In his professional career Chef Wojciech Modest Amaro spent many years working abroad in some of the world’s best restaurants before opening his own in his homecountry of Poland back in 2011. In 2013 his restaurant Atelier Amaro was awarded a Michelin Star, the first ever in the history of Poland. Chef Amaro’s unique style of cooking and his pioneering vision on contemporary Polish cuisine has won him international recognition and many prestigious awards. He is the author of bestselling cookbooks ‘Polish Cuisine of XXI Century’ – winner of the prestigious Prix de la Literature Gastronomique award in Paris – and ‘Nature of Polish Cuisine’. He is also the Head Judge of the widely popular TV-show Top Chef Poland and the founder of the Forgotten Fields Foundation, an organization dedicated to reviving forgotten ingredients and recipes.
We had the pleasure of asking Poland’s most notable chef all about his journey to success, his connection to nature and how he hopes to inspire others looking to follow in his footsteps.
Looking at your career path and knowing you went to the University of Silesia in Katowice which does not boast a culinary program, how did you end up in the kitchen?
“I remember the kitchen was the best place to be in my house. I loved spending time there and being involved in the action behind the stove, doing preparations and baking. My first ever dish was an egg sponge cake with some sugar and flour, simple. My older sister had to set up the fire in the oven because I wasn’t allowed to touch matches – I was three years old. For many years I was pretty sure I wanted to be a patissier, however my parents did not like the idea of me becoming a chef and they convinced me to go to Technical College, specializing in electronics – the future ‘thing’. After completing I tried to pass the exam for the University of Art, but I wasn’t gifted enough. Instead I was accepted at the University of Silesia with my major being political science. Before I even entered the University I had an opportunity to visit my sister in London – she’d already been living there for quite a few years. Subconsciously I knew what was about to happen.”
You ended up staying in London and it marked the beginning of your culinary career. What was your first job in a professional kitchen?
“My first job, in case I wanted to withdraw from my culinary career, was at an Italian restaurant which was run part-time by one of the greatest Italian Chefs in London – the former Head Chef of San Lorenzo in Knightsbridge. I worked the first eight months without a single day off, but I fully enjoyed that. I realized it was my place to be. The sounds of service, the kitchen prep and the adrenalinę of the whole experience won me over. I loved it. I knew I would not return to university.”
What made you decide to come back to Poland?
“I think I knew from the very beginning that one day I would return to Poland to open my own restaurant. I was in London to learn, nothing else. I was living a normal, happy life without ‘saving a fortune’, I invested all my efforts into myself. The payback time was supposed to come later. When the time was right I returned to Warsaw to take over the Polish Business Roundtable Club as an Executive Chef. It was an extraordinary challenge but I was ready. Few years later, in September of 2011, I opened my own restaurant: Atelier Amaro.”
At Atelier Amaro you create dishes based on the 52 weeks Nature’s Calendar, searching for biodiversity, forgotten products and unique ingredients resulting in innovative signature dishes called Moments. For those not terribly familiar with Nature’s Calendar, what should we think of?
“After many years in the kitchen I realized that seasonality can be very inaccurate, it’s not something set in stone. On the 15th of March one year it can be -18’C with two meters of snow, the following year – on exactly the same day – it can be +20’C with beautiful sunshine. This is why I decided to go with seasonality week by week, fifty two weeks total. I also divide natural environment into the natural areas they exist in: river, sea, lake, farm, forest, field, meadow and mountains – all with their own microclimate, fauna and flora. It means I follow the rhythm of nature very closely: I am aware of what’s in season, what’s at its peak condition and when it’s the best nature can offer. Some of the ingredients I work with can sometimes last as little as two weeks only – edible needles for example.”
What’s the biggest misconception about Polish cuisine you think?
“The biggest misconception about Polish cuisine is people not knowing it. There is a lack of knowledge about our country and its traditions and our history. This once was one of the most cosmopolitan countries in Europe for many centuries. Through royalty our cuisine was influenced by German, Italian, French, Balcan, Jewish and Asian cuisines. On top of that Poland was situated on a trade route between the Far East and Western countries, so, many of Asia’s ingredients were passing through our country and obviously left their imprint. This crucible of flavors – as we can imagine – built a strong and varied national cuisine. I wanted to learn about it, use it as my base and then create something of my own.”
What’s the best thing about living and working in Warsaw?
“Warsaw is amazing, dynamic, lively and a safe place to live. It’s an unpretentiously comfortable city with diversity, positive energy and its own style. You can feel free to achieve your dreams here and I don’t think many places around the world have this feeling.”
Did you have a mentor or an inspiration along the way?
“I don’t have one particular mentor, my profession requires so many different skills that it is best to absorb as much as possible from many directions and people. I do have to admit that I did encounter two milestones in my career: first one was at elBulli, Ferran Adria’s approach to cooking driven by absolute freedom. And second was my Rene Redzepi’s Noma experience, his focus on local products. Those two have changed me and made me a better chef, without a doubt.”
What part of your personality comes through most in your work?
“Consequence. When I have my eye on something I will follow through, work, dedicate myself and finally deliver.”
Do you have a favorite dish in your arsenal?
“I don’t have one ‘best dish’. I like to change things up; develop, progress, look into, ask questions and learn from all my strengths and mistakes. I am evolving all the time. This I believe is the best part. I like my profession because there is no described end to it, if there was a finish line I don’t think I’d start running. I’m excited by the unknown, the undiscovered. If I look at my dishes from ten years ago, or twenty, I think ‘Oh My God’. So, I have no idea how my dishes will look ten years from now. That’s what excites me the most.”
What do you consider a chef’s biggest asset?
“The biggest asset of any chef is his team. That’s the core of his success. You have to use all your skills, knowledge and experience to build a team around you. Then, you make them believe in your philosophy, in your goals and your dreams. Motivation is not a speech, motivation is understanding of the process. It is consciousness and awareness at the same time. And it’s seasoned by honesty. Simple honesty. Something is good or bad. Black or white. Yes or No. In the middle is where the excuses lie.”
Looking back now, if you could’ve done anything different in your career, what would it have been?
“Everything has its reason. I will never allow myself to think ‘what if?’. I accept my life and my choices.”
What advice would you give a starting chef?
“The best advice for young chefs is to be patient. Learn your craft, build your confidence, experience as much as possible in different establishments – you need to find your place where you will fit best. For some it will be a lively bistro, for others it’s fine dining or even street food. If you have passion you will always find your fulfillment.”
“Next? I’m building a Forgotten Fields Farm dedicated to biodiversity, forgotten varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs. It will be run by my New Life Foundation which is dedicated to helping young people find their talents, passions and willingness to do something with their lives. We want to give them spark and hope, help them grow. It’s a big project. Big enough to fill out the rest of my live.”