. 
I felt a bit burnt-out at that time, so I wanted to go somewhere for an internship, and I found the CIA in California. It was great: adult chefs who love to and want to cook. When I go there, everybody kept talking about the French Laundry. I had no idea it was a restaurant. I loved it. When I came back, I described it to Tomas Karpisek. He was skeptical at first but ultimately embraced the idea. Tasting menu is basically a lunch: a few courses that are smaller, include soup, some fish and a dessert, and so on.  

But people were not convinced.

Not really. I knew this was the way to go but our co-owners were not sure. The first two years were uncertain. But our foreign guests liked it, like Alex Atala from Brasil, and that gave us strength. And then three years later people started to write about us and it all got better. 
We are really lucky that we have the people here that we have. They love what they do, buy cookbooks, inspire each other. They want to push forward. And I love that. We have a training kitchen downstairs and we will modify it soon and use it more for experiments and focused work. We want to get better. 

We’ve been long fascinated by your selection of farmers.

We have a network of suppliers and they recommend others. We always meet the farmer and we must get along. We have a list of farmers and an annual schedule of what produce they have at what time of the year, and we buy from them. They also send us emails and notify us of what they have or will have soon. I like when the produce grows nearly wild, is not fertilized and so on.

We’ve heard something about a field that you have.

That’s the next stage for us. We want many ingredients that are not grown anymore or that are not as profitable for the farmers. We want to have smaller vegetables, and nobody wants to harvest them when they are small. We grow our own herbs because nobody will grow them otherwise. 
We know how much produce we need and how much we pay for it. So we want to take that money, give it to the farm and let them grow it for us. We have already found the farm, but actually the entire village is helping us out. That’s great. We could help the region. It makes sense both in terms of economics and environment.

You are known for your Czech cuisine. What other cuisines do you like?

They have opened an Indian restaurant in our street. It’s called Curry House or something like that. I love it. My son always orders chicken Tikka Masala. I love to go for sushi to Mash Hana. Lots of Japanese people there and really nice people running the restaurant. I eat nearly anything but my preference is actually ethnic food, not Czech food.

And which Czech restaurant do you recommend?

I like Lokals, of course, and I love to go for beers - U Fleku, U Zlateho tygra, U whatever… I like to get sausages, goulash, anything that goes with the beer. But I’m not sure where I would go for Czech cuisine. I know that Mr Fric has a restaurant, Na Pekarne. My sisters say it’s fantastic but I’ve never been. 

How would you explain Czech cuisine to a foreigner?

That’s difficult. We don’t say we do Czech cuisine but Central European cuisine. The history of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic is much shorter than our culinary history. For me, Czech cuisine is soups, sauces and hot sweet main dishes: filled dumplings, buns with blancmange… that’s Czech. Strudels… well, we serve it differently. So that’s Czech cuisine for me.
But I like the countryside, things from the yard that grow around us and are seasonal. I like dried, pickled and preserved things. Just like in the old times, our storage is full of compotes, pickles and dried vegetables. That’s what’s seasonal in the winter. 

What’s your favorite food?

Anything. I like rabbit. I like sausage on a stick over campfire. I like bread and butter. It’s all about the context: where you eat the food and with whom. It’s all about the experience. That’s why we put so much effort into plating: the cobblestone on which the guest has arrived may serve as a plate. There must be a crack in the texture, an element of surprise. All of that creates the experience. 
We want to go further and perhaps lose the aprons and let the chefs wear “civilian” clothes, or perhaps lose the servers and just have chefs and sommeliers serve. Waiters and chefs speak differently at the table: there’s a filter with the waiters and chefs tend to speak more plainly. I like that. 

Who cooks at your home?

Both I and my wife. Whoever wants to. We have this ritual with my son that we prepare breakfast. My wife sleeps in and we prepare the meal for breakfast or lunch and we’re together. He likes to be there because he’s with me. I want to pass the image of real food to him. It seems that our traditional meals tend to disappear now. I live at Letna and I would love the idea of opening a Czech restaurant with real Czech food there, just like Sansho, but Czech. I really like Sansho and Paul Day. A great chef. We’ve been to his new place, Maso a kobliha, and we wish him all the best. He’s English, so English pub food makes total sense from him. He’s really the guy behind the reintroduction of the Prestice pig, the old Czech breed of the pig. 

Where do you get your inspirations?

I like Alain Passard of Arpege, for instance. I really like Thomas Keller because that’s where I’ve discovered this concept of what we do. And I have an inspiration around me every day: I get inspired by my colleagues. They come back from these great restaurants and describe what they’ve learnt there. I get inspiration from old cookbooks, old movies, old books. We also inspire each other at our morning meetings. 

Can you describe your work day?

I wake up at 6am. We have a purchasing agent, a former Ambiente chef who does not want to work in the kitchen but has the perfect knowledge of the product. He has a van and drives around farms and markets, calling me from each one: “They have four rabbits. Do you want some?” I make orders and take notes. After our shift ends, I go through my emails, compare them with my notes and let him know what I would need the next day, so he can arrange his route accordingly. 
So I come to work at 9am or so, create the menu for the day and the itinerary of works for each chef so everybody knows what he or she is supposed to do. We prepare about fifty portions a day, that’s about the limit. When we close the restaurant and we still have some portions left, we eat them ourselves. 
We have a meeting from 11am to noon. Everybody takes notes and then we start cooking. If we do something that is new, I cook with someone. At 4pm we have a lunch with the staff, and everything has to be ready by 5pm. Then we close the back kitchen and complete the dishes in the front kitchen for everyone to see. We go until about midnight, sometimes 30 minutes past depending how many guests we have. Then we have a beer at Lokal next door before we leave to go home. I go to the storage to see what we have and don’t have, look at our emails, have a beer at Lokal with the chefs and go home. I spend an hour at home responding to emails and prepare for the next day. 

What happens when you’re on vacation?

I prepare the menu in advance, which may not change except for minor adjustments. Every morning, I get an email between 9am and 11am with the menu and the distribution of works. I confirm it or send my reservations. So we are well prepared for my vacations - we know what will be in season and create the menu accordingly well in advance. 

And what happens when you have a day off in Prague? Does that even happen?

When I have a day off, I am here for the meeting anyway. I want to see the menu and so on. I also get a text message from the sous-chef what is missing and what he proposes to adjust in the menu when needed. I usually just confirm it in the morning. But when I am not in town, I am just a normal guy, just like you. When I am in Prague, I just lie around, read a book, go see my parents or to the pub quite often. I usually have one day off per week so we don’t cook at home that much. 

And where do you go?

Usually to the Lokal near Stromovka. My son and I get bikes, have a meal and then ride bikes in the park. I also love to pick mushrooms when possible. We have a cottage in Northern Bohemia so we pick mushrooms there, or around my parents’ summer house. I also pick sorel and other herbs there. There are so many! We have a guy who grows them for us. He’s fantastic. 

Ideal Saturday or Sunday?

Ideal Sunday? We are fully booked and I know everything’s ready and I don’t have to worry about it. I would leave to the summer house, have some coffee, play with my boy, read a book. And I relax. I eat something, walk around, listen to some music. And when in Prague, I love to have a walk through the Letna park to the Prague Castle, to the Petrin hill, go down and take the tram back. That’s great. I have also began to ride a bike again: I had the guys at Bajkazyl repair an old Favorit bike, it squeaks when I ride but I love it. Sometimes we go for a concert to Lucerna Music Bar, I also like Meet Factory

Do you have a recent culinary experience that stuck in your mind?

I like the food at Mash Hana. We eat there every month. I went to Momofuku noodle bar and loved the Ramen there. It seems very similar to the Czech garlic soup if you think about it. I tried all David Chang’s restaurants there and loved them all. They all seemed very friendly and low-key.

Do you plan to write a cookbook perhaps?

Not really. I love cookbooks but I probably could not write one that I would like. We always take the recipes we make throughout the year in the restaurant, bind them into a book and give it to the members of staff here as a Christmas present. But when I look at them two, three years later, I think: “OMG, this was so stupid. We couldn’t have really done that, right?” We are still in development. Perhaps when we stabilize more.

What’s next for you?

Something that is Czech, tastes great but is a bit lower key than this. And a bit more accessible. Something in the vein of Sansho but Czech. I get it: we’re fine dining, and I myself rarely visit fine dining restaurants and when I do, it's part of my work, anyway. Our “regulars” come once in two years. This is an area that hasn’t really been explored so we have lots of potential there.