One on One Sofia Smith – a Prague-based freelance chef who puts joy in cooking first
Sofia Smith, who is half-Irish and half-Asian, has been cooking in Prague since the late nineties. Angel restaurant, where she was the executive head chef, received much critical acclaim – its opening was written about by Fodor’s as “the culinary event of the year” – and as a freelance chef, Sofia Smith continues to put a smile on the faces of Prague’s food lovers. Most recently, she has been hosting themed nights at Prague’s James Joyce Irish Pub and teaching cooking classes at the capital’s Cocina Rivero cooking studio. She speaks about what she most enjoys about being a chef, how Prague’s food culture has changed over the years and what her early culinary influences were.
“I was actually born in Belfast, but my family left when I was quite young, and we spent half our time in the UK and also in Kuala Lumpur. So my favorite foods have to be from both cultures: the baked goods and heavy stews from Ireland and England, and also lots of fantastic Asian food.”
You have a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, systems and networks – not exactly a typical start into a cooking career. When did you decide to pursue cooking professionally?
“A few years ago, when I got tired of the corporate and the IT-world. I always have been interested in cooking, even as a teenager. So wanting a career change, I thought I’d give it a go. I started very small. By sheer luck, I got a chance to open a café in the British Council, back in the day when it was still on Narodní Street. So that is how I got my start. And I discovered that I absolutely loved cooking, but also being with people and cooking for them. Cooking actually came more naturally to me than working in IT, to be perfectly honest.”
You arrived in Prague in 1997, some eight years after the Velvet Revolution. What was your first impression of the city, and the country in general?
“Everything was very exciting then. To me, Prague was also really exotic. There were so many bars, and so many things happening. We couldn’t get certain things, but there was that whole excitement of it and a whole lot of promise, of what would happen in the future. And at the end of the day, it is an absolutely beautiful city.”
“There was not a lot of choice. And also, and a lot of what was considered Czech food was bad. Back then, I didn’t realize that what was being served in most restaurants was not actually good Czech food. Over the years, of course I have learned that. Certainly, there is a big difference between then and now, and certainly a lot more choice.”
Later, the Angel restaurant, were you were the executive head chef, was very successful, Fodor’s called its opening “the culinary event of the year”. Did you anticipate this great success?
“I was asked to head up that restaurant with that concept. To be honest, we always aimed to do the best we could and I have really high standards. In terms of the success and critical acclaim, I was humbled by it. But all we did was to work really hard and give our best. And I think in life, that will come, if you do that.”
Working as a chef entails long hours and is also intense physically. What makes it all worth it?
“People coming back again. People saying that they have enjoyed themselves, learned something new by trying something different. But ultimately for me, it is about people enjoying themselves and getting pleasure food and from tasting it. Food is a pleasure, isn’t it? So that is what I get from it. On top of that, because of the logistics of the kitchen, sometimes when you have a really busy service, and it goes smoothly, it’s like playing sports. You get the rush and the adrenalin just like when you play sports. But my biggest reward is actually just everyone having a good time, including everyone working in the kitchen, as well as the guests.”
So could you tell us a bit about your own business now, Angel Food?
“I am actually working as a freelance chef, as Sofia Smith. For some reason the name angel has stuck with me right from the beginning, so people associate me with Angel Food. But at the moment, I freelance as Sofia Smith, and I do cookery classes, events, restaurant consultancy and whatever other project that comes up that has to do with food.”
What are some of those projects, specifically?
“I do really fun events at the James Joyce Irish Pub, and we do theme nights, anything from Goa to Southeast Asia, we even did a chili competition. I absolutely love working there. It is good fun, and I am half-Irish, so anything at an Irish Pub is great. I am also a guest chef at Cocina Rivero, which is a beautiful cooking studio on Soukenická Street, and I run several courses there. And together with Emmanuel Rivero, I do a private dining supper club. We are trying to get that off the ground. The idea is to set up events based around food and drink. We just inform a small selection of people, the seating is limited, and you come and wine and dine. It is a new concept in dining here; it does not really exist here yet. But it is huge in the United States, the UK and even Argentina.”
What is it like to freelance as opposed to always cooking in the same kitchen?
“It is very exciting, I’m never bored. But I am constantly working. Whereas, if you have a stable job in a restaurant, the hours are long, it is hard, but you turn up, do your thing, and at the end of the day, you go home and then you repeat it. So working in a restaurant gives you a bit of stability as opposed to freelancing. So there is definitely a trade-off. But for sure, freelancing, I am never ever bored. There is always something exciting and you also have to be very creative, and that is fun.”
“I was part of the opening team of Sansho. It is a great restaurant and I hear that it is doing very, very well. It brought a new style of dining to Prague, which was much needed. I was part of the opening team, I helped develop the desert menu and some of the breads in the beginning, and I worked the line.”
So are you the person behind that incredible pudding they serve there?
“That sticky toffee pudding? Yes, but I have to say that I am actually amazed about this whole sticky toffee pudding thing. We even served it at Angel; we have done it for years. But it’s taken off. To be honest, it is a very traditional English pudding, the recipe is very basic. But I know it is an incredibly sexy desert. So I can’t take full credit, because it is not an original recipe. It is not my creation as such, even though I have tweaked it to make it mine.”
What are some of your favorite places to go and eat in this city, and do buy ingredients and where would you say is Prague at right now in terms of culinary culture?
“My favorite place to go to is actually Café de Paris, in Mala Strana, on Maltézské náměstí. Simple concept, it is really relaxed and the people there are really nice. I like Noodle Bar, one of the first noodle bars here, and the guys there make everything themselves. And I love Hanabi, on Petrské náměstí, for Japanese dishes, not just sushi. So those are my three favorite places, and someone is going to tell me off for not remembering other places. Because I cook with a lot of exotic ingredients, so when I chill out, I actually like my food quite simple. Prague has changed over the years. I really love the fact that there are a lot of farmers’ markets now. I go to Holešovice market every week. That is where I get my potatoes, anything locally produced, eggs, butter, because I live quite close by. But farmers’ markets and locally produced foods are going to make a change, a difference. And people eating better and having more of a feel for food.”