Gordon Ramsay is the first top-name chef to open in eastern Europe. Fiona Sims went to the Czech Republic to see the show
Maze Prague has caused a good deal of excitement since it opened in the Hilton Prague Old Town. With the move, creator Gordon Ramsay became the first Michelin-starred chef to move into the Czech Republic's capital - indeed, to any part of eastern Europe.
In fact, Ramsay's slick operation, designed by David Collins, could be the first Michelin-recognised venue in this part of the world. "You know how I always like to put a stake in the ground first," Ramsay said at last month's official opening.
It is, of course, an offshoot of the Maze London original, where Jason Atherton rules the roost with his innovative tapas-style portions.
Atherton was the first British chef to work at Spain's legendary El Bulli under Ferran Adrià, and he has served under Ramsay for a good few years now, making his name first at Verre at the Hilton on the Creek in Dubai, putting the Gulf emirate on the culinary map, then at Maze London, where he won a Michelin star for his work and is widely tipped to gain a second.
There's a Maze in New York now, too, at the London NYC hotel, and there will be one in Paris if Ramsay pulls it off, plus several more around the world. In Prague, the current menu is a reflection of that in London, with a few tweaks to allow for produce consistency. Getting a consistent level of quality produce is a real issue. However, Ramsay overcame that in Dubai, and it won't stop him in Prague.
"It'll take us a couple of years to get it sussed, I reckon," admits Maze executive chef Atherton, who was in town for the opening and will visit monthly. "The suppliers here have never had chefs rejecting food before because it's not up to our standard."
It's not really Atherton's headache now, anyway - it falls on Maze Prague head chef Phil Carmichael, who has worked with Atherton in London since Maze opened in 2005. "Once Maze Prague is up and running, the menu will be all Phil," explains Atherton.
Carmichael says: "Getting hold of certain quality produce here is not a problem, it's just maintaining that level. And we'll just have to do a lot more shopping around. You don't have your Richard Vines here, but then I guess we didn't in London five years ago."
Good quality cheese, it seems, is the biggest headache. "There are no good cheese suppliers, no artisan producers," says Carmichael. There are no markets - fish, meat or vegetables - either.
There's no gastronomic scene to speak of in the Czech Republic - Communism saw to that (chefs here worked with the same limited cookbook, charging the same prices). There's only one food programme on Czech television, which is reportedly dire (though the first series of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares will air soon), and you can count the country's top chefs on the fingers of one hand.
Obviously, things are much cheaper here than in London and Maze Prague is priced accordingly, with average spend about £35-£40 a head - but Atherton reckons it's already showing a profit, helped by the fact that Carmichael and company also look after the rest of the hotel's food and beverage offering. This includes room service, breakfast and a 300-capacity banqueting space, which is already proving popular. "This gives us a bit of leeway on prices in the restaurant," says Carmichael. "We'll be putting them up, but not yet. We'd like to get it up to £60 a head."
Best-selling dishes so far among the starters are the braised oxtongue salad with pork trotters and ox cheek vinaigrette (Kcs310), while the best-selling main is the glazed pork belly with apple purée, spiced lentils and crisp skin (Kcs700).
The tasting menu (Kcs1,795) has gone down particularly well, he reports. About 70% choose it, which is not bad going in a city not used to tasting menus, nor to smaller portions. In fact, it's already inspiring other top chefs in the city to offer something similar.
About 70% of customers are local, with the rest made up of tourists and the international business community.
Maze Prague portions are bigger than those in London, but the city is used to heavy, hearty dishes.
Sommelier Aurelien Hinsinger has compiled the 250-bin wine list. It was a bit of headache getting it all together, with many wines brought in especially - making it the most exciting list in town.
"It was tough," Atherton admits. "We couldn't get some of the producers we wanted, nor the vintages, and shipping it especially does push the costs up."
What's on the menu
- Jerusalem artichoke velouté with duck ragoût, cèpe brioche and cèpe butter, Kcs250
- Poached lobster salad with apple and fennel, Kcs420
- Pressed foie gras and poached chicken with fig marmalade and toasted brioche, Kcs420
- Roasted quail with celeriac rémoulade, foie gras and Madeira sauce, Kcs400
- Steamed daurade Royale with candied aubergine, pak choi and spicy tomato sauce, Kcs600
- Glazed pork belly with apple purée, spiced lentils and crispy skin, Kcs700
- Braised beef short-rib with bacon, mushrooms, and baby onions, Kcs700
- Carpaccio of pineapple with coconut sorbet and lime syrup, Kcs250
- Peanut butter and cherry jam sandwich with cherry sorbet, Kcs250
- Vanilla rice pudding with raspberry ripple ice-cream, Kcs250
Current exchange rate is about Kcs34 to £1
V Celnici 7, 110 00 Prague, Tel: 00-420-2-21822300,www.gordonramsay.com/mazeprague
Atherton's in the kitchen
Jason Atherton will be cooking at this year's Chef Conference dinner, which follows the Chef Conference on 12 May at the InterContinental Park Lane, London. For more information about the conference and dinner, go to www.chefconference.co.uk.