When we interview interesting people we are not only introduced to their successes but in many cases it is a great way to get practical information that you can put to use. During my chat with Martin Záhumenský I was often holding my breath trying to process the many stories that he has experienced. I think that is enough said upfront. Let’s set off on a journey to London, into Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen and then to sunny Tuscany. Enjoy your meal. When we interview interesting people we are not only introduced to their successes but in many cases it is a great way to get practical information that you can put to use. During my chat with Martin Záhumenský I was often holding my breath trying to process the many stories that he has experienced. I think that is enough said upfront. Let’s set off on a journey to London, into Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen and then to sunny Tuscany. Enjoy your meal.
Mr Záhumenský, to begin with, an instant connection between us comes to mind – a luxury lifestyle magazine and luxury cuisine. Do you think that we can talk about luxury cuisine for discerning customers when we talk about Slovakia? Is it developed enough yet?
In my opinion, it depends on your point of view. What is luxury? For me personally, it is even well baked bread made from good flour with plain butter and home-made, not chemically sprayed, tomatoes from a granny. In any case, I know what you are referring to when you say “luxury”. The standard of our restaurants has been changing for the better for sure. Customers are looking for quality in the level of service, the comfort of the interior but most of all they are starting to understand what they are eating – quality food that can match what’s on offer abroad. As a matter of fact, we have exceptional farmers as well as fruit, vegetable and crop growers in Slovakia. We just have to support them more by buying their produce and of course visiting establishments that sell their produce in any form.
As we were growing up every one of us used to dream of their ideal future as well as what career they wanted to pursue. Was cooking always your dream?
Certainly not. As a teenager, I belonged to many groups where I began to try out what “adult-like” life had to offer. My mind was preoccupied with girls more than my professional future. I was accepted to two schools. The first one was a grammar school with a focus on sports and specifically cycling, maybe I would be now competing with Peťo Sagan 🙂 if I had gone there. The second one was linked more to the field of gastronomy in which our family has already been involved for quite a long time. Since childhood I have been in my mom and granny’s way in the kitchen, so it came naturally to go in this direction. The real passion for what I do now came only when I went to England where I pig-headedly said to myself that I wanted to learn from the best or I would not do it at all.
It is incredible that you managed to realize your dreams a hundred percent, even more. Your skills and talent brought you to England and directly to the best of the best – the kitchen of Gordon Ramsay. How did you manage to do this?
I am quite a perfectionist and when I do something I give it my all. When we are not afraid of our dreams, they are never too big to realize. This was the same with my experience with Gordon. I was constantly writing to this chef de cuisine to ask if I could come for a trial period. I think that maybe he became fed up with reading all of my emails and decided to call and invite me to show up. I spent a day in the kitchen where I most likely made a good impression and did a good job. In just two weeks I moved from the London’s suburbs to its centre and was hired as a chef of one section of the kitchen.
Beside this great achievement, you were also awarded the Game Chef of the Year in Great Britain. Is this award a fulfilment of your dreams?
This was more like a practical joke than a dream because I never imagined I would get into the finals and winning it as the only foreigner in its entire history, had never even crossed my mind. I do not take myself too seriously and I am more of a “joker” or a “clown”, almost always smiling and in a positive mood. I took the whole competition light-heartedly, at least on a mental level, but I went all in on a physical level. I only realized the achievement fully when I was at home in London the next day. After a tiring journey from Scotland, I started to receive congratulations from everywhere. It was truly a wonderful feeling but I also placed a bigger responsibility on myself to keep improving.
Can you reveal anything about working under such a famous chef de cuisine as Gordon Ramsay? I have had the opportunity to see him in action in many television programs where he did not treat restaurant owners all that well. Was the reality any different?
You have to realize that what we see on TV has its script and dramaturgy. It is a TV “show” that needs to get high ratings and as many viewers as possible. Gordon is a total master in this regard, which is evident by his huge popularity around the globe. To be honest, we experienced that too when he bawled us out – but it was not our fault. He found mouldy olives and pumpkin in the deli shop which is handled by waiters and deli personnel and not us in the “fine dining” restaurant. In any case we took the rap and instead of celebrating New Year’s Eve, we were cleaning the deli shop till 3am.
Nowadays you live in Italy where you devote your time running vacations in Tuscany with your wife Zdenka. What led you to this decision?
Love can move mountains and it has moved me too. It happened after filming “Masterchef” when I began to communicate with my now wife. At the beginning it was really only about work and we started to organize gourmet vacations where, even back then, Zdenka ran a tourism project focusing on Tuscany. We fell in love and logically Zdenka did not want to move with me to London – so I came to her. I have exchanged the centre of my favourite city for peace in Tuscany’s countryside. With my arrival we have expanded the company with new clientele, gourmet tours, accommodation offerings and so on. The project has evolved into a serious travel agency and Zdenka is glowing with happiness as never before. Her team of women take care of our customers at a very high level and it is wonderful to observe how work has become play.
When I was preparing for our interview I read several pieces about you. It was the life change, Tuscany and your future plans that caught my attention. Could you share more about them with our readers?
This change was incredible – especially because I was used to a metropolis and its bustle. I left the energized restaurant industry for the tourism merry-go-round where we do all we can to satisfy “Si Italy” customers. I have many plans with my wife but we realized that even Rome was not built in a day. We have expanded the offerings of places we collaborate with and we would like to expand it even more with those at sea. We also would like to expand the list of activities we offer to satisfy even a bigger circle of our lovely customers. However, we do not want to go too big, we don’t want to lose the unique personal charm of our agency. We are launching our e-shop Pappa Mia towards the end of the year which is focused primarily on Tuscan products from small farms, but you will also find other special products from other regions that we use ourselves. Our plans include a brick-and-mortar store in Bratislava and Kosice, maybe small Tuscan bistros, but step by step. With my good friend we are starting to produce ice from Tatras’ water and I have several other projects on my radar such as consultations for other restaurants and cafes in Slovakia, so I won’t be bored.
I also found out about your cooperation with the dental clinic Dr. Martin on a project called “Bite into the world”. How will you be collaborating?
Yes, the project has already launched and we just put our heads together and created a small series of home-made recipes that you can watch on my Instagram feed. The core of the concept is healthy teeth that go with good food. I really like this dental clinic. At first I was their customer and the co-operation came only afterwards because I found them all to be very pleasant and friendly. This is a rule of mine. I do not like pushing things and most of all every co-operation has to evolve organically because otherwise it will not run well and last for long.
You are definitely our most successful chef and since you have had a chance to taste success and continue to become more and more successful and famous, could you present your understanding of success? How would you characterize it?
In my opinion, success means that I can do what I really enjoy, surrounded by people I love and I can even make a living by doing so. When I add in good health, a loving family and friends these are precisely the values that mean success to me no matter how kitschy it may sound, and at the same time also happiness because success is not always embodied by the legendary four-leaf clover. You have to have an ego but it is necessary to know how to use it – and that is with humbleness and respect for others. Life is actually quite short and we only have one, so let’s live it in a way that will not make us frown. A long time ago a friend told me a saying that I have been following for years – “Smile and the world will smile with you!”
Photos: Lukáš Kimlička