The great samosa we have on our plate differs significantly from the usual ones in taste and concept, inside there is a catfish phasé instead of the classic vegetable phasé. And this from fish that grew up in the Czech Republic, in top conditions and with a low burden on the environment.
“I have to admit that I’m happy about such things,” says Zdeněk Křížek, chef of the Prague finefood bistro Sensa. “We are trying new ideas, we want to profile our stuff. Since the feedback is positive, I think this is the right direction.”
Founded last year, the restaurant has quickly found guests, attracting them not only for the already famous pistachio tiramisu. It is located opposite the Czech National Bank, one of the country’s most traditional institutions. Although Sensa smells of Asia and other continents, it wants to be – like the banking institute – largely Czech. Raw materials, tradition, seasonality.
“I absolutely agree that even we chefs have to take into account how much a product will cost and how, or even if it will be available at all,” Křížek says. A man with varied experience in London, Malaysia, Japan and Hong Kong, where he has also worked in a three-star Michelin establishment. And also a chef with a desire to cook not only excellently, but also sensibly and sustainably.
Křížek is a big fan of aquaponics, a very environmentally friendly method in which fish and plants live in symbiosis and which saves tens of percent of water consumption. He gets his meat, vegetables and herbs from the Fish Garden, which breeds catfish and other species near Beroun, and grows choi, chard and Thai basil.
“For me, it finally means a certain independence from logistics, from the eternal interruptions of suppliers. We all struggle with this, not just in the gastro. I’ve been in this profession for 25 years and I’m very happy that aquaponics is a beautiful way to connect two worlds, fish and vegetables, where you hit both segments with one delivery,” says Křížek enthusiastically.
“Although I believe this will change in the future,” Křížek said.
Before we talk about how to do fine dining more sparingly, where have you experienced the most of the opposite? Am I guessing Hong Kong right?
I agree wholeheartedly. I myself witnessed in a Michelin three-star that on Monday they brought us white truffles, then in crowns for almost 400 thousand – I’m not really making this up, we sold them in four days. It was a different time, there was an incredible economic boom. When a guest remembered anything, they got it in the greatest measure and at the highest level. It didn’t matter that it was three people and there were four lobsters left over, however you can make broths, sauces out of them. Other worlds. Otherwise, you appreciate things.
Are such exuberant times a thing of the past for you?
The time when there were thirty items on the menu and fifteen of them in the most luxurious form – truffles, crayfish, lobster, foie gras – is over for me. Such concepts have no chance to survive today. I already know which month we’re going to get the most business, so sometimes I try to put a very expensive, luxury ingredient into the daily menu, maybe for five or six servings. But otherwise I see the trends: to use every raw material as much as possible, to have no waste.
There is no point in buying a thousand elements to decorate, this was also a trend when iks variants of expensive shoots were taken for big money, while the sprouts paradoxically often broke the overall impression of taste. I’m glad this is the one that’s going away.
What attracted you to aquaponics in particular?
For one thing, it’s a great idea – and all the herbs and vegetables will last once as long as they do when grown on standard fertilised dirt in an ordinary greenhouse. That’s the first point, it makes a lot more sense for the plants in terms of their economics as well.
You also don’t have to fight the heat chain, where the supplier loads the raw materials into a van, unloads it outside at zero degrees, you redo it in a box, and two days later everything is wilted. You have to know how to treat herbs, you have to keep them moist. These last 14 days with no problems, just a light spray. Then I have choi or chard brought in once every two weeks and the quality is similar to what I would get if I had just picked them from the greenhouse. This, among other things, reduces logistics costs.
And the second point?
If you’re gonna take fish, take them whole. As we all know, any compression of any muscle damages the muscle fibers and the juice goes away. I’ve always been guided by the Japanese culture that proclaims: minimum stuff in a vacuum. Precisely because compression disrupts muscle fibers. The fillets are then juicier, fluffier, the taste experience is completely different.
What are the possible obstacles?
Such raw material is, of course, slightly more expensive than from a standard supplier from Germany, Holland. And they have to be able to handle it. Take the sturgeon: if you kill it and leave it for 24 hours to bleed, you can’t break it open, because it is full of micronervores and the fish will retract after killing, the muscle spasm will occur. When you take an aquaponic sturgeon, either a whole fish or a fresh fillet, everyone will recognize that the subcutaneous fat is absolutely on a different level.
Education is terribly important. We have been joined by several chefs who have become enthusiastic about aquaponics and we are trying to pass on our enthusiasm. First we went the way of individual pieces of fish. We invited the different operations to taste. It’s also about how we prepare students from the young generation of profigastronauts so they can see how to treat and work with raw materials.
Which the Czech Republic still needs, don’t you agree?
You have a lifetime to learn, but few operations have the time to take whole fish and crash them. Poultry is an even better example. They don’t have the time, so they take the breasts, the wings, the thighs, instead of buying whole chickens, they get consommé, broth, demi glace. These are the reasons why not everyone uses farms – not just aquaponic ones, but others around the country.
What else do you think should or must be different?
When I worked as corporate head of Orea Hotels for five years, I was always fired up when someone put asparagus on my plate in December. Why? I’m looking forward to putting fresh and sweet asparagus, ideally from Mělník, on my plate in the spring. I’m so glad I grew up in a time when we looked forward to the season as kids. Why should I bake a pumpkin in June? I mean, I have plenty of other ingredients at my disposal.
When I got the opportunity to put together the Sensa operation, seasonality was the first thing. It will also save our resources. What do strawberries from the supermarket taste like in December? They’re travelling half a continent, it makes no logic, no sense to me.
What’s the logic?
We should go the way of our grandmothers, fermentation, canning makes sense to me. We have, for example, Jerusalem artichokes. After a long time – and I’m very happy about it – we have carob nuts, the first ones fallen in September, my colleague and I brought them from the garden, put them in a sugar solution and today we’re putting them with the fallow deer. This is what I’m talking about: winter is coming and we have the ingredients to elevate the food. I don’t want to put pea puree with the fallow deer now; peas are fine, but they are sweetest in spring, and you’ll never get that flavour from frozen.
Why hasn’t this approach taken more root in the Czech Republic?
Things are connected. Local farmers don’t get their produce into retail – for example, there was a surplus of apples this year, but you go to any supermarket and buy Italian, Spanish, Dutch apples. Now we have sea buckthorn salad: look at how many orchardists have it in their garden, but if you want to buy fifteen kilos of sea buckthorn for the gastroprovoz, you can’t get it locally, it doesn’t exist. You have to connect with a wholesaler, and then when you look at the origin, it’s definitely not from the Czech Republic. I’m sorry to hear that.
Where do you think it’s better?
I take my cue from Austria, it’s a country that suits my lifestyle, I enjoy mountains, skiing. And when you go to a supermarket in a small Austrian village, whether in Carinthia or Tyrol, there is always a local section, from pumpkins to cherries to apples, in addition to European produce. They give it a lot more room, here, with a few exceptions, they still don’t.
Are you prepared that with absolute localism you would cut your octopus from the menu?
Another thing is that the Czech Republic is unfortunately too small to cook purely from local ingredients. The option that foreign and Czech clients will only go to Czech things has no chance to take off yet, in my opinion. Unfortunately, production from the Czech Republic is not able to cover all concepts and operations at the moment, also because of the subsidies for farmers.
What, on the other hand, can be grown, perhaps also thanks to aquaponics?
Then we mentioned choi, the Chinese turnip. I also have to thank the Czech Vietnamese community, who want to show their culture through food, and there are many Vietnamese who have started growing lemon grass, ginger, galangal and other things that we can buy in Sapa, and there are even bigger greenhouses to grow vegetables and are able to grow them.
With aquaponics, one of the first thoughts was: Tell us what you need to keep cooking global cuisine – and we’ll try to grow it for you. It took three quarters of a year, but today we have choi, coriander, chard, samples of Thai basil, they can make great mint, peppery and classic. It will certainly take some time until we push out purchases from central warehouses in Germany or France. But I think that people who are interested and want to know how to manage raw materials better in all aspects will find their way.
So it’s evolution rather than revolution?
Everything has an evolution. You mentioned the octopus. I have it on the menu because it reflects our concept – and it is also true that if I open a purely Czech kitchen, I won’t have as many clients, in the centre of Prague the customers behave internationally. They will want sea fish, I will also offer them freshwater fish from aquaponics as an option. We want to have two-thirds of the items on the lunch menus to be Czech, and I have to say that we are succeeding.
It wouldn’t do us any harm, would it?
In general, we all got very drunk. We were feasting, we almost didn’t know what to do with ourselves – before covid came along, I watched on cooking courses that it was no longer about Argentinian sirloin, people wanted wagyu, saying they didn’t care how much it cost. That time has passed, and that may not be a bad thing. The next time the wagyu is given to the cook, he will treat it with great humility. He will realize that the meat has travelled all the way from Japan and will use it completely, he will not cut anything, there will be zero waste.