A Culinary Renaissance in Poland?
March 27, 2014
by Vedika Luthra
It was a year ago that Wojciech Modest Amaro’s Warsaw restaurant, Atelier Amaro, was awarded a Michelin star. It was, both for the chef and for Polish food in general, a huge achievement.
No restaurant in Poland had ever received such a distinction before. For Amaro, who has been helping change the reputation of Polish food one gastronomic course at a time, the star was a confirmation of his talent and determination.
Amaro, aged 42, who hails from the town of Sosnowiec in southern Poland, studied political science in college, but a trip to Britain revived a childhood passion—food. He learned his craft in some of Britain’s top restaurants and a stint working in Spain’s famed elBulli.
One of the things that makes Amaro’s cuisine unique is that he draws inspiration from prewar recipes while experimenting with innovative techniques, like using an intriguing combination of little-used herbs and flavors in one mouthful.
Polish food has never been confused with haute cuisine, partly because during more than 40 years of communism, when food was cooked with inexpensive and sometimes poor quality ingredients, it developed a reputation as being starchy and heavy.
This stereotype is contradicted by books such as From A Polish Country House Kitchen by American journalist Anne Applebaum (the wife of Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski) and by Danielle Crittenden, published in 2012. The cookbook explores modernized recipes while retaining traditional styles, aiming to introduce the art of Polish cuisine to the West and at the same time trying to dispel some of the myths surrounding it.
Meanwhile, thanks to chefs like Amaro and Kuba Korczak, head chef at Norma restaurant in Warsaw, as well as others who have earned their chef stripes in Western European kitchens, “Poland” and “gourmet” are starting to be used in the same sentence.
Norma restaurant (9 Wierzbowa St.), combines the flavors of the Italian and Polish kitchen. Dishes like ravioli filled with Polish white sausage (biała kiełbasa) bring the two cultures together. According to Israeli expatriate Etan Sanders, a journalist and a blogger about life in Warsaw, this kind of cultural blending in Poland “is just the beginning of a trend and many more of the new-style restaurants [that combine cultures] are due to open up.”
Polish restaurants have also begun to embrace the slow food movement, which strives to preserve traditional cuisine and encourages the use of seasonal produce. Many traditional Polish dishes are made with ingredients found in forests, which account for 30 percent of Poland’s territory. Rich in wild berries, herbs, mushrooms and game, Polish cuisine offers a variety of different flavor combinations reflecting the four seasons.
Amaro has developed a Calendar of Nature, which categorizes ingredients based on the time and place in which they are naturally available and which he uses when creating new dishes. “It is vital to have a diversity of products,” he says. “According to my Calendar of Nature we can find 380 ingredients at the end of September, so this is a powerful tool to create and define Polish cuisine.”
Menus at Atelier Amaro (1 Agrykola St.) and at Norma change frequently according to the availability of produce. The chefs there take the time to prepare dishes with seasonal ingredients, giving customers the opportunity to experience flavors at their best and in their most natural form. “Poland can be characterized by a richness of unique ingredients, recipes and cooking methods,” says Korczak. “Our job is to bring back unknown or forgotten dishes.”
As well as drawing inspiration from prewar recipes and outside influences, Polish chefs are also experimenting and creating new techniques. Amaro has recently built a food lab that is used as a test kitchen to experiment with flavors and create original dishes. “It is very important to make sure we make steady progress,” he says. “Hopefully it will take us even further in terms of gaining a second [Michelin] star.”
As Poles have gradually grown more affluent over the past 20 years, organic food—pricier than industrially grown produce—has become increasingly popular. In 2013, three organic food markets opened in Warsaw alone. According to Amaro, “Polish customers are more and more aware about food in general,” which encourages producers and suppliers to deliver products of higher quality.
This can be seen not only in terms of what Poles are eating at home, but also in what they choose when dining out. Chic Warsaw restaurants such as Dyspensa (39 Mokotowska St.) and Tamka 43 are also helping improve the standard of Polish cuisine.
“Like never before, Poles appreciate the richness of ingredients that are just around the corner. I personally reckon that this is the right direction,” Korczak says. “I am really excited that I can be a part of this.”