PRAGUE (Reuters Life!) - Paul Day got his start working as butcher in London’s Chinatown before rising to sous chef at the city’s Michelin-starred Nobu restaurant.
Now he’s taken his Asian-influenced cooking to Prague, where a number of young chefs are remaking the city’s culinary landscape which has long been associated with Central European stodgy fare rather than cutting-edge cuisine.
The 42-year-old Day, who worked at two Michelin-starred restaurants in London and does all his own butchering, opened Sansho three months ago and has been cooking for full houses ever since.
Day talked to Reuters about how he got his start, his approach to cooking and Prague’s changing restaurant scene.
Q: Why the move from London to Prague?
A: The use and abuse of circumstance has a lot to do with it. I really love Prague. I used to be a butcher and I am interested and hoping to reinstate the lost art of butchering in the Czech Republic, which was completely wiped out during Communism.
The changing food scene here is also extremely exciting. It has had an awful reputation in the past but now I think Czech people are proud of what is going on in Prague. There are lots of really good new restaurants opening.
Q: How difficult is it to find the right ingredients here?
A: I am blessed with a huge Vietnamese population here. There is a plane that comes in straight from Hanoi City twice a week so I get really fresh herbs and spices and all kinds of things. I just sourced a really good fish from Vietnam, which I could never get in London’s Chinatown. It makes a big difference in the fresh dressings that we use.
Q: Where did you get your love of cooking and your start as a chef?
A: I started in the food industry at age 13 in a butcher’s shop while still at school. Then I got interested in cooking — probably more interested than in school! I worked in a butcher’s shop after leaving school and then had my own. I was always cooking at home and cooking curries for my friends. I sold my butcher’s shop to move to London to become a chef. I took a job in Chinatown working as a Chinese butcher and I worked there for a few years. That is where I learned to cook. I also amassed a massive southeast Asian product knowledge. That is why Asian is what I’ve always been interested in.
Q: Are the critics here as demanding?
A: In some ways they are equal everywhere. What has happened with bloggers and the Internet is that everybody is a critic. We leave ourselves open and sometimes we read them and sometimes we ignore them.”
Q: How would you describe your style of cooking?
A: It is honest, fun. It is what I always tell the guys in the kitchen: food has to be fun. If you are not having fun there is no point. It has to be fresh. We like to encourage people to use their fingers as much as possible. Big flavors, big textures and we use lots of southeast Asian cooking techniques.
Q: Why communal tables
A: I’ve seen it so many times before where chefs are so set on their concept. I think you have to have a little bit of fluidity and creativity to the space you have. This space and our food concept really suits communal dining. In the old Czech pubs it was the same. I thought it would be quite nice to have communal dining here. We serve everything family style in the evening so it’s all to share.
Recipe: Pork belly and watermelon salad
1kg of Pork belly
4 tablespoons of 5 spice powder
1/4 of a small watermelon (cut into chunks and de-seeded)
Fresh mint leaves (handful)
Thai basil (handful)
Fresh Coriander (handful)
small amount of deep fried crispy garlic for garnish and bitter crunch
8 tablespoons of hoisin sauce
juice of 2 limes
1 tablespoon of rice vinegar
1 tablespoon of grated ginger
1 teaspoon of minced garlic
Pinch of roasted chili powder
1.5 tablespoons of grape seed oil
Salt and sugar
Brine the pork belly overnight in the fridge with 50/50 salt and sugar, just rub onto the skin and flesh. Next day wash it and bring to the boil in fresh water. As soon as it boils, take it out and rinse in cold water. Put back into a pan of fresh cold water and bring to a simmer with the five spice powder. You can also add spring onion tops, or any ginger peel you may have lying around and maybe some garlic.
Now let this simmer slowly for 3.5-4.5 hours. Once cooked, very, very tender and the fat at its wobbly best, lift it out of the pan very carefully and chill quickly. Once it is chilled, cut into big chunks and set aside. Next make the dressing by mixing all the ingredients together, It should taste sweet, salty and sour.
Now crisp up your cooked pork belly in a warm non-stick frying pan. Get it nice and crispy — you do not have to use any oil. Remember to turn it and crisp as much of it as you can.
Add the watermelon and fresh-picked herbs to a bowl. Now add the warm pork belly and dressing and toss everything together (you could also add chopped birds eye chili if you like a kick!). Serve on a large plate.
This salad is at its best served with steamed jasmine rice and a ice cold beer.
Reporting by Michael Kahn, Editing by Steve Addison