Kitchen and pastry chef
Before 1939, the art of cooking was an esteemed trade but it wasn't in the media's spotlight as it is today. In the Polish People's Republic on the other hand, professional cooks were placed low on the social scale. In contrast, over 80 per cent of Poles today consider cookery an attractive and well-paid career. Some say that fashionable cooking is the new sex. Becoming chef de cuisine in a respectable joint is a dream come true for many young people. Kitchen chefs also make the reputation of a restaurant. Talented and creative cooks are recognised in the milieu and in the media. The career and its representatives are thought of as appealing.
That shouldn't come as a surprise, because young chefs are often well-educated, erudite people who speak foreign languages, are open-minded and passionate. Many of them studied abroad, such as in the UK, and they bring Western standards back to Poland. But why do they leave? So far, there are no renowned culinary schools in Poland. "The state vocational education system is lagging behind and doesn't guarantee a genuine education in gastronomy or practical skills", explains chef de cuisine Adam Chrząstowski from Krakow.
There's an ongoing debate about whether a professional cook is a craftsman or an artist but we'll leave that aside here. What we can say for certain is that apart from a dose of luck, talent and distinguished taste buds, in order to be successful in the profession, one has to be on top of current trends, have foresight, skill, knowledge of the past, imagination, and a sense of aesthetics.
Polish pastry chefs are not as much in the spotlight as its many chefs de cuisine. The country's most highly regarded pastry chef is Tomasz Deker – a distinguished specialist but unknown by the wider public. The same goes for Bożena Sikoń, Poland's most famous female pastry chef and manager of the pastry shop in Warsaw's Jan III Sobieski hotel, who graduated from two prestigious French pastry schools. She presents a TV show about baking. Pastry shop owners complain about the level of the graduates of Polish professional schools. They aren't familiar with classical recipes, and they don't pay attention to the quality of ingredients. On the other hand, those who dream about becoming pastry chefs lack guidance on how to start their careers.
The Warsaw-based Lukullus pastry shop offers modern products and toned-down classics. It was established in 1946. The Wedel chocolate factory was opened by Jan Dynowski after World War II. The family-owned business survived communism and has flourished recently. Lukullus is in the hands of the third generation of the family: Albert Judycki – grandson of the original owner, and a graduate of ethnology, anthropology and pastry-making at the famous Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. His business partner Jacek Malarski graduated in acting and from the Ecole Gregoire Ferrandi in Paris. Lukullus' quality pastries are just as good as their Parisian counterparts.
The same cannot be said of bread-making. Young people don't want to learn the profession. According to some, this may mean the closing of many bakeries. At the same time, consumers complain about the deteriorating quality of bread and other baked goods. Perhaps that's why many people have turned towards making bread and rolls at home – without additives.
Thankfully, the days when only two types of cheeses were consumed – white and yellow – have long since passed into the history books.
Cheese-making as a profession and a way of life has flourished over the last couple of years. Despite the lack of official statistics, Poland has several hundred producers of farmhouse cheeses, made with quality ingredients.
Gieno Mientkiewicz, Poland's best known supporter of inland cheese-making, is a promoter of Polish cheese. He searches for outstanding cheeses and brings them to other parts of the country. "Taste, the craft and creativity are becoming increasingly important," he says, "there are many cheeses now which can stand up to low quality, sham cheeses and the strange inventions of technologists". Who are the good cheese-makers? They are people with passion, some of whom ended up doing what they are doing by complete accident. Many moved from the city to the countryside. Many take inspiration from other cultures – Italian or French. It's a tough business. First of all, Poland lacks the centuries of experience enjoyed by these two countries. It's very hard to build a distribution network or create a brand over a decade or two. What is more, the Polish government doesn't give much support to small producers. Cheese-making is a niche profession, but farmhouse cheeses have nevertheless reached a wider circle of consumers, not just foodies.
There are two important "cheese basins" in Poland. The first is in the north east of the country: in the vicinity of Wiżajny, Tykocin and Korycin, where delicate cheeses called breakfast cheeses are made. The second cheese-making region is Lower Silesia. Here, they are made by eccentrics who experiment with texture, tastes and ingredients. Their products can be found at local and industry "festivals of taste" that take place in different parts of the country. Some can also be bought online.
The cheeses of the most respected cheese-makers also can be found on the menus of the best Polish restaurants: łomnickie goat's cheese (made by the Sokołowski family from Jelenia Góra); Rancho Frontiera (matured sheep and cow cheese made by Rusłan Kozynko); kaszubska kozę cheese (made by the Strubiński family from Kaszuby); cheese from Wiżajn (matured cow cheese) and grądzkie cheeses (matured goat cheese from the Wielkopolska region).
The butcher profession is not highly thought of in Poland. There are few good butcher shops and few professional charcuterie and sausages makers. Nevertheless, some do exist, like the son of Stanisław Mądry from Liszki near Krakow, a renowned producer of sausage (kiełbasa lisiecka) who goes abroad to study the secrets of butchering and cutting meat. The profession is demanding. It requires passion, knowledge, patient, and dedication, and has to studied for an extended period of time.
Grzegorz Kwapniewski from Warsaw is lovingly called the "chief Polish butcher" or "crazy butcher". He's an economics graduate but a butcher out of passion. He owns three high quality butcher shops in Warsaw. Chefs de cuisine rejoice over his talent and mastery. Kwapniewski often gives interviews, and educates the public. He teaches respect for farm animals, and knows the problems of niche breeders. He tries to convince people to buy seasonal meat, and to change the eating habits of Poles.
It is widely believed that after Poland gained access to the free market in 1989, the quality of Polish sausages and charcuterie deteriorated. The hams and bacons in stores and supermarkets taste nothing like the ones that were once made at home. Good quality charcuterie is hard to get and found mostly at food festivals or organic food markets. But thankfully, Poland still has butchers who wish to sustain the rich Polish tradition of charcuterie in spite of the legislative obstacles. For example, there's Michał Marcyniuk from Warsaw, a sound specialist who quit his job to open a food stall selling craft characuterie called Dobra kiszka. Only a year ago, Marcyniuk didn't eat meat because the offerings in stores didn't satisfy him.
Sons used to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and take over their land and farm. Despite partial collectivization, millions of farms survived communism in Poland. But towards the end of the Polish People's Republic, the Polish countryside was underdeveloped. Today, being a farmer is a conscious choice. The profession is becoming more and more popular, even among people with no farming traditions. Agritourism is on the rise. Not all farmers produce organic food but at least the origin of the product is known. Many experiment with rare and forgotten vegetables. Warsaw's most famous farmer is Pan Ziółko (Mr Herb), or Piotr Rutkowski. He sells different sorts of tomatoes at reasonable prices and rare vegetables and herbs. Some farmers provide home delivery. Such produce is sold at prices that are beneficial to both the buyer and the seller.
Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux, translator: MJ 23/10/2014