My guest for One on One this week is the leading chef Andrea Accordi (31). Earlier this year, this Italian native caused a stir in culinary circles when his Allegro Restaurant in Prague became the first eatery in the former Eastern bloc to win a Michelin star. When I met up with Andrea in his busy restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel, I started by asking him what it took to become a Michelin-standard chef:
“A lot of sacrifice and hard work. A lot of experience is important as well. In my case I not only got experience in Italy, but also around the world. It’s important to see different cultures, because culture and food go together. Basically, you need experience and hard work.”
You’ve now been awarded a number of Michelin stars, which is some indication of how good a chef you are. What do you need to take a restaurant to the level that you have?
“Well, first of all you always have to begin by establishing the style of the chef, so the guest knows the chef’s touch. They should come to the restaurant because they want to eat Andrea’s cuisine.
“When you become established, you should then improve step-by-step. This means using very good produce. This doesn’t have to be very expensive produce like caviar or lobster. It can be a fresh ingredient in season. This can start with a simple potato, but it has to be a fresh, high-quality potato.
“Basically, it’s about selecting these types of ingredients and presenting them in a well-combined dish.”
You were already very well established in Italy, and your restaurant there was well on the way to its second Michelin star before you left. Was it hard to give all that up and come to Prague?
“When I got the offer [from the Four Seasons Hotel], I just came to Prague for one day to have a look. I saw the hotel and then I saw the Charles Bridge and the view of Prague.
“I thought that it looked like a very interesting city and the hotel was very nice, so I said to myself: ‘Why not? I can build what I’ve built in Italy over here.’ So I made that choice. As you suggest, it was hard to go from a place where we had nearly got our second Michelin star and to leave all that behind. But sometimes you have to make these decisions.”
So you don’t regret it?
“No, because what I did in Italy, I can do here as well. I’m very clear in my mind about that. And I have a very good team. Together we can build exactly the same thing here.”
You have been awarded the Czech Republic’s – and actually the former Eastern bloc’s – first Michelin star. This could be taken as a sign that the standard of restaurants and catering is improving in this part of the world. What do you think the level of Prague restaurants is like compared to other places you’ve worked?
“It’s getting better and better. There are lots of new restaurants with traditional, modern cuisine and I have to say that all of them are doing very well.
“From my point of view, I have to say that I will have a lot of restaurant competitors in Prague very soon. It will be fun to have a lot of competition. It will mean that I’ll always have to be improving, because you always want to do better than other people. That makes things a little bit exciting.”
Do you think there are obvious places where the Prague restaurant industry can improve a little bit?
“Well, I still think it still lacks a market to some extent. The food market in Prague is only starting to grow now. The more restaurants that get set up in Prague, the bigger the market will get.
“The local market is also improving in that Czechs now have quite high expectations. They are travelling around and seeing what’s going on. When they come back Prague they try to find the same quality here.
“A lot of people are looking for adventure in terms of food, which means they like to try new dishes and new produce, which is very good.”
Speaking of culinary adventures, have you yourself tried any Czech food?
“Yes, of course. I’ve had dumplings, some svíčkova and, of course, goulash. They were very nice. They have a very compact taste.
“Czech food perhaps looks very bad, but it’s always interesting in terms of flavour. If a Czech chef knows how to present this cuisine in a nice way, it can be really, really interesting. And there are now a lot of restaurants in Prague that are presenting Czech food in a modern way, which is really great.
“At the same time, it’s important for chefs to keep this tradition alive, but to be able to present it in a modern way. There are a lot of restaurants here now that are doing very well in this respect.”
What do you mean by saying Czech food is “very compact”?
“It can be very heavy. But if you have a good hand you can make it lighter and present it in a nice way. But the same flavours should always be maintained. This is important.
“You can present the dish in a light way by using different cooking techniques and new modern methods of cooking. These help you to keep flavour but with less fat.”
How can you cook Czech food – or even Italian food – with less fat?
“To cook at low temperatures, for example, without making the oil too hot. You simply cook in a different way.”
I actually worked as a waiter in various restaurants for a number of years. In my experience, the best chefs I met in my work were always a little bit crazy. Would you describe yourself in these terms?
“I think every chef is crazy, but we show it in different ways. It can be expressed outwardly or internally.
“Being crazy can mean shouting a lot, or it can mean being crazy enough to create a certain dish. There are different kinds of craziness, but one way or another we are always crazy inside”
I think there was a reason that these chefs I mentioned were crazy. In a way it was part of the spark of creativity that made them such good cooks. I know it’s a cliché, but what do you think of the idea of the chef as an artist?
“There are similarities. You paint something, you create a dish. Or you can create a nice combination – a dish with some ingredients that nobody ever would have expected, which has an extremely beautiful taste.
“And then there’s also the way you present the dish. Cooking can be artistic in both these ways.”
“One thing: I don’t eat calf liver. I like to taste all the sauces when we are cooking it but I really cannot take a bite of the liver.
“I think it was because my family always made me eat it as a child when my mother cooked it. I still remember her pushing me to eat it. I’m not able to eat it now. I’ve tried many times to have a bite, but I just can’t.
“I like all types of liver – rabbit liver, goose liver and other kinds of liver, but calf liver? No!”
So even Michelin chefs can harbour traumatic childhood experiences of food! One last question: what is your ideal meal? If you were on death row for some reason, what would you have as your last meal before you were executed?
“My mother’s risotto. I come from an area in Italy which is famous for its risotto and where they grow rice.
“My mother is a great cook. We have a tradition in our family in that she always cooks risotto when we meet each other. It’s a very traditional recipe and I just love it. That could be my last meal!”