Interview with Mr. Cuketka, Part II

When I ask how successful he’s been with Projekt Vesničan, Martin says proudly that he’s only set foot twice in a supermarket. (Once for dishwashing detergent, and once for white rum and limes.) Most of his food now comes from a CSA begun by one of his readers, Vanda Švihlová, owner of the café where we’re sitting. The CSA subscription is 275 Czech crowns (about $15) a week for a box of organic-certified vegetables. Martin shows me the contents of one of the boxes: spring onions with giant bulbs, fennel, parsley, carrots. “The basic idea behind the veggie box,” he explains, “was to cut out the middleman.” The trickiest part about Projekt Vesničan “is the logistics. You have to pick the sources and manage everything. But it’s worth it—definitely.”

Martin’s ethical streak extends to his insistence on keeping his blogging separate from his newspaper and magazine pieces. “It’s hard to stay independent,” he says of food writing in the Czech Republic. “The advantage of the blog is that I retain my integrity. If I feel that something is good, or extraordinary, I have no problem saying, ‘You must taste this!’” The blog, he says, taught him that readers are very sensitive, and can sniff out a food writer compromised by the lure of a free meal, or free products. “No one told me to act like this,” Martin says quietly. “I looked up a code of food-writing ethics, and I see how unethical writing bends the article [in favor of advertisers].” As a food critic, he declines to make kitchen visits or talk to the chef.

“The Czech Republic is so small,” he continues. “There are 50 top chefs, maybe fewer.” It’s increasingly difficult for him to remain anonymous, given the visibility of his profile in the press. “In 2007, at the Prague Food Festival, no one knew me. In 2008, a few people knew me. In 2009…” He trails off, but it’s clear that, as he says, his days as a newspaper food critic are numbered.

In contrast, Cuketka.cz allows Martin “perfect control” over the advertising, and he loves that freedom. When I ask him why he went to such lengths, in the forum section of his blog, to explain the advertising in depth to readers, he confesses, “I was afraid that the spirit of the blog would die. But it was ok with readers as long as the style and topics didn’t change.” This kind of transparency has created an online community that moderates itself. The comments, Martin notes, are “clean, polite, not off-topic, and not harsh; there’s fantastic discussion. That’s the number one thing about my readers—the interactivity.” Martin says he can raise a topic or question, and readers will take off with it. Cuketka.cz shares its readership, by Martin’s estimates, with about twenty other food blogs in the Czech Republic.

At one point, Martin recalls, the demand for “Cuketka schwag” became so great that he produced about fifty buttons with the Cuketka logo and offered them to readers—with one caveat: readers would set their own prices for the buttons, and the proceeds would go to a charity of their choice. It cost 1,900 Czech crowns (a little over $100) to produce but raised 9,500 crowns (about $510). In 2008, Martin began to organize Cuketka.cz meetings—one of which was a cupping at Bio Zahrada, by La Boheme Café, a local specialty-coffee roaster.

For the future, Martin says the most important thing is to secure continued sponsorship for the blog. When I inquire whether he’s working on a book, he shakes his head and tells me with excitement that something online and interactive is in the works.

It’s hard to measure the reach of one food blogger’s influence on the evolution of the Czech food scene. One telling indicator, however: shortly after Kuciel became a key proponent of CSAs, the CSA shares in Prague sold out entirely.

Next:

Great-Grandma Manion's Apple Dumplings

Great-Grandma Manion's Apple Dumplings

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