The amuse-bouche served by Wojciech Modest Amaro looks like a miniature garden patch with intensely green plants shooting out of it. There are some seasoned leaves, a tiny brined cucumber covered in an herb mix, a dumpling made of nasturtium leaves filled with goat cheese and what looks like a fava bean but in reality is all carrot. The composition requires us to get our fingers dirty in soil, which turns out to be in part pumpernickel crumble. The earthy but bright flavors of its vegetable components immediately establish the themes of freshness of the ingredients and the centrality of the land.
The concept of conscious cuisine
At the same time, Amaro playfully reminds us that he is fully capable to use modern technology, including some tools provided by molecular gastronomy, as his peers around the world do. He calls it “conscious cuisine,” because it is about being aware and knowing the physical and chemical processes of cooking. However, that is clearly not the point of his restaurant, Atelier Amaro, a tiny chalet a few steps from the Łazienki park in the center of Warsaw. Despite the obvious prestige of the location, the building maintains a streamlined look, with a pleasant interior showing a prevalence of whites and light grays, the textures of gray textiles and stones, and dark wood in the paneling and the furniture.
A Michelin star in Poland
The restaurant is designed to showcase Amaro’s creativity and skills in ways that can be read and understood in the cosmopolitan language of fine dining shared by chefs and their clientele, who often travels from place to place just to enjoy a unique dinner. The chef interacts and communicates with peers such as Dan Barber, René Redzepi, and Marco Pierre White. Amaro has secured a solid spot for himself in the transnational community of high-end cuisine, the first Polish chef to access that circle and to get a Michelin star in his country. He has succeeded in doing so by going fully local, focusing his restaurant, which he opened in 2011, on Poland and its ingredients.
The new era of Polish cuisine
At the time, most Poles were still excited about foreign cuisines and international trends. According to his analysis, after the end of socialism Poles were busy catching up economically and financially: they acquired land, real estate, status objects. Being “curious and bold,” they wanted to be part of the West, free to travel and explore. The new class of Polish capitalists wanted to eat lobster. At this point in time, Polish food was not considered interesting: as part of domestic life, it provided comfort and sustenance, but little in terms of excitement and pride. To this day, many in the Polish food world feel that their traditions almost got lost during the decades of socialist centralized economy, with food shortages and an emphasis on efficiency, cost, and quantity.
Amaro's first steps
As many others after Poland’s accession to the European Union, Amaro started working in London, where he began to acquire experience, skills, and techniques. It was during a later stint at El Bulli that Ferran Adrià challenged him to present something Polish. He suddenly realized he had never thought of his own culinary background as something that could stand scrutiny at the top of the culinary world. Encouraged by Adrià and others he soon started to move past cliché associations of pierogi and borscht and realized that what other chefs are excited about are sometimes unheard of ingredients, flavors, and processes like fermentation.
When he got back to Poland, he realized that the local culinary landscape had not evolved much, but now he knew he wanted to lead a change. Despite the popularity among his upscale clients of expensive, high-status products, local vendors paid little attention to the quality of the produce they sold. He recalls when he called a guy back to the kitchen who sold him tomatoes and went through every single one, Amaro ended up throwing out half. To the shock of delivery crews, he started measuring the temperature inside the vehicles that brought his fresh fish. In a short time, he acquired the reputation of a crazy and intractable chef with impossible expectations. He was proud of his new work ethics that he had learned abroad and that he felt was missing in his country.
Before opening the Atelier Amaro, the chef traveled 60,000 kilometers around Poland for a year in search of products, suppliers, and producers. His dream was to “do something with Polish cuisine,” but he needed to know whether it was just a fantasy or if they really had amazing products. The travel exceeded his expectations. He met people with passion, involved with heart and knowledge in the food business. He took his mission of putting Polish food on the map very seriously, feeling that ingredients and techniques were there but needed to be rediscovered and elevated.
The role of nature
Amaro soon realized that cooking seasonally was not enough to achieve his goal, especially in an era of turbulent weather when no two springs seem to be alike and sometimes it seems like winter moves straight to early summer. He developed a culinary philosophy centered on what he calls “nature’s calendar,” which led him to shift his attention to what’s fresh and at its peak in any given week, rather than month or season. Building on this core intuition, he developed forms of creation that hinge on what he calls “the spirit of time,” “the spirit of place,” and “the spirit of tradition.” Following the spirit of time, week by week Amaro looks at ingredient’s availability, adding new dishes to his tasting menus and phasing out those whose components are not at their best any longer. This implies a lot of research and experimentation. At the same time, he is able to go beyond the concept of season, somehow static and fixed, to embrace what really happens in nature and the actual weather.
The idea of terroir
The spirit of place constitutes Amaro’s own interpretation of the concept of terroir: the genius loci he mentions in the 2010 book Natura kuchni polskiej (The nature of Polish cuisine). The frame of reference is not a specific location, but Poland as a whole, although ingredients obviously come from specific environments: forests, lakes, mountains. The chef’s research is so central to his work that when the weather allows he goes out into the wild three days a week, gathering ingredients, ideas for recipes, and stories that his waiters will tell to patrons. For example, after one visit, he created a soup that recreated a scene of pike perch biting into the feet of young ducklings swimming in a lake. With crayfish at the bottom of the dish, the waiters would drop duck blood into the soup. Such a research-heavy approach acquired national and international visibility in 2012, when Amaro organized the Poland edition of Cook it Raw, an annual trip of chefs from different countries. It is inevitable to notice the connection between Amaro’s curiosity about nature and the New Nordic Cuisine approach, which René Redzepi represented in the trip.
Tradition and innovation
As a matter of fact, foraging has never disappeared as a custom among Poles, many of whom regularly go out and look for mushrooms, berries, and wild fruit and herbs. This is part of the third element of Amaro’s creative process, the spirit of tradition, which also expresses itself in the work dedicated to fermenting and other forms of preserves based on salt, vinegar, and smoke. Just as some families still dedicate summers and autumns to gather and preparing food for the cold season, when nothing much used to grow (things are changing due to climate change), the cooks at Amaro assemble elements that will then enrich the menu. Amaro puts tradition in dialogue with history: he points out how Poland was at the center of important cultural and commercial flows that generated preparations such as “a la polonaise” dishes, with a saffron-based sauce, which acquired popularity all over Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (no saffron was grown in Poland, but it was available as a luxury import).
Rediscovering Polish biodiversity
From exploring tradition and nature, Amaro is now moving to an attempt of restoring its lost biodiversity. A religious man who talks about the abundance and diversity of forests and lakes as God’s gifts, he has recently bought farmland where he will seek to add to the “nature of Poland.” In this process, however, he joins a worldwide and cosmopolitan network of activists and chefs disappointed in people thinking that “there exists only one cucumber, and one carrot.“ On the Facebook page of his Forgotten Fields Foundation he showcases the sleekly designed packages of ROW 7 seeds, likely sent in by Blue Hill's Dan Barber, whom Amaro visited and who participated in Amaro’s master classes. ROW 7 is a NY based company which promotes the biodiversity of vegetable and grain varieties. If the recipe calls for a cauliflower, Amaro says, let us ask, which of the 42 existing kinds, specifically? He hopes his high profile in Poland will allow him to form serious collaborations with scientists and seed banks.
Amaro cherishes and highlights his role as explorer and re-discoverer of Polish cuisine. In fact, he feels that he plays an important role in raising standards, upholding professional ethics, and showing a path to other young chefs that decide to come back to Poland after some exposure to the restaurant business abroad. The chef also interprets his somewhat stern public persona and his presence in the media (he is a judge on the Polish edition of Top Chef) as an attempt to make sure that cooking Polish food is taken seriously by Poles themselves. That is what patriotism is about for Amaro: Poland is striving to ensure its rightful place among advanced countries and cuisine has important contributions to provide.
by Fabio Parasecoli and Mateusz Halawa