Were disciples fit and stock cubes from XVIII century. Rafał Zaręba – interview

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Rafał Zaręba – chef in Warszawski Sznyt, culinary history enthusiast. His trademark is recreating dishes from history. Within his accomplishments there is a menu based on…the Bible.

Jakub Wejkszner: Your passions seems interesting at first glance, but does it sustain itself in reality?

Rafał Zaręba: Yes, it’s not just a slogan. We didn’t create it just for this restaurant. Since college I have been very interested in culinary history. I wrote my BA thesis on biblical diet and its meaning. It was just a start. Since I’ve become a chef at Warszawski Sznyt, it came to me naturally to put my passion into menu. Then, I started collaboration with Royal Castle. I did there Waza’s supper. Historical recipes were just an inspiration. It is impossible to recreate a dish one to one. People have different tastes nowadays. Historical dishes were more sour, there were no fridges and food was kept differently. Basically, we work on products that were available then and are rooted in our culture. We have, among others, sturgeon used in caviars – very popular. I combined it with fermented broccoli stem and puree made from topinambour. On the top of that I put sauce made from cankers.

It’s hard to imagine how one could extract recipes from the Bible. How did you manage to do that?

I started by eliminating banned products. In my interpretation, diet based on the Bible is mostly unprocessed products in way that they appear in nature. If we want to eat accordingly to the Bible, it’s not just avoiding pork, eel, crustaceans or fish without scales. It’s deeper than that. For non-believers, Bible diet wouldn’t be anything special.

Isn’t this historical diet similar to being a wine connoisseur? It’s not about the taste, it’s the history of the bottle?

For me – taste is the most important thing. We should cultivate our history, we should not be ashamed of it, but embrace it. We have many valuable products, I showed it during my Wasa’s dinner. Tastes can be tamed. We can add some techniques we know nowadays. We have a dish with historical meaning, we can talk about who ate it, in what circumstances and why did it appear on our ancestors table.

What dish from Wasa’s dynasty is going to make a comeback in Warsaw?

Baked guinea fowl. For sure. There is always a place for poultry on polish tables. Guinea fowl is not just industrial chicken. It’s bred with more care. And brews. It was called healthful pottage in old times. Also – and I think this topic is not yet grasped – everything that forest gives us. In recipes I found in professor Dumanowski books, there are many plants that have aspects beneficial to our health. Nowadays, people go to parks for a walk. 30-40 km outside Warsaw is too far for most people to drive and stroll in the forest. We have many scientist in the subject. Professor Łuczaj for example. You can read these books and collect some herbs, get to know how to use carnelian for example. Recently, we’ve had some influences from Scandinavia. Famous chef, René Redzepi takes his team into the woods. Many restaurants in Poland tries to do the same, but people privately – not so much. We would rather argue with nature than make peace with it.

What about health aspect of this historical diet?

Bible diet is healthy – for sure. Every product is in its natural state. The way it should be consumed – unprocessed. If almonds and dried apricots were conserved they would not be the same as in the Bible. In polish cuisine though – not so much. Poles ate a lot of fatty food. Generally, the worst thing for as are preservatives. We need to eat more raw products, and these reconstructions help to raise awareness. Unfortunately, trends based on Michelin standards are different. If pureé is not pure, it means that chef didn’t do his job well. I do not think, that it’s true. Sometimes it’s better to give up texture for taste and health aspects of the food.

Do you want to go back to rawness in cuisine?

I would like to use it more. Not 100%, because we would undermine the role of the chef. I like to work with live fire. We have a grill that operates with that, it’s the heart of our kitchen. Everybody wants to have a fireplace. We don’t really know why, but live fire gives warmth, not only the heat. There are different connections between humans around the fireplace. Same with bread. If we have good bread in the restaurant, if we bake it at home, we can have stronger bonds within our hearth.

Where is your fascination with history coming from?

It was one of my favorite subjects at school. Generally speaking, I looked at history through cuisine. For example, when Great Britain was bombarded during WWII, they had the healthiest society ever. Why? Because their diet was selective, they didn’t use fatty products. History teaches us what is good and what is not.

You can always make Stalingrad diet, that consists of rats and roaches.

(Laughs) I even heard that they ate wallpaper glue, because it had some calories in it. I hope we’ll never use this knowledge. What I want to do is to leave some legacy. This is how evolution works. It’s baffling to me that every major technological step in moto industry is welcomed and we make better cars every year, but, for some reason, we forget about that in gastronomy. We focus on getting everything cheaper, even though it’s harmful.

History, but through the lens of cuisine. Why?

It’s hard to say. We never know what passion awaits us in life. I, for example, am trained as an aircraft mechanic, but I have never work a day in my life in this profession. I also studied landscape architecture, because I thought, that I will never get myself into gastronomy. I didn’t think that this passion will prevail, but with every step further, I knew I’ll never let it go. Historical conquests is a wide subject, I think it’ll be enough for a number of years. I have a mission to open up polish cuisine to the world, to help overcome our complexes. We compare us to Italian cuisine, they have great olive oil, their restaurants are popular around the world etc., that’s nonsense. People are not really open to polish cuisine because our view on it is distorted by overinterpretation of the word Old-Polish. Many restaurants have in their menus Old-Polish żurek, hock. It has nothing to do with reality. We need to show that to our guests.

Is there any dish that changed history?

Habsburgian cutlet is an interesting example. German immigrants brought it with themselves do USA after WWII. In the bun it gained a new name – hamburger.

Polish historical diet – what surprised you the most?

Recipe for stock cubes. Highly reduced soup has so many gelling agents, that after cooling it down you can cut it and form it into the cube. Nowadays it isn’t really associated with something good, but reading about it in 18th century recipe is something amazing.

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