60 Second Interview with Andrej Prokes

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

As a former Executive Sous Chef at The Ritz London, The Fat Duck in Bray, and Chef de Partie at Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road, acclaimed Austrian chef Andrej Prokes is no stranger to success.

Chef Andrej Prokes in the kitchen
Having worked at many of Europe’s finest restaurants including Tantris, Taubenkoebel, Restaurant Zur Blauen Gans, and Julius Meindl, his passion for fresh, sustainable food and first class service was cultivated from a young age. 
 
He has achieved a host of accolades during his career, including Newcomer Chef of the Year in 2006.  He has also published a number of acclaimed cookbooks alongside the Patron of Taubenkoebel – a Relais & Châteaux establishment.
 
Now, in his role as Chef Consultant for CHEF® by Nestlé Professional, he is busy developing new and innovative culinary solutions, giving his peers more time to be creative while continuously delivering amazing and consistent dishes.
 
Alongside this, he is also committed to inspiring the next generation of culinary talent as a judge of Nestlé Professional® Toque d’Or® – one of Britain’s most iconic student catering competitions.
 

Where does your passion for food come from?

 
Growing up, my parents and grandparents had a farm, and I remember helping to forage for ingredients. At the time, it was the 20 year anniversary of Chernobyl, and people weren’t buying from supermarkets, so we grew our own. My parents built a greenhouse so we could taste fresh ingredients like gooseberries, strawberries, kohlrabi – and in the winter – onions, garlic and potatoes. We also did a lot of pickling.
 
This is where my passion for fresh, seasonal food comes from. It felt difficult buying strawberries from a supermarket where the flavours didn’t reflect my heritage. 
 

Can you describe your culinary style in just a few words?

 
I would say my culinary style is Classic French with a modern, avant-garde twist. My food has evolved to reflect new fashions and trends, but I always source sustainably, seasonal ingredients whenever possible.
 
As a youngster, I was lucky enough to work in some of Vienna and Munich’s best restaurants, and it was there my passion for fresh, sustainable food took hold. I got to see some of the most incredible fresh ingredients – the way these were prepared and cooked was very inspiring for me. When you walk into any top established kitchen, it’s not just about the food you see on the plate, but the whole story behind it – to have respect as a chef you must have a passion for the ingredients you work with, and really understand their environment and heritage. This is truly inspiring.
 

Who are the chefs who inspire you the most and why?

 
Early on, I was really inspired by Alain Ducasse, Eckart Witzigmann, Hans Haas, Paul Bocuse, Paul Haeberlin, Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, Juan Mari Arzak, Joël Robuchon and Heston Blumenthal – some of the biggest mentors. I bought many of their books and was inspired by their cooking styles.
 
Later, I went on to work for several of these chefs in their own establishments. I also did a ‘stage’ at Arzak in Spain which was truly inspiring. These experiences were truly career defining. They made me want to work for the best. 
 
Now, I’m still inspired by chefs on a daily basis – Daniel Humm, René Redzepi and Tom Kerridge are chefs who are always thinking ahead, and their influence is incredible... the Roca Brothers, Sergio Herman, Gordon Ramsay, Massimo Bottura, Quique Dacosta –  I could go on – the list never ends!
 
For me, it’s about keeping your eyes open to new ideas – inspiration comes from many different places. Nathan Outlaw says that after every holiday, he comes home to implement ideas he’s picked up. Blumenthal’s ‘Sounds of the sea’ is a great example of this – it comes back to the journey on the plate and engaging the senses.
 

What do you love most about being a chef?

 
What I love most is making customers smile. You take them on a journey through your food, and you want to please them. Just as a doctor treats customers to make them healthy, as chefs, we are responsible for delivering health and happiness through food.  Everyone has to eat!
 
As a chef, it’s important to keep learning. You can never know enough. Over the course of my career, I’ve always tried to take something unique from every chef I’ve worked for.  But it’s not just about working in the top restaurants – you can also learn a lot in a pub, or a hotel.  It’s about what you take from every single experience.
 

What was your first job as a chef?

 
I started out as an apprentice in a 5* star hotel in Austria. For me, being an apprentice was an exciting way to kick-start my career. It was my first time out of school, and over the course of four years I learnt so much, including butchery, front of house and kitchen skills.
 
For me, becoming a chef was about following my dream and my passion. As a youngster, I had been good at drawing, and my parents had wanted me to go into architecture. But food was my passion – I didn’t want to sit behind a desk 24/7. I wanted the buzz of engaging with people, working with something physical rather than technical. Being in a kitchen meant learning on my feet, and always staying in touch with food. There was a hierarchy between the older and younger chefs, and a great level of respect. This experience was priceless. It certainly wasn’t something I could have learnt in a classroom. 
 

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing chefs right now? 

 
It has to be the shortage of skilled chefs. ‘Do you know any good chefs? is a question I am constantly asked by Restaurateurs. There simply isn’t enough talent out there right now.
 
There’s a lot to be said for learning from experience. A lot of young chefs come fresh from university with ambitions to be business owners or head chefs in the space of five years.  It’s too short a time...  The hard truth is that you can’t go from kitchen porter to successful and recognised chef in the blink of an eye. You need dedication and a willingness to master the basics first.
 
I believe that no matter who you are, you can never know enough. Hospitality has changed, and it’s important to keep learning.
 

Can you tell us about the Toque d’Or competition and what it means to you?

 
There is no doubt that the Nestlé Professional Toque d’Or competition is incredibly unique. For the past 28 years, the competition has helped launch the careers of thousands of chefs here in the UK and New Zealand, including some of the industry’s biggest names. The opportunities it offers young chefs and apprentices is amazing – truly inspirational.
 
Young people are the future of our industry and if we can give them the experience and knowledge to help guide them through a long successful career, then hospitality will be better for it.
 

What advice would you offer to young aspiring chefs today?

 
For the chefs out there who want to carve out a name for themselves, my advice would be to believe in what you do, never hesitate to step out of your comfort zone, and to let your creativity and passion for food shine through.
 
If you’re a restaurateur or business owner, don’t spend all day in the kitchen – get out there, listen to your customers, look at their experience and needs as a whole and see what others are doing.
 
At the end of the day, the industry is changing, and as chefs, we must either lead the change or evolve with it.
 
Follow Andrej Prokes on Twitter: https://twitter.com/chef_andrej

Follow Andrej Prokes on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/andrejprokes/

 

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