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Jiří Bělohlávek gourmet. An interview from the book When Muses Cook
Published here by courtesy of the author Jitka Novotná and Verzone Publishing.
Where does Jiří Bělohlávek like to dine?
This artist, known around the world, appears noble and dignified on the stage, and introverted and reserved in personal contact. He will not lose his dignity under any circumstances. We had met in front of the camera several times and, every time, I could barely breathe how nervous I was, or I could even say, how afraid I was. I forbade myself to think about him in connection with my talks about food. But in time, as I was meeting other artists to talk about food, I began to see the picture of Jiří Bělohlávek as a gourmet. And, believe me, it was tantalizing. And the encouragements I got – from Ivan Ženatý, Jakub Hrůša, Dagmar Pecková, Štefan Margita … But when finally in 2013 after the well-known performance of Má vlast in Litomyšl, I sighted Maestro Bělohlávek surrounded by his musical family – yes, many people such as the conductors Hrůša and Hanus, the CEO of the Czech Philharmonic David Mareček, all of them with their partners and children born and yet unborn – I plucked up the courage. Jiří Bělohlávek asked for a day to think it through and the following evening he uttered the sweet sentence: “I like it.”
Maestro Bělohlávek, what does food mean for you?
It means pleasure and joy, and always has. I enjoyed eating already as a child, and there was hardly anything I would not eat. My mum used to cook classic Czech cuisine influenced slightly by variations of French lightness, which she liked. Poppy-seed sweet buns were her speciality, that was really her masterpiece.
Where did your mum get the French inspiration?
Well, you must not take me word for word. All of my mum’s cooking lacked that classic Czech heaviness. When, later in my life, I got to know the deliciousness of French specialities, I gave her style this name in retrospect.
If we talked about Czech meals only, would it be enough for you?
Sure. I see the Czech cuisine as very rich and inventive. The legacy of our grandmothers as far as vegetarian dishes are concerned is remarkable. I love škubánky (a kind of potato gnocchi) either sprinkled with poppy-seeds or savoury. My friend Sascha Rudayev in the US, a medical doctor by profession, an enthusiastic musician and talented composer taught me to make „přesbidlo“ (some kind of potato spätzle). He brought it from the Czech Jewish tradition, and he made “gefilter fisch” for me as well – oh how delicious that was! Thanks to my wife, Slovak cuisine is something very close to me as well – halušky with bryndza, strapačky (different types of potato dumplings), bobaľky (sweet bread dessert) with poppy-seeds, tekvicový prívarok (pumpkin with cream), duck with potato pancakes – those are all meals from a dream. Or delicious žincica (drink made of sheep milk whey) and fresh sheep cheese that always belonged to our wanderings in the Slovak mountains and our stops at shepherd’s huts.
Jiří Bělohlávek during our interview | Photo Andrea Filičková
Excuse me, you mentioned přesbidlo? Could you please tell us more about the dish?
I will not remember the exact recipe, but I know it was a combination of potatoes and pasta, with onion and cheese.
What is served to guests at the Bělohláveks? Do you have a well-established menu you are always successful with?
My wife and I have several recipes that never fail us, but I cannot reveal them as it would spoil the surprise effect!
How much time are you willing to spend preparing such a feast?
It depends on the situation, but when we have guests, we usually give ourselves enough time to get everything ready without hurry. The preparations are actually the first part of the evening.
What was the first ever meal that you cooked for someone?
Probably an omelette with tomatoes, which I liked to make for Sunday breakfast for my surprised parents as a kid. Of course, I kept it in my repertoire as a father of a family.
Since you touched upon your role as father, I would like to know if you fall into the category of “pampering fathers” who appeared after days and weeks of absence with many sweets to offer?
Sure. But I would not bring only sweets, I also loved going around shops and choosing beautiful outfits for my two little girls, who were three and a half years apart. Two dresses, one smaller, the other one larger, I enjoyed that so much. I wasn’t very strict in my role as daddy, but I tried to be consistent. From time to time, I had a disciplinary function in my absence. The magical formula of “What would daddy say?” is said to have had great effect.
Cooking is an occasional hobby for you nowadays. How have you developed your art of cooking over time, what can you make?
I can make many things, but I don’t like to boast theoretically, when I cannot show it in real. In any case, I learned many important meals from my mum, the most typical example being the already mentioned škubánky with poppy seeds. I’ve had even some funny moments with this recipe. Once in the US when our hostess persevered in asking us about a typical Czech meal for so long that my friend Sascha and I offered to make škubánky. It started by the nice lady asking us the naïve question of how many potatoes we were going to need, if two were enough. We replied that we needed two kilos, and readily bought them in a nearby shop. We borrowed a suitable pot from the neighbours and bought the poppy seeds in peculiar packaging, in ten tiny bottles (since in the US, poppy seeds are considered addictive), and began to crush them with a rolling pin on a plastic cutting board. During the preparations, it transpired that neither of us had ever prepared the meal alone and so we shared ideas about how to proceed before, in the end, we were ready to serve. Our hostess and her husband managed to eat one tiny bit and found some polite words of praise; the two of us enjoyed the meal immensely and got massively stuffed. I have spread my passion for škubánky elsewhere as well – our friends in England started to love them sincerely. On one of my journeys to England, I packed a package of poppy seeds and a grinder so that they could cook this delicious food at home.
About the book
Title: Když vaří múzy (When Muses Cook)
Author: Jitka Novotná
Photographs: Andrea Filičková
Published: Praha, 2014
The book offers 16 interviews with classical musicians such as Radek Baborák, Kateřina Englichová, Simona Houda Šaturová, Jakub Hrůša, Marko Ivanović, Štefan Margita, Dagmar Pecková, Ivan Ženatý and others. The main topic of the interviews is food, but readers will also get a glimpse of the artists’ lives.
When do you actually like to eat during the day?
Which foods do you not mind spending your money on?
The costliest items in my shopping basket are fresh fish, French and other foreign cheeses and quality wines.
There is no strong tradition of preparing fish in the Czech Republic, how do you prepare it?
Nothing special, I bake it in the oven, on butter, that’s the best. High quality fish meat is essential though. We used to have a flow-through trout pond back at home. But unfortunately, the pond tended to overflow right into the house during heavy rains, and this was of course dangerous during our long stays abroad. We had to stop using it.
What about sweets? When I brought you some truffles today, you strictly refused them. Do you care about balanced diet, do you eat only healthy food?
I am trying to restrict my diet due to health reasons, I should not eat anything with flour and sweets in general, but I confess that I’m not consistent at all. All the unhealthy things are so delicious, you know!!!
Will you share some of the sins with us please?
Well, just a couple of days ago, in China, I “broke loose” and, together with my wife Anna, went to a Sunday brunch at the hotel. They served various western, Japanese, Chinese foods, you name it. They also prepared an excellent variety of small desserts. I had never seen anything like that before, twenty different kinds of delicious miniatures. I told myself: "Einmal ist keinmal”, and tasted one piece of each kind.
And what about your body, did it protest or was it satisfied?
It was pure bliss at that moment.
Does your wife keep an eye on you?
Luckily, she does, I ask her to do it.
Since you are in a confessional mood, I cannot resist asking you about alcohol. Does it belong to artists’ lives? Does it enhance their inspiration? Does it enhance your inspiration?
There are artists who use alcohol as stimulant and helper, to overcome stage fright for instance. In this sense I was a witness of one unbelievable case at the time when I was the chief conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra. At the Montreux Festival in Switzerland, we had the opportunity to accompany the magician of the violin Henryk Szeryng. Before the concert, Maestro Szeryng showed signs of a strong reaction to the alcohol consumed, he could not articulate properly and was swaying slightly. I was quite apprehensive about the concert. He walked insecurely onto the stage – and there he played absolutely in tune and with amazing radiance. Had I not experienced it directly, I would have never believed that something like that was possible. I also saw how Leonard Bernstein downed a large glass of whisky just before entering the stage. It would have been a lethal dose for me, but he performed fantastically. Apparently, it is totally individual.
So in your case, you prefer to enjoy a good drink only after a concert? And what about food, would you agree with the Czech saying that the way you eat is the way you work?
I believe that a positive attitude to food is the first sign of vitality, our relationship to life, however, I do not eat before rehearsals and concerts, I should not be starving, but I mustn’t be too full either. You know it, sometimes food helps us to overcome tiredness but then the food makes us even more tired!
Which venue do you like to sit in after a concert and treat yourself after performing on the stage?
In Paris, I like the Bofinger restaurant near Place de la Bastille. This is one of the restaurants where you can come as late as half past midnight, and they will welcome you without a single hint that it might be too late and without any hesitation and in a friendly way they prepare a full menu for you. They serve delicious choucroute de la mer, which is a French speciality based on cabbage and various meats, in this case small fish and seafood. They also serve fabulous steaks, amazing soupe à l'oignon gratinée, or onion soup – and all!
In Zurich, the Kronenhalle is a renowned restaurant. In addition to delicious food, it also offers artistic delights, with original paintings by such great artists as Chagall, Miró, Braque, Matisse and Cézanne hanging on the walls. I’ve been told that the current “exhibition” is only a fraction of what used to be on display in the Kronenhalle in the past and that the owners had to sell the paintings gradually due to financial difficulties; in any case, it is still a remarkable place. In the past, its most famous guests included members of the Zurich elite, as well as Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, James Joyce, Richard Strauss, Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. In Berlin, I like the Lutter & Wegner in the vicinity of Potsdamer Platz. It is quite a small room with high ceilings and shelves full of beautiful wine. They cook French and international cuisine. But the best of all is the atmosphere there, the milieu. The staff is much more than just professional and cooly accurate and polite, which you’d find in hotels, but enormously attentive and personal and can suggest the best choice of food and drink combination at the right moment.
I must also mention the fabulous Italian place called Sole in Vienna which offers a hospitable base for artists from the Vienna Opera. Practically after every performance, a bohemian company meets there. The padrone is also a regular guest at the theatre and a music lover, knows everybody, and this is also mirrored in the wonderful atmosphere of the restaurant. It has never disappointed me. They even serve the fabulous Italian dessert called zabaglione. When they offered it to us after a performance of Rusalka, something unique happened – my wife broke her diet.
In Tokyo, I always go to a tiny sushi bar that my long-lasting friend, Mr. Nakato, discovered for me. In Prague I like the Divinis restaurant in Týnská Street, the Aria Hotel restaurant at Tržiště and Alcron in Štěpánská, but of course there are many other fantastic places. Each of my favourite restaurants must have a good chef, and the atmosphere of the interior is also important for me, I want to feel fine there. And I’ve added one more categorical imperative in the recent years – there must be no music playing loudly, let alone some pseudo-music in the form of a switched-on radio.
Your successful collaboration with British orchestras was crowned by your becoming the chief conductor of the BBC Symphonic Orchestra in London – and yet there is no mention of Great Britain. True, the local cuisine has a reputation of no great taste, but the food is said to be of quality. What did you eat there? And was there something you could not make yourself eat?
Great Britain and its cuisine used to be terrible, uninteresting, bland, in one word impossible. However, its unflattering reputation is no longer valid! I think it has undergone an amazing transformation under the influence of a plethora of ethnic restaurants and due to the incredible competition of foreign influences. And at the same time, it has kept its traditional meals such as various meat or fish pies (shepherd’s pie, fisherman’s pie) or the popular fish-and-chips, which – although not my cup of tea – is a perfect creation. I have not found my way to the popular haddock, a kind of codfish that the English love. But on the other hand, the way they prepare red meats is exquisite, especially the lamb. And, of course, we must not forget the wonderful bread and butter pudding, which is often the highlight of the traditional menu.
Did any of the restaurateurs make a special impression on you during your numerous and rich culinary experiences?
Miloš Opatrný, who I met during my first visits to Japan in the 1970s. He was the chef of a Czech restaurant in Tokyo and also had his own restaurant and hotel in Prague at Větrník. He was an excellent cook without being a snob revelling in “vertical creations”. He served high quality meals in his own way.
And the other extreme - what food did you find hard to swallow?
Well again in Japan, I indulged in exploring the various secrets of the cuisine and ate many things indeed, including insects and various sea creatures. However, one of those delicacies, called something like “ho-ya”, was really hard for me to digest.
How did it taste? What were the ingredients?
It was a sea creature living in very deep waters which made it hard to catch and therefore made it rare. It smelled like paraffin and looked like a sea cucumber whose ugly appearance was made even uglier by its wrinkled surface.
Anyway, you could not deny your Japanese hosts their effort and goodwill.
Do you ever get presents in the form of food from your fans, admirers and supporters?
A friend of ours, a music lover and an excellent cook, used to bring me to concerts handmade creations from her baking repertoire instead of flowers. And it used to be a rule that after the concert I could offer my guests in backstage wonderful strudels, gugelhupfs with various fillings, cakes and other delicacies. Unfortunately, I had to stop this habit out of health reasons.
If I could treat you to some delicious food after a concert, what would you permit me to bring then?
I am glad you come to my concerts and listen.
But if I asked you to give me a tip for a present that you would accept enthusiastically, what would it be?
Well, I really don’t know, it would have to be some kind of fresh sheep cheese or something like that.
I shall remember that!
Prague, June 2014