Interview with Mr. Cuketka, Part I

Most visitors to Prague know it as a city of cathedral spires and no-nonsense peasant food, not as a city undergoing a food revolution. Yet a few blocks from traditional-style restaurants dishing out roast pork, dumplings, sauerkraut, and beer in mass quantities, Czech food writer and restaurant critic Martin Kuciel is quietly leading the revolution, online—in his words, “provoking” his country and his generation to think differently about what they eat.

A look at the front page of Martin’s blog, Cuketka.cz, reveals its diverse interests: there’s a detailed, four-part recap of this year’s Prague Food Festival; a how-to on yokan (azuki-bean paste) with a photo of the result glimmering in a pan; an introduction to Czech food month; and an update on Projekt Vesničan (“Villagers’ Project”), Martin’s long-term reader-oriented experiment in living as a locavore.

Four years after launching what is now the top Czech food blog, Martin continues to blog, contributes independent restaurant reviews to the Czech weeklies Týden and Respekt, and writes a column for Apetit Magazine. As of June, he’d obtained monthly sponsorship from a series of cooking-related advertisers, a shift that allows him to focus full-time on writing and photographing. Yet Martin is not interested in succeeding only in financial terms. What sets him apart from many food bloggers, and what has made him an object of fascination in Czech media, is his passion for ethical and local food, for ethics in food writing, and for nurturing an active community of readers he describes, beaming, as “perfect.” The result is a blog unlike any other in the Czech Republic, and, arguably, anywhere.

Martin grew up in Ostrava, a heavily industrial city in the northeastern part of the Czech Republic. His grandparents worked in Ostrava’s steel mines, and his parents were first-generation college graduates. “I was never really a ‘foodie,’” he says over coffee one mid-June afternoon in Bio Zahrada, an organic-food shop and café in the Vinohrady district of Prague. “The blog is about the transition from being a non-foodie guy to being a foodie guy.” (As inspiration, he cites The Amateur Gourmet.) Even more unlikely is Martin’s own background: he graduated with a degree in medicine in 2004, but, he admits, he “never had any really serious intention to practice medicine. I was searching for another subject. After two years, I came up with [food writing].”

Initially, he says, the blog was just for fun. (The Cuketka logo—a smiling, be-toqued zucchini—and Martin’s forum comments, sprinkled liberally with smile emoticons, retain the whimsical feeling of the original format.) But as the blog grew, and as he began to write for print, Martin realized, he says, that “[t]here was a huge gap in food writing, so I started to take writing more seriously.” He slowly shifted the focus of the blog, and the kind of writing he was doing there.

The role of the blog, Martin emphasizes, is to provoke. “The nature of the Czech consumer is conservative,” he explains. “It’s hard for him to eat something exotic when he’s used to his Turkish coffee and svíčková.” (Svíčková is a classic Czech dish of boiled meat with vegetable sauce, garnished with whipped cream, a slice of lemon, and berry jam.)

Martin’s readers, who represent an increasing number of Czechs, want more. “Czechs travel, and they want to taste exotic things here, no matter what. It’s important to taste things, here, of good quality,” he insists. “Once you taste something good in its original form, you can never go back.” Take homemade pasta, Martin argues with a grin: once you eat it in Italy, you want to make it at that same level once you return home. You’ll always remember your first taste of real Italian pasta—and his theory is that you’ll never be willing to settle for less if you are passionate about food. (Italy is foremost on Martin’s mind: the newest appliance in his kitchen is a pasta machine.)

That Czechs have long had to settle for lower-quality goods in supermarkets, and have been, in his words, “vulnerable” to marketing campaigns for subpar products is implicit in Martin’s insistence on quality. Projekt Vesničan is an attempt to counter this; here’s is a man who’s read his Pollan. “It’s an experiment [that] started four months ago,” he says of the project. “The first intent was to help readers cook at home with seasonal and local produce, to disconnect from supermarkets and factory food, and to buy direct from farmers.”

As an example of what Projekt Vesničan rejects, Martin describes commercial egg farming in the Czech Republic. “There are 10 million hens: 4 million are for private use, and 6 million are for commercial use. 97% of those 6 million are battery hens.” (Martin notes that, beginning in 2012, battery hens—known as “laying hens” in the U.S.—will be banned in the EU.) Like farmers-market devotees everywhere, Martin and his readers are not just in search of better eggs, but better everything—and local everything: produce, milk, meat. “The milk is sometimes sour,” he concedes with a smile, “but it’s alive.” Meat is two to three times more expensive than it is in the supermarket, since it comes from high-quality farms, he says. For bread, Martin bakes his own—and favors the No-Knead method, which he discovered through Mark Bittman’s New York Times column. Cuketka.cz may be geared solely at Czech readers, but has a distinctly global outlook.

[More to come–Part II, Apple Dumplings, and Chlebíčky Spread–in the next couple of days.] :)

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