Fast confession – the confectioner Josef Maršálek: He baked for Queen Elizabeth and British Prime Ministers. Now, he is back in Prague!
Already as a young child he was drawn to the kitchen. And despite his parents’ wish he studies at a gymnasium, he ended up as a confectioner. And one of the best! In the most luxury shopping mall in the London Harrods, he baked sweet confectioneries for British Prime Ministers and other important people. Not only did he manage to graduate from his masters course, but he was also awarded the titles ‘cook of the year’, ‘team of the year’, even ‘manager of the year’. Then the Moravian native returned to Czech Republic, where he started devoting all his time to CakeShop Prague. In the interview, you will find out about his other plans and goals.
Josef, it‘s hard to come across a great cook these days. Why don’t you have a place of your own?
I promised myself two things. That I wouldn’t do anything to do with English, and I truly made that promise in high school. I was 19 years old, and I told Mr. Mgr. Miloš Mlčok: ‚Professor, if you give me a two, and by doing that, allow me to get a commendation, then I promise, I won’t do anything with English.’ Back then, I had no I idea I would go to England in four years for 6 weeks, and come back from India in 12 years. The second thing I promised myself was that I’d never be an entrepreneur. When people asked me, why I don’t have a confectioner’s or a bakery, why I don’t have anything of my own, I told them, I don’t have the urge or the tendency to own anything. I’d much rather help people, that have everything that I don’t, whether it’s to do with knowledge, or contacts from abroad. I don’t want to have a business, I don’t have the need.
And isn’t it only because you’re afraid having greater responsibility?
Not at all, I had many people working for me, I’m a very responsible person. When somebody wants something of me, I ask when’s the deadline, and I’m done five minutes sooner. I’ve never arrived to any meeting late. I’m very responsible, I almost single-handedly raised my sister, who is ten years younger, because my mom was working and didn’t have the time for her. I was the eldest of four. I’m responsible, but I didn’t feel like having a business. I guess, you need to have a special part of brain for that kind of thing, either it’s there, or it isn’t. But as I found out, it can appear there in some time. At the end of October, me and the gastronomer Robert Chejn, whom I’ve known for fifteen years, and who manages the Chateau Kotěra in Ratboř, founded a company. Fifteen years ago, we worked together for a while in Dlouhá street in his restaurant Robert‘s Restaurant and Robert’s Café.
I was working for the Shick’s in Žižkov, for the parents of Patrik and Kristýna Schick. After work, I usually went to see Robert, where I helped him with some cakes and cheesecakes. Then I returned home, I slept, and I went back to work. And this went on. The year before the last in January, Robert wrote me on Facebook: ‘Hi, I found out, that you’re back in Prague, I need some help with desserts.’ So we somehow got working together again. I arrived to Ratboř and we embraced, as if we saw each other yesterday. It was beautiful, because Robert is a renaissance kind of man, he’s skilled, an intellectual, he likes food, women, good wine and life. So, I helped him with desserts. Then, I always went there once in a while, we made a new menu, interesting projects, weddings. For, example Dominika Kratinová had her‘s there. We were thinking, what we’re going to do, and we told ourselves, that when there aren’t many people, we’ll put things in jars. Some marmelade, jams, and salty caramel, and he’ll make paté. And so we established a company with Robert, which is called Fat Brothers. In other words – I have a business.
Fat Brothers? He’s fat?
Well, yeah and so am I.
No, I’d say chubby.
Chubby is good, but of course Fat Brothers isn’t about the fact that we’re fat. It’s about the fact, that we’re not going to make sugar-free things, which are all the rage now. If you look at the global sales of what gets truly sold a lot, it is the things that need to be marketed the least. The most energy is invested into the things that are selling the least. And those are the things, which are usually limited by some diet. Whether it’s a diet that’s in fashion, or for example a gluten-free diet. People with Celiac disease aren’t buying those, because they represent one percent of the population. But in Spain, fourteen to fifteen percent of the products sold is gluten-free. The people who buy those, naively think, that if they omit gluten from their diet, they’ll be unbelievably healthy. That’s not true though, they don’t know that gluten is a protein. So they’re eliminating the proteins that they still have to replace later on.
So, the new project is Fat Brothers, then?
One of many. I never put all my eggs into one basket. Even as I was working for the Schicks, and I was making cakes for them, I was also trying to obtain a confectionery and cooking apprenticeship certificate, and I finished my first year of university long distance before I left to England. I don’t focus on one thing. Because, one can never be sure, how things end up.
Fat Brothers go against the trends, don’t they?
They do, absolutely.
And you’re established since November?
We established the company at the beginning of November. And this month we should start delivering our products with Rohlik.cz.
How is that looking?
I think it’s looking absolutely great.
We have a wonderful brand with logos created by a great graphic designer, who wins awards all around the world with his books, he also creates graphic designs for children. He also made a bottle lable for Mr. Špaček. We’re already excited.
And other things?
Another egg in the basket is the work for Czech television. I’m going to be the jury on the show ‘Peče celá země‘ (The Czech Bake Off). The series will be filmed in May and middle of June, but it will air on television at the beginning of next spring, because post-production will take up a lot of time. It is said, that it’s the second most expensive broadcasting rights they’ve ever bought.
With who else are you in the jury?
There will be two of us, me and Mirka Slavíková. She’s a confectionery legend, who emigrated in the 80’s, because she was on another level mentally, and couldn’t stay here. She moved, she left to Africa, she drove in a Jeep from North to South and settled down in Johannesburg. She returned back after the revolution, and established a confectionery studio. But she was underappreciated here, the association of cooks and confectioners were throwing sticks under her feet, because she was going against the current trends. People, who leave their country have to deal with things like that. They have some reason, why they left their country, and in ninety percent of the cases it definitely wasn’t about money. I don’t think, that the majority of people leave their country, family and friends, because they want to earn more money. Money isn’t the factor, there are other needs, that we need to fulfill to be happy and content. Meanwhile, Mirka Slavíková moved to Holland, and got married there. Now, she‘s not married anymore – and she was given an offer here.
So she returned?
She’s most likely coming back to do this show, there are two of us there as jury. The rights are from England, its from BBC, same as Stardance. The original is called ‘The Great British Bake Off’.
A few years ago, I spoke with Zdeněk Pohlreich. His son was studying to become a confectioner and Pohlreich said, that it’s terrible because there are almost no confectioners in the Czech Republic.
Not only confectioners, but cooks, bakers and other craftsmen.
Why do you think this is?
Ten years ago, there wasn’t such a scarcity. When I was in Prague in the year 2002 and I was looking for a job, there were a lot of confectioners. I really had to go around a few places before I got a job. Today, anyone will get the job, because there isn’t anyone who’d do it.
Back then, unemployment was at nine percent, there was huge pressure on the people to work from the government, because those who don’t, were too expensive to be sitting at home. Now, the situation is different. Everybody who can work, works. The educational system in our country is bad, and due to the fact that schools are free, and that children only pay for their own school supplies, nobody really values what they have. I just got back from a beautiful specialized high school in Slavkov u Brna. It’s a hospitality school, and they’ve got confectioners and cooks there, and it’s very familial there. It’s smaller, so they can take care of their students. And they then on the other hand can have better relationships with their teachers – there aren’t thirty children in a class, but maybe fifteen. Of course, there aren’t exceptional students. Even today, I encounter the fact that students study school for their parents, and they don’t really relate to the profession. And in the end, not with themselves.
Why did you return to Czech Republic?
I returned, because I never really wanted to return. (laughter) When I left to England, and then got to India from there, I told a friend who is Spanish and lives Barcelona: ‘ If I’ll ever return to Europe, then of course I’ll go straight to Barcelona.’ I’m glad that he forgot about it in a few years, because instead of Barcelona I returned to Prague, there was an opportunity here. In India, my visa expired two and a half years ago. It’s a little restrictive there, and getting a visa is quite complicated. The situation reached a natural end. Suddenly a friend from university came with an offer, that if I ever wanted to return to the Czech Republic, he’d have a job for me. I was returned for the project CakeShop Prague. During school, I was teaching the girls of the reception hotel U Zlatého jelena how to bake cakes, rolls and muffins that were then sold at the hotel and the lobby bar.
Within ten years the lobby bar expanded into a considerable size, and started employing a number of confectioners and waiters. The CakeShop Prague was something like my baby. From the name to the menu. It was paradoxical, that it wasn’t due to my sister or my grandmother in Moravia that I came back, because although I was in London or in India, I saw them every three or four weeks.
Alright, London is close. But India?
I had a very flexible schedule. It was my demand and condition to work there. At the beginning it was all dependent on my school’s schedule – I was studying a hotel university long distance, everywhere I had to negotiate ‘yes, I’ll work here, but every three or four weeks, I’ll be going to the Czech Republic.’ After finishing school, there was a long distance relationship. Nevertheless, after two years of working full-time for CakeShop, me and my friend and his café had to go separate ways. We didn’t understand each other. It ended as it should have.
You come from Moravia, and you show up as a young boy in Harrods. You realize, that the British Queen gets her desserts here… What impression did you have of that?
The British Queen currently doesn’t get anything in Harrods at the moment, since the year 1997 her and her family aren’t allowed there. On The 30. Aughust 1997 Princess Diana died in a car accident with Dodi Al-Fayed, and his father Mohamed was the owner of Harrods until May 2010. The Queen really used to shop there, the mother of Princess Diana is today employed there as the emeritus member of the Harrods family, even though Al-Fayed doesn’t own it anymore. Madam Spencer, the mother of Diana was supposed to become the mother-in-law of Dodi Al-Fayed. Naturally, the royal family was there, they didn’t know that when Diana divorces Charles, she’ll start something up with Dodi Al-Fayed. To put a royal emblem on your shop in England, the royal family really had to shop there, and Harrods was one of those places. And Mohamed Al-Fayed is to this day convinced, that it was murder, and it was all planned. They even accused Prince Phillip, that he’s involved, and that he orchestrated. The Queen was in Harrods before I started working there.
But even so, it must have been an honour to work in such a place…
Today, I’m a thirty-seven year old man, when I left to England, I was about twenty-three. I didn’t go there with the intentions of staying for thirteen years, I was going to stay for six weeks. And it wasn’t my idea at all, I didn’t want to go to England, and I also made that promise to my professor. (laughter) It was the idea of my girlfriend Markéta. I was working my third year at the Schick’s, and I had just finished my year of hotel university, which is private, so I had to pay around a hundred thousand for my entire three year education. I had around sixteen thousand crowns left on my account. And she came with the fantastic idea, that we’ll go pick raspberries somewhere in Scotland. I told her she must be crazy, I had to pay another thirty thousand that I didn’t have for another semester in September, so there was a long July and August of work ahead of me. Things, however, got moving, and in the middle of June 2005 we left with Markéta to work in England. I got two job offers, either at a five star hotel for small money, or in Birmingham at some three-star congress hotel for much more money. Of course I decided for the five star hotel for less money.
I didn’t do it to have something good on my CV, but I told myself, why should I waste my time with a three-star, if the natural continuation is to a four-star and then a five-star. If you do it too late, you might never get the chance.
How did you get all those employers to fight over a boy from Moravia?
I don’t have to tell anyone, that I love the job. I come, roll up my sleeves, do the dishes, I clean and I start doing the thing that is asked of me. And I don’t make any fuss about it. The result is a reflection of how I feel while I’m doing it, and how much of myself I put into it. I put everything into it. If I can’t put everything into it, I’d rather not do it at all. If I had to go to work, and couldn’t leave my heart there, I’d rather not go at all.
If you were to bake for the British Queen, or here for some common Mrs. Nováková…
I know it might sound like a cliché, but I’d bake with the same effort for both of those women, the only difference would probably be the money.
Every week, we used to bring cakes to Downing Street 10 (the seat of the British Prime Minister), so during my seven year stay I saw three different Prime Ministers, who ate my cakes. I just roll up my sleeves, and because I know what I’m doing, I don’t have a problem with who my customer is.
Where did you come to have such talent? In schools? Did someone at work teach you, or did your grandmother give you a few lessons?
I have it all from my family, and I’m convinced, that we all do. The things, that make us who we are inside, at the core of our soul, that can’t come from school. In my case, my parents didn’t really make it, I had a beautiful childhood until the age of ten, and then something went wrong. But grandmothers were a constant, stable presence, they were always there for me, even though back then they didn’t know how to give their love, the way they know today, which is beautiful.
You told us in the Fast confession , that you baked them a bread pudding. And what about the kind of cakes that are so beautiful, one doesn’t even want to eat them?
If I made such a unique cake for them, I’m not sure it would be something they could relate to. They’d say ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’, or ‘this looks amazing’. But I know, that I’ll make them much happier if I bring them a beautiful butter braided bread, and some good jam or caramel.
Which dessert took you the longest to prepare? And what kind do you like the most?
The job of a confectioner is hard, the best friend of a confectioner is a freezer. The best desserts or cakes I’ve ever had were in Paris. It’s called Café Pouchkine. The man, who is the creative visionary and confectioner is called Emmanuel Ryon.
You are a very busy man, you have many projects. What about your personal life?
I have it all in balance. Every three weeks I go to Spain, a condition I demanded when I came to Prague.
At the beginning, it was a bit difficult, because I realized that people don’t go to work when they don’t feel like it. It’s enough to call in sick, and then they don’t even call and just disappear into thin air. Once, a waiter just disappeared, then a cook. They just didn’t come! Then a restaurant closes just because the staff doesn’t go to work that day, and that just seems insane to me. I wasn’t able to accept that for a long time, and I’m not one to get used to that. Employees have to adapt. Work is a choice and a kind of freedom. There are things that I’m not capable of accepting, and this is one of them. I think, that people should be responsible. And if they sign a contract, whether it’s a partnership/relationship, or a job, they should fulfill that agreement. Nevertheless, I have my working life and private life in balance.