It is really hard not to like Paul Day, the chef and owner at Sansho and Maso a kobliha, and the master butcher at The Real Meat Society butcher shop. What is actually really harder is to interview him in his restaurant: everyone who walks in is a friend or a fellow chef or a supplier or a regular. He may have stood up five times to greet guests and friends in the short time we interviewed him. His humor is dry and brisk and his laughter contagious. He’s the guy you would want to have a beer with.
He’s also the guy you would want to serve you meat: originally a butcher hailing from England, he has promoted whole animal butchery of organic and traceable meat from farms that let the animals live outside here in the Czech Republic. He’s also the man who has nearly single-handedly, with his partner Michaela, put the Prestik pig, an old breed of Czech fatty pigs, firmly back on the foodie map. He’s been serving fantastic breakfast sausages and buns at the farmers’ market from his white Land Rover Defender. And for us, he’s always been a great chef, steering Sansho and Maso a kobliha, two restaurants that really can stand up to the best establishments in the bigger cities to the west of the Czech border. We stopped by to interview him at Maso a kobliha after his lunch service.
How did you end up in Prague?
I came here because of a members’ club that was opening here. It was run by some really dodgy people. I was here on and off during the six months leading up to its opening. When it did, I realized it was all a big mistake. But I met Michaela and decided to stay because I saw what was happening with the food. And I wanted something for myself. That’s how I ended up here and that is why I am still here.
Were there any surprises when you arrived?
Lots of surprises. The main surprise was the quality of the butchery and the meat that was all intensively farmed and there was no meat living outside. I was shocked how beautiful the permaculture, the countryside was, but no animals living in it. I was extremely shocked by all the restaurants in central Prague advertising and selling meat from South America when it’s all wet-aged and tastes like offal to me. I am a firm believer that you cannot be a serious chef nowadays if you do not know where your meat comes from. And that wasn’t always the case six, seven years ago here.
How did the whole Prestice pig thing come about?
Because of Josef, our farmer. I was fortunate to buy the place where Sansho is located, and it took a year to open. And during that year I was adamant that I only wanted to have Czech protein on the menu. We met lots of farmers and they all kinda pushed us towards Josef and he became our main farmer. He was one of the two registered breeders of Prestik pig. This year it’s over 27. But he’s still the only one to keep them outside all year round.
I bought 15 pigs from him and we sold them in meat boxes, which paid for the speaker system in Sansho that we never use and for the concrete floor because we’d run out of money. So these 15 pigs really helped us open Sansho. And the pork is phenomenal. It does not get any better than that.
That is also why Sansho is closed on Sundays and Mondays because every Sunday I used to go to Jihlava and butcher. I have a fridge space there to myself and I would butcher the meat for Sansho for the next week because they would not deliver to Prague. That is why when we opened the space at Naplavni street [for The Real Meat Society butcher shop] a year after Sansho, it meant less work for me: our butchers would butcher the meat and I would finally have some proper time off.
And that is where Maso a kobliha falls in line: not for more profit but to promote our whole animal concept. We will not be opening more restaurants, but perhaps do a bit more outside catering for weddings and so on. Fun food. But no more restaurants or butcher shops.
It was a natural progression from our first meeting with Josef to where we are today. He was a bit dismissive at first: I was some English guy talking the talk, but we've helped him that much and he’s helped us that much. We laugh about it now. He does visit from time to time. They’ll actually have their Christmas party here in a couple of weeks.
Are you happy with what you’ve achieved?
Yes. I am really proud of it. I am not complacent. We have to keep tweaking and pushing it. Stay on trend. Food wise, we have to keep pushing the creative side. Stay seasonal. We don’t use any sous-vide, just classic Asian slow cooking techniques. I haven’t done much with sous-vide: Josef’s breeding skills are great, our butchery skills, I mean the hanging and so on, are the best that they can be to my knowledge, so to take it that far and then just cook it in a plastic bag doesn’t seem to make any sense to me. And we get good results without it.
We talked about the pork, what about the beef? Same philosophy?
Yes. We have hanging spaces at the farms. We take some cows from Josef occasionally, too. When he calls us and says he has a cow we should have, we know we should definitely have it.
Has the approach of the Czechs to the meat changed in the time you’ve been here?
It’s kept consistent. Whenever they come to the shop the first thing they say is “Oh, the smell. It reminds me of how it used to be.” They really do support us a lot.
Do some customers complain about the price?
No. Just you. [laughs] More about the beer really. That’s interesting: people complain more about the price of the beer. But it’s craft beer and it has its price, too. We don’t buy it from Macro. It’s real. It’s unfiltered, unpasteurized, and that’s the true price of it.
OK, the meat is great. But what about vegetables? The one thing we have a problem with on the Prague food scene is vegetables.
We’ve always tried to highlight vegetables in Sansho and Maso a kobliha. We’re butchers but we have really good broccoli, carrots, Brussel sprouts on the menu. Josef’s wife in Jihlava and Michaela will be planting vegetables for us to sell and use on the menu. Kale, chard, broccoli and so on. We want to have more vegetarian food and fish, catfish in particular. That’s our focus at the moment. We have a source and it will be on the menu pretty soon. And Michaela and I, being butchers, have at least two meat-free days a week. That’s really important.
Do you think Czechs are up for that?
Not at the moment. I think most Czechs eat meat three times a day, seven days a week. I think the meat consumption is huge, and it’s mostly unhappy, factory-produced meat.
Why is that?
Couple of different things. Factory farming was here because of Communism, and all of the rare breeds were basically killed off, and replaced by fast-growing high-yield breeds. But on the plus side, setting up contacts with the farmers, and having fridges on the farms, is much easier here than it would be in England. There the supply chain is already set up but here it’s still quite open, and lot of the farms have their abattoirs. And also, there’s more natural permaculture here because less pesticides were used during Communism. That’s what I’ve lead myself to believe. They were expensive.
Are you happy with what you've done in Sansho and Maso a kobliha so far? Was this the plan?
It’s really hard to say if this was the plan. Of course I’m very happy. I’m still working to keep it consistent. But it’s not easy. I'm a chef and I’ve been involved with restaurants for a very long time but I don’t know how they work. I am still learning. But I know enough to know I should not be complacent. So I’m happy but I am always looking to move things forward. It’s not easy. If you want to open a restaurant, you have to be slightly extrovert… and a little bit stupid. Because it’s not an easy thing to do. And I can’t honestly say I am happy with how it turned out, because it hasn’t turned out yet.
On the Asian side of things, how do you source ingredients?
Well from the Sapa market. That’s one of the nice things about Communism, although I don’t want to sound like I am pro-Communist. But I am here after Communism and picking up the pieces. And the huge Vietnamese population, which I think is one of the biggest in Europe, is here because of that.
What do you like about living in Prague?
I like the size of it. I like the fact that my parents really like it over here. I love Stromovka. I love being able to get to the countryside really quickly because I like the countryside. I should say art galleries but I don’t go to them so that would be a lie. I love how well lit Prague is at night.
What do you don’t like about Prague?
[Without hesitation] Cling film. The quality of Czech-made food wrap is really bad. It’s the worst in the whole of the world. They should just stop making it here. Just stop.
Is this the biggest of your concerns here?
It’s the first thing that comes to mind. Also, I don't like the "reserved" signs on restaurant & pub tables!
What do you do on your day off?
Well, that’s really seasonal, obviously. I do a lot of barbecuing, marinating and long slow-cooking. That’s heaven for me. And I love Stromovka, walking Yuzu and just chilling out, normally in between lunch and dinner service. And then Czech mountains, not so much for skiing but for walking, kayaking, and camping.
What’s your favorite meal?
That changes all the time. It’s like with music. I like corned beef hash here (in Maso a kobliha), for instance. I love barbecue. The really long and slow barbecue. I also really like the classic English roast dinner. I do it at home a lot, and we’ll do it here at some point.
Last question. Do you have a quilty pleasure?
You’ll have to tell me yours first… [What follows is about a five-minute list of Jan’s guilty food secrets.] Oh, I know. Happy Cow. Not with mushrooms, not with ham, not with Parmeggiano, just plain Happy Cow. Happy Cown and peanut butter. Separately or together. And also Czech croquettes. I can’t wait for them to get cold when they’re out of the frier.
(All photos by Martin Slechta of Everbay)