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I always wanted to have the keys to the shop with a good food

His life revolves around food and people who improve food quality, Czech gastronomy and the environment with their own hands. What is Tomáš Popp, the manager of the National Team of Chefs and Pastry Chefs, dedicated to and why he really can't imagine the daily routine behind the stove?

Autor: Blanka Datinská


Tomas, you're a cook, but you don't spend much time in the kitchen.

That is true, but I have never completely moved away from it. I wanted to be a cook since I was a child, and it is Paul Bocuse's fault, because during my childhood in the Communist era, we caught the German stations in the Pilsen region, that ran his cooking program. And as a six-year-old boy I said, that exactly that is what I want to do as a job at one day. After the school however, I did not cook in any restaurant for a long time, rather I flew over some different events, as well as became a vegan and I also get involved in animal protection. I began to think about the impact of food on the environment, and in 2008 we organized the first harvest of organic food. We wanted to educate people and show them what bio is all about.

It had turned into farmers markets at the end, where now such echt farmers and primary producers from the Pilsen and South Bohemian regions have been selling for more than 10 years, and later I opened also farmers shops. I knew peasants and suppliers personally, most of them became my friends and I again became a meat-eater, so I cooked more and more and as a cook I naturally tried to connect farmers with restaurants. This is the way I met the guys from the National Team who were looking for new people in 2016, so I jumped into the position of manager.


What exactly means your function?

I often answer that my job is to give out love. In practice, it looks like I am putting together a team, accompanying them to trainings and competitions, but also looking for sponsors, finances and training areas or co-organizing various events. On Februray we are also going to compete on IKA Olympics in Stuttgart. I basically inherited whole the thirteen-member team, but together with Petr Starý we managed to provide them a new „gym“ - a kitchen on the top floor of the National Museum of Agriculture in Prague – which was that turning point, that kicked us all.

Money is not everything, but training and competition costs something. It is necessary to realize that membership in the National Team is a voluntary activity of chefs who have enough of their own work and therefore it helped us a lot when the boys suddenly did not have to pay everything out of their own. It was a bit of motivation for them and thanks to their good background they achieved such excellent results in Singapore and Luxembourg, where they were ranked 8th among 50 teams.

And that are right the competitions that are the best trainings for the Olympics. When someone asks me who is the chef, who belongs to the National Team, I always say, that it is that one, that will compete in it. Even the best chef can fail and many colleagues avoid the National Team, because competing is a completely different discipline than normal operations and requires perfect work organization, accuracy and timing, maximum concentration and knowledge of the rules.


By the way - how is the team training looking in real?

We meet about three times a month and tune every aspect of the Olympic menu that has been forming for about 2 years. During training, recipes need to be precised, ideal ingredients found, details of preparation and serving accured, and also we need to try it all live and cook in real quantity and time, which means 110 portions of a 3-course menu in 5 hours. That is the ocassion, where we invite sponsors and partners to sample. But we have already hosted, for example, also wheelchair users or pensioners through the Táňa Brzobohatá Foundation. And these are very nice events.


But the goal is not just winning the competitions...

Certainly not. The National Team primarily represents Czech gastronomy in both: in the world and in the Czech Republic. But do not imagine that we go abroad to cook sirloin with six. Czech cuisine is for us about Czech ingredients and tastes, such as an interestingly prepared duck or a menu that we prepare for the Olympics: marinated and roasted siven fish with potato and caviar from Vodňany sturgeon as the main course and mouflon back and shoulder with pumpkin polenta.


Who are your biggest rivals?

Northerners, who are recently the drivers of competitions and world gastronomy. It is their approach - hard work, drill training and a completely different relationship to raw materials. The Nordic countries were among the first to compete not only in terms of performance but also in terms of the environment. This year, sustainability is the main theme of the Olympics, even points down are officially enrolled in the rules for wasting and one vegan meal is cooked in the menu, but years ago it was mainly about a medal and almost no one dealt with the ecological footprint.

The advantages of the Nordic countries have always been finances, an incredible inventory and also a lot of gadgets that we could not afford. This has changed over the years, also thanks to Petr Svejkovský from Premium Gastro, who has helped us and still helps with the equipment and transport. He arranged for us a kitchen in the museum, lent us inventory from the showroom, and introduced us to Tibor Mužík, who produces original plates and designs the boards. We are really grateful for this cooperation.


Collaboration is your main task, is it right?

Rather, bringing together people with a vision that is much easier to realize while these people cooperates together. I am involved in a lot of projects because I enjoy doing things that I would never experience if I were closed in the kitchen. It's all about food and gastronomy, and it's not always a commercial intention. For example, I opened the first store because I wanted to know what and from whom I eat, and I made my dream come true - I always wanted to have the keys to a good food store.

What you give is coming back to you, and gradually the contacts get packed and challenges come. For example, Vaříme dobře project (We cook well), where I visited together with Martin Svatek and Patrik Bečvář regions to focus on individual ingredients, made videos and published a publication. I also make sense of the educational activities for young chefs, which involved several schools in the Czech Republic and Germany, and I am the chairman of the Envic association, which offers courses and seminars not only on food but also on agriculture, construction and public administration.


You also help cooperation between cooks and farmers. What are its biggest obstacles?

It is a long-distance run, although it has improved in recent years. Most businesses are not ready and determined to sacrifice so much energy and money for this cooperation. If you want to work with farm products, you will not have three big suppliers, but maybe 50 names on the list and you must order goods from each of them. Without a buyer, it is challenging for chefs and representatives, so they can make the job easier by making a phone call to Makro. Few dare to ignore what is written on the menu and cook according to what the peasant brings in the morning.

One of the barriers is also the price, because organic and farm foods are and will be more expensive. The chicken from Lužná costs about 128 crowns per kilo and you cannot buy eggs from free range under 4 crowns per piece. Hens and farmers are sometimes uninterested in the amount that a pub needs, although this is changing and farmers are more willing to adapt or increase production. Just yesterday one called me saying he has 300 more laying hens and would like to sell chickens to restaurants.


How do you make relationships between cooks and farmers?

Sometimes it's complicated because cooks and farmers are specific people (in a positive sense), but I think it's the same everywhere - if one doesn't respect the other, mutual trust will gradually disappear. And without this, it is impossible. The cook must understand that the farmer will not affect the fluctuations in slaughter and harvest, and the farmer must want to supply and question the cook who has certain claims.


Farmers products have been on course for some time, is this a trend or a future for you?

It is certainly not a trend, at least not for those who does it mean serious. Every chef wants to work with a better ingredients, but it is important that they meet and know the producer or farmer directly. When people are convinced of quality, they are willing to pay for it and usually do not return to average. As for the future, farmers are objectively shrinking and many have no successors, but on the other hand, there are increasing enthusiasts moving from big cities to the countryside, buying farms and making great things.


You've heard a lot of stories like that, right?

Yes, but I don't really know many IT´s that became the farmers, I have people around me like Jarka and Pepa. These seventies carried milk to Germany and set up a small dairy shop called Joma. They don't produce much, but their curd has no competition. They have a 20-meter front at their stand before they arrive at the markets. It's nice to see someone doing well, but I'm also sorry about the big boom around it. When something grows too fast in our country, we get involved in the mess that spoils the reputation of these good guys doing it the way it should be.


And what does recharge you, Tomáš?

Meet people at an idea stage, talk to them, get in touch with someone, and see how their plan is going and where to go in a few years. Sometimes you just need to think a little bit only and from the idea, there can happen more than just a collaboration: as if you address Diaconia, supply a recipe and ingredients, and their unemployed clients make sandwiches into your store. I try to help wherever I can, and it's easy to do it through food, because it connects people.