Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Q & A with Jaromir Hlavsa of Linen

As we were sat at the Linen bloggers evening, a brainwave overcame Jamie. The head chef, Jaromir, had been out several times to introduce his dishes. It was a nice touch: it enabled us to learn who the man behind the, er, magic was. He didn't have the fierce demeanour of the stereotypical head chef, but instead, seemed a pleasant and humble fella. The rise of the celebrity chef means that we may well know where Ramsay trained, or what Heston's favourite comfort food is, but rarely do we know the same about the man (or lady!) who's putting our dinner on the table tonight. Jamie decided to get in touch with Jaromir shortly after the tasting evening to find out more about what made him tick...

Jamie: Firstly, what's your culinary background and why did you decide to become a chef?
Jaromir: It was a little bit random, I didn’t know what career to choose. I knew that 2 of my cousins were chefs and I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do when I was 14-15, so I said to myself I’m gonna be a chef like them. I had a chance to select my school quite carefully and it was a good place because it was always 1 week on placement and 1 week in college - you definitely learn best when you’re working.
The management of the school were quite good in that if they saw that someone was doing well they would push them into better placements. I said to myself if I'm gonna do this job I'll do it the best I can. They saw that and got me a placement in a really good hotel in  Prague. The head chef at the time actually does the Czech version of Kitchen Nightmares. I was 18 when I got that job and I was there for 5 and a half years in Prague. The hotel restaurant was the first to get a Michelin star in the Czech Republic, it’s difficult to get in Eastern Europe so it makes me proud that we got a Michelin star
I started as a pastry chef; it wasn’t as easy to get promoted. In the Czech Republic it's different, a lot of the positions here are about money - you know, 'if I'm a commis chef can I become a chef de partie and get paid more'. There it was less about money, it was a really good job but when you start someone tells you you can get £2000 a month working in a pub or £300 in a kitchen. You have to think seriously whether you really want to do it.
Jamie: Was the food at the Radisson influenced by Czech food? Do you cook Czech food at home?
Jaromir: There was a lot of French cuisine at the hotel, not quite fine dining but close. A lot of Czech food isn’t that easy to do it’s quite heavy and takes a few hours to be done properly. When I’m at home I prefer to cook some pasta, or something with rice, something healthy and relatively easy to make. I like the idea of a taking a few good quality ingredients and not messing with them too much .
I quite like looking at home, after cooking here for two hundred people it’s quite easy to cook for yourself.
Jamie: So, After 5 years in prague you came to England?
Jaromir: My friends moved to Manchester. They transferred from the Radisson in Prague to the one here, they didn't like it and went to work in Malmaison, they sent us a message saying they had jobs there and at first we intended to come over, work, improve our English for a year, then go back to Prague…but it’s going to be nearly 8 years now that I’ve been in Manchester. I spent seven and a half at Malmaison - I started as a chef de partie, then became a junior sous chef, then sous chef and I was head chef for the last few years there. Every time I wanted to change there was a new opportunity and it’s a really good company to progress in.
Jamie: What made you move from Malmaison to Linen?
Jaromir: I spent most of my professional life working in a hotel, I'd never really worked in a restaurant. Linen is somewhere in between - it’s still more like the hotel than the restaurant because the building is open 24 hours, the bar’s open 'til early in the morning, there are quite a lot of meetings in the Icon. I really like this restaurant, I think it’s got great potential, if you get the right produce and people start talking about it. We do really well at the weekend,  we did three hundred [covers] last Friday... people come here for a special occasion. I’m trying to change people’s minds and show them you can still come here on a Tuesday and have a great meal at the same price as other restaurants in the area.

Jamie: Is your ethos at Linen to take a few good ingredients and make a simple meal?
Jaromir: I'm quite a comfort eater. It’s nice to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant once in a while and get eight taster courses then get a takeaway on the way home, but I like decent-sized portions and the classic sequence of starter, main course, dessert. The dishes here are good value for money. I'm also trying to do things seasonally. These days you can buy a strawberry all year round and have the same menu on all year, but I don’t like to do that. If you buy tomatoes in the middle of winter, they’re gonna look like tomatoes but they won’t taste like it. I like to use produce when it’s at its best, as it makes a big difference.
Jamie: Is part of your future plan to change people's perceptions of Linen? Will you stay here and make it your own?
Jaromir: I don’t like to get jobs for a just a few months. I like to have a vision, a project. I knew this restaurant had had its ups and downs and that it wasn’t really consistent. It was a chance for me to kind of make it my own right from the start. What I didn’t like about Malmaison was that in the last few months they started to have group suppliers and group menus, someone in London decides on the menu and it kills creativity. Until then everyone knew Malmaison for its creativity and every hotel had its own concept and individuality. Then they introduced the American diner concept, which I didn’t understand.
Jamie: Are there any restaurants in Manchester that you really rate?
Jaromir: You know, I really like to eat Asian food and I don’t think I can make it as well at home as they do in restaurants. So it  might sound silly but I like Chaophraya or Tampopo, what they do is great and cheap. I pop in when I’m in the city centre and have a light lunch, it’s an open kitchen and what they do is really good.
Jamie: Are there any cookbooks or chefs that have particularly influenced you?
Jaromir: Lots of different chefs have influenced me but since I was really young I’ve liked Jamie Oliver because he has great passion. I know a lot of people hate him here because he was on T.V. so much, but if you think about what he does, he just wants people to eat healthily, eat good food rather than just put something frozen in the microwave.
As far as cookbooks go, the last couple of ones I've bought are called Apicius with different techniques from Michelin-starred chefs. If I served some of the dishes from it, there would just be three pieces of spaghetti on the plate and the customers here would probably want to come and get me from the kitchen! But a lot of the dishes are beautiful. They want to make you try something new. I've probably got almost every cookbook by Jamie Oliver and they're really good for inspiration too.
Jamie: What's the most unusual dish you've made or tasted?
Jaromir: I'm trying to do most of the dishes quite locally so there’s nothing that weird on the menu here. When I was in Prague we used to do promotions for different cuisines at the hotel. One time we did Australian and another time South African, so we actually had a chef fly over from Cape Town to show us how to cook alligator, antelopes, which was really interesting and a good chance to taste dishes we’d never tried.
Jamie: Finally, have you got any good cooing tips for our readers?
Jaromir: I've got loads but it's hard to think of them when you're put on the spot... A good tip for making dauphinoise potatoes is not to wash the potatoes after you've cut them. I see a lot of young chefs do that. Same goes for boulangere potatoes [cooked in stock rather than milk/cream - Jamie]. If you wash them you rinse off the starch which then stops the potato slices sticking together.
Head to Linen Restaurant at Manchester 235 to see how Jaromir's training has influenced his current style.
Our next Q&A will be with Eddie Shepherd, of Modernist Vegetarian. Stay tuned!