At the Table with “Gastronaut” Pavel Maurer

How Maurer’s Top 10 Lists are making smarter eaters & why “Taste Waste” is his new passion

You’ll find the words “milovník dobrého jídla” (lover of good food) on his business card, but Pavel Maurer has another way to describe himself. He calls himself a “Gastronaut,” a person who is attracted by good food and is willing to travel for his food experiences. From visiting spaghetti festivals in Rome to heading 20 kilometers out of Prague to have lunch at a new Czech restaurant, Maurer doesn’t let distance stand in the way of a potentially interesting food experience. Nor, does he believe, should you.

From Reflex journalist to Czech TV documentary filmmaker, spokesperson in the first post-Communist government to Playboy story writer, advertising guru (Young & Rubicam, Ogilvy & Mather) and co-owner of the ad agency ANY, Pavel Maurer has spent much of his professional career working in arenas that seem unrelated to his love of good food. However, what started as a hobby two decades ago has now become Maurer’s full-time profession.

Through Maurer’s Grand Restaurant guide, the only independent restaurant guide and rating system in the Czech Republic, the Prague Food Festival and the Grand Restaurant Festival, plus involvement in food-related philanthropy, Maurer has dedicated the past twenty years of his life to guiding the Czech population to eat, drink and live better. For the past three years, he has even had a radio show on Czech radio (weekend midday) called “Gastronomicka Glosa,” where he dishes up three-minute talks on anything that comes to his mind related to gastronomy.

Grand Restaurant Festival: January 15 – February 29, 2016

Maurer’s latest food passion is a philosophy called Taste Waste which is showcased in his Grand Restaurant Festival, a non-traditional, wintertime food festival where high-end restaurants across the Czech Republic prepare a degustation menu for customers. In its seventh season, the Grand Restaurant Festival is the youngest of Maurer’s projects. It is offered in 93 of the country’s top restaurants from January 15 to February 29, 2016.

Each year Maurer chooses degustation themes that encourage chefs to put their own style into the menu. This year’s themes are: Inspiration (taste traditional recipes), Gastronaut (discover new tastes) and Terroir (be in harmony with nature). Maurer has also invited chefs to participate in his Taste Waste philosophy. He first heard about the sustainable-eating philosophy from an American friend, a Buddhist-practicing ESL teacher living long-term in Prague. When his friend gave Maurer an article about a Greenwich Village restaurant that prepared an entire menu from food that would otherwise end up in the garbage, Maurer was intrigued.

He visited the restaurant, talked to its chefs and developed his Taste Waste philosophy, which then he publicized in his radio show. Over twenty chefs at the Grand Restaurant Festival accepted the Taste Waste challenge by preparing potato chips made from peelings, jelito (a typical Czech blood sausage) with apple peels or a red mullet fish with sauce from lobster shell. Read more about Taste Waste on the Grand Restaurant Festival’s English website.

Unlike typical open-air festivals, the Grand Restaurant Festival brings customers into the restaurants and allows chefs to work in the comfort of their own kitchens. Participating restaurants are selected from Maurer’s guide to ensure that diners can expect a high-quality degustation experience, and a festival contract enables the restaurants to offer their degustation dishes for a great price. Tickets to the festival are purchased online on the festival’s English language webpage that gives step-by-step instructions about how to buy tickets and how to make a reservation at a specific restaurant for a certain date. The online festival site includes a country map with participating restaurants and a list marking seat availability with links to descriptions and pictures of their degustation menus.

As far as price goes, a one-course tasting with a bottle of water costs 250 CZK, a two-course tasting with one glass of wine or beer and one bottle of water costs 500 CZK and a three-course tasting with two glasses of wine or beer and one bottle of water costs 600 CZK. Each tasting is for one person. Although Maurer wasn’t sure if the three-course degustation would be considered affordable, his data shows that nearly 90% of festival goers choose this option. As of February 1, 25,000 degustation vouchers were already purchased for the festival.

In addition to degustation, there are two brunch packages under the festival’s “Yummy Brunches.” An Argentinian style brunch at the new Gran Fierro restaurant features fine cuts of Argentinian beef, South-American style tapas and empanadas. At V Zátiší, a stable star in Prague’s fine dining scene, the Indian brunch offer includes tandoori, lentils and lamb prepared by the restaurant’s Indian chef.

Grand Restaurant Festival goers also have the chance to participate in another well-known Maurer food project, his popular restaurant ranking guide.

Maurer’s Selection Grand Restaurant Guide: Maurer’s Top 10 Lists for Food, Service & Interior

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Maurer’s Selection: Grand Restaurant Guide, which is the only independent food and restaurant guide in the Czech Republic. From Kosher to Creole, Vegan to Vietnamese, there are more than 47 different types of cuisines and 838 restaurants listed in this year’s Maurer’s Selection. In keeping with the digital age, there is now a free smart phone app in English as well as an English version of their website.

When the idea for the guide occurred to Maurer back in 1997, there was no help for people wanting advice on where to eat or where to get good service in a restaurant in the Czech Republic. Maurer used the American Zagat Guide as a loose model. He wanted to represent the voices of the people who were eating in the restaurants, and he didn’t have the budget for inspectors as the Michelin system required.

When it was first published, Maurer’s Selection was called Gurmán, a Czech term that blends two French words – “gourmet,” a person who is a connoisseur of fine food and drink and “gourmand,” a person who is fond of eating in large quantities. For the first few years, the guide was published in Czech, German and English, although the printed version of Maurer’s Selection is only available in Czech today.

Like Zagat, Grand Restaurant evaluators are consumers from a wide-range of professional and personal backgrounds. Upon visiting a Grand Restaurant (at their own expense), they fill out an evaluation form in the categories of food, service and interior. Ranking is done on a scale of 1 to 5 with a rating of 1.0 being the best. The evaluations are audited and compiled into Maurer’s Top 10 Lists – Top 10 Absolute, Top 10 Food, Top 10 Service and Top 10 Interior. There is also a section for Top 10 According to Food Experts, just for comparison.

As Maurer has learned from years of producing the guide, it is not only the quality of food that makes a great restaurant, but also the level of service and the interior. Maurer says, “You can cook like a god, but if you have bad service, you get bad numbers. If people aren’t satisfied with the service, then they under evaluate the food by approximately one point. Sometimes people even call us to complain about service. If they get bad service, they won’t go back even if the restaurant cooked well.”

Although food options in the Czech Republic have exploded in the past ten years, Maurer says that providing quality service to match top-level food is tough, especially since service in the Czech Republic (like many European nations) isn’t based on tips.

Prague Food Festival: May 27-29, 2016

The popularity of Maurer’s Selection prompted requests from good food lovers who wanted an affordable way to taste the best restaurants in the country. In 2007, Maurer was inspired to create the Prague Food Festival. In the initial years, the festival was a one-day, open-air party for 1,000-2,000 guests who came to taste, drink and enjoy themselves free of charge. When the festival was created, Maurer says, “It was a golden time. We were the only one on the market. It was not difficult to find support. There were no celebrity chefs; there were no cooking shows on every television channel. It was really the beginning.”

Today, the Prague Food Festival is a popular three-day affair held in May in the Royal Gardens of the Prague Castle. The festival hosts more than 30 chefs from the best restaurants in the Czech Republic and is attended by approximately 18,000 visitors. Visitors can expect workshops, cooking shows and tastings as well as music and special children’s programs. In order to keep the quality of the event high, restaurants must be listed in Maurer’s Selection and invited to attend. As an added cultural bonus, the Prague Food Festival was the first large-scale public event ever held on Castle grounds, which were during the years of Communism strictly forbidden territory. Each year, Maurer meets a few Czechs who say they’ve lived in Prague for 50 years, but this is the first time they’ve seen the gardens.

In this year’s 10th anniversary, the Taste-Waste philosophy will be highlighted through food dishes as well as a special fashion show produced by fashion design students in Prague who have taken “wasted” clothes and sewn a new life into them. Since this year marks the 700th anniversary of the birth of Charles IV, chefs will also prepare special dishes in 14th century style. Visitors can buy entry tickets online from April 1 which will allow them entry to the festival even when the festival is at capacity.

In Maurer’s Words: Eating, Drinking & Living Smart

In addition to Maurer’s three main projects, his team offers help to different food-related non-profits either through monetary donations or by providing resources. As a result of their monetary donation to Kuchařky bez domova (Female cooks without homes), a sponsor came forward to build the organization a new kitchen. To support eSvačinky (snacks-online), an organization located in Pardubice where people with disabilities prepare healthy snacks for school children, Maurer used his contacts to find chefs to educate workers about nutrition and snack preparation. Maurer’s team also works with a company called Rodina Odvedle that helps foreign families integrate better into Czech society through shared Sunday lunches.

When asked about which part of his job he likes best, Maurer says, “I like that our projects are not just about sending people to eat and drink at fine restaurants. We try to inspire people at home to recognize what is wasted and what doesn’t have to be wasted. This is what I like – it’s not only about money and consumption but also about helping people.”

Maurer’s current career as a gastronaut is a prime example of what can happen if you let your heart (and your taste buds) lead the way.

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