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The Warsaw Voice » Destination Warsaw » December 19, 2013
Destination Warsaw
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Stuck on Steak
December 19, 2013   
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American Patrick Hanna, the new executive chef at Warsaw’s Blue Cactus restaurant, talks to Jolanta Wolska.

What cuisine is most popular in Warsaw?
I first came to Poland in 1996 as my parents were living here at the time. There wasn’t much choice then; Polish cuisine dominated, while my favorite here was Thai food. Warsaw has since grown and become international, and so have the food tastes of Poles. However, I feel Polish cuisine is still number one, followed by Italian and then anything Asian. I’m not sure where Blue Cactus falls in; we are a niche restaurant. It is American with a Mexican accent.

How do you find the Warsaw restaurant scene?
Tastes in Warsaw have grown like a lot of things here. Many restaurants are starting up—many new types of cuisine and fine dining have become very popular in Warsaw. Unfortunately, many will fail because fine dining is very expensive to run. Such restaurants work to small margins, generally use high-cost products and usually are in high rental locations. You can charge a lot but the market can only bear so much and you need to keep bringing in new people all the time to survive. I feel fine dining restaurants have become too artistic. There is a lot of fuss about something that I consider is not that great. My idea is to give people a happy, casual and comfortable experience; there doesn’t need to be a special-effects atmosphere for people to enjoy themselves. But the food has to be first class.

What do you enjoy cooking?
In general, I love using the grill. It is a great tool with which to cook almost everything. I cook steak, fish, pizza and even bread on the grill. It is fun to use. We are buying a new wood-fired grill for the restaurant. Because it is wood fired, either with hard wood, apple tree or oak, the food then has an interesting smoky flavor.

Polish people’s tastes have changed and today steaks are the most popular item on our menu. Mexican dishes are less popular as Poles generally still do not like very spicy food. Hence, our focus is southwest American with a Mexican influence.

What new innovations have you introduced in the Blue Cactus kitchen?
I am doing what I enjoy most and what comes easiest to me, which is helping the restaurant to have a more focused approach. Blue Cactus was established in 1996. I feel the atmosphere here is right and most items on the menu are correct, the food looks good, although I feel the taste of the dishes can be improved. And we are implementing those changes. I am introducing a seasonal menu and a special luncheon offer. I am finding better sources of local products for our kitchen. Sourcing good quality food in Poland is not easy, but I want our food to be healthy and tasty. For example, I found a small company in Cracow that makes the best and most authentic tasting tortillas in Poland. We buy them fresh and bake them in-house. Poland does not have a tradition of breeding cattle for beef so it is very difficult to find high quality produce. We are now buying our beef from northwest Poland; it is expensive but well worth it. We are concentrating on promoting Angus beef, which is new in Poland, and it is the best you can get for steak. And steak is our major specialty and very popular. Our customers can really taste the difference.

I want to make people aware of Polish food, which is excellent, healthy and in the main not genetically modified.

Does Blue Cactus have more Polish customers or foreigners?
When the restaurant opened it had mainly foreign guests as there was very little available in international food outside the hotel lobby. Today, I would say we have mostly local people with families at the weekend and corporate business during the week, which of course may include foreigners.

The restaurant also caters for large functions and conferences. How different is to prepare food for large groups as opposed to a la carte?
It is very different. I have worked in large hotels where we catered for over 1,000 people. It is a little bit like a conveyor belt, most cold dishes can be prepared ahead of time. Although prepared with care, it is a bit impersonal.

At Blue Cactus we cater for large groups with dishes directly off the menu, although we also have an international menu for corporate functions. We are holding a fantastic New Year’s Viva Latina party from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., with a special menu for about 400 guests. It is a great start to the New Year.
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