I took a break from interviews when I was in Prague to go with my wife on an excursion to Marianske Lazne in the western part of the Czech Republic. This is the famous Marienbad, the spa that attracted celebrities from all over Europe in the 19th century -- Goethe, Chopin, Edison, Wagner -- to take the waters and enjoy the crisp, clean air. We took our trip in mid-February and looked forward to walks in the snowy woods and evening saunas.
I was not counting on great food. Marianske Lazne is the destination of busloads of tourists expecting the traditional plates of pork loin, sauerkraut, and doughy dumplings, with occasional detours into roast duck and roast pork knuckle. What these dishes might lack in quality, they more than make up for in quantity. Along with the ubiquitous beer, Czech dining is an exercise in carbo-loading. It's not a subtle cuisine.
But a quick look at the Internet before we got on the train from Prague revealed a curious thing. People on Trip Advisor were raving about, of all things, a tapas restaurant in Marianske Lazne. It would probably be quite expensive, I thought, but perhaps we could swing it for our last evening in the spa town.
When we arrived that afternoon at our modest hotel, I asked the young clerk at the front desk about this Medite restaurant. "Oh yes," he said. "It's the best restaurant in town, and it's just gotten an award. I've eaten there many times."
He didn't look like a rich kid. How could he afford to eat so many times at an award-winning restaurant? I did some more research and discovered that one of the top food guides in the country had ranked Medite as the best restaurant on the basis of its food -- in the entire Czech Republic!
Now I was really intrigued. We stowed our luggage and walked across town to the restaurant. We ate dinner. Then we went back the next day for both lunch and dinner. If we had stayed any longer in Marianske Lazne, we would have eaten all the rest of our meals there as well. The food was superb, and it was very reasonably priced.
Medite serves tapas in a Mediterranean style that draws from Spanish and Italian sources. The ingredients are local and in season whenever possible. I had shrimp with black pasta in a lobster reduction sauce that was mind-blowing. The prawns al siculi were served with zucchini in an intense pesto. The vegetarian dishes, like a vegetable napoleon, were just as good as anything on the menu. Even the cucumber lemonade was outstanding.
I sat down with the owner and the man behind the menu, David Bohm, to talk about the challenges of running a business in a small town in the Czech Republic. "You can imagine how difficult it is to survive in a little town of 15,000 people where you are the third most expensive place with a very abnormal way of serving food," he told me after the last service of the night was finished. "Many people just didn't understand it in the beginning. Some of them have never understood it."
But the restaurant now has a devoted clientele that travels many hours for a single meal. "We love our people," Bohm told me. "We are alive because of them, and they are great. They help us, and they are getting something very special. It's a very special relationship. In Prague, you would pay three times more for the food and the whole ambiance. Last week, I had a guy from Munich, he said, 'David, you are really crazy.' He's a really wealthy guy. He said, 'I never get halibut of this quality in Munich.' And you think, 'Well, what should I do? Should I raise the prices?' Then I think, 'No, why? Our way of getting more profit is going to be based on more organized reservation bookings. We'll keep the prices where they are.'"
We talked about the tradition in his family of working in the hospitality trade, his love affair with Spain, and the lineage of that fabulous dish of prawns al siculi.
I was really pleasantly surprised when I was talking to the guy behind the counter at our hotel, he was probably in his thirties, and I asked him about this restaurant. He said, "Oh yeah, I go there all the time." And I thought, "Now that's interesting," because I had this impression that this was going to be an expensive place. But then when he told me that he went there all the time, I thought, "He can't make that much money at his job." So it seemed like this really was a restaurant that wasn't just for rich people coming from outside, but for people who are living here in town as well.
This was our initial idea. I don't like restaurants who are making tortilla de patata, and they are saying, "We are in the lead position of all the restaurants, and our tortilla is really special: it costs 300 crowns." For fucks sake, it's just egg and potatoes! I don't care if you are really really good, it's still a potato and egg. You know what I mean? I don't like when a restaurant says, "We're going to create a special technique so this piece of tortilla will do something special in your mouth." It's going to dissolve, or I don't know! But it's still egg and potato. We wanted a restaurant where it had to be locals first in terms of clientele. Then, if we are going to be good, we might get people from the hotels.
It's absolutely ridiculous: we have 6,000 beds in this little spa treatment town. But if it works as it is designed to work, the town infrastructure doesn't see anything. The hotels are offering breakfast, lunches, club sandwiches in the afternoon, dinner, coffees, cake break. The cheap travel agencies are filling up these hotels, and these travel agencies don't want any changes. If someone tells me, "You have to sell the halibut for 120 crowns, because my clients won't go otherwise," I'd say, "You can take your clients somewhere else. I don't care."
It's really sad. This town has a great heritage. I'm not going anywhere. I came home. If Marianske Lazne were in South Carolina, they would have made a gold mine of it. It's all about knowing how to market a place, how to get it on the map. We're still fighting against and living with structures from the past: people who should already be gone. Look, if you're a bad chef and you don't know what you're doing, you should just go.
Was it hard to set up a restaurant here?
Hugely. After England, I went to Spain. The reason why our name is Medite is that I had many great experiences from Italy, and I always wanted to open an Italian restaurant. But when I graduated school in England and I became a part of the management of the restaurant, I was the head of recruiting. We recruited one Spanish waiter, and we'd become great friends. His parents had a restaurant in Salamanca. Because we were always cooking together, he once asked me if I would go to Spain to cook in a little countryside culinary feast. I went there, and the tapas were for me an immediate addiction. I started studying Spanish cuisine and culture. And then I was going to Spain five times, six times. I went there actually every month for five or 10 days.
Yes. The company Easy Jet had their two bases in London Gatwick and Madrid, so the flights were really cheap. Also, in 2006, the Labor Party won the elections, so they were regulating unemployment in England. They were forcing each employer a certain amount of workers for a certain amount of hours. I was glad that my boss told me, "David, I can't give you 280 hours a month. I can give you only 190." I said, "Great!" So I was working in this guy's parents' restaurant, and I was studying the Spanish culture from scratch. And because Salamanca is in the Duero region, which is the pearl of the Spanish wine industry, that's why I started with Spanish wines.
But you were saying that it was difficult to set up the restaurant.
To read the rest of the interview, click here.