How A Nomadic Chef Changed Polish Cooking Forever
For many years, Zbigniew Kmieć was a rambling man. Hitch-hiking the length and breadth of Europe from one farm to the next, he was driven by a hunger for good produce and a thirst for culinary knowledge. A trained chef, he cooked with local food experts whenever he could. In Hungary, he worked at some of the country’s oldest vineyards to better understand the processes behind artisanal winemaking – or as he puts it, wetting his fingers. In Poland, he searched for the farmers devoting the most care to their livestock. From France to Germany, Portugal to Italy he sought out the highest standards in food production, unearthing deeply rooted layers of tradition, culture, pride and passion as he went.
2014 rolled in and Zbigniew decided his days of sleeping in a different place every night were over. He returned to Poland to settle down, but his mind did not cease to wander. His thoughts went back several decades, to an era of culinary richness in his homeland. He believed that national pride for Polish recipes and ingredients was strongest before the war, when people had access to the finest produce. They consciously borrowed from a variety of different regions, traditions and cuisines, until the Soviets disrupted distribution and cookbooks full of family favourites were abandoned. Many people still recall going down to the shop only to find empty shelves, perhaps a solitary bottle of vinegar if they were lucky. Inferior quality was masked with thick sauces, meat was boiled to death, and any pride or pleasure there was to be gleaned from cooking had evaporated. The culinary crown the country of his birth once lay claim to had been knocked off. But Zbigniew believed those days weren’t over. And that’s how his real journey began.
Barely unpacking his bags and untying his shoelaces, he got to work. If he was going to bring back the glory days of pre-war polish cooking, he had to call on his friends over the border, just as Poland’s greatest chefs once had. Galvanising all the friends he’d made on the road, he begun mapping out a menu starting from the finest supplies he could source from them. Whole cows from Mr. Grzegorz in the Podlasie region. Fresh fish from Kuba Pieniążnik in Portugal. Chrzan (a polish condiment made of grated horseradish) blended with honey and a secret spice mix. (Originally whipped up by a close friend for his own use, Zbigniew convinced him to take it to market after being blown away by the taste. It went on to win an award.) A chunky wine list with an impressive selection of Hungarian wines. And like that, Kafe Zielony Niedźwiedź was born.
Of course one of the main challenges to his visionary approach is that the polish restaurant industry is used to a certain style of cooking. The standard formula of meat, potatoes and vegetables is rarely deviated from. But the menu at Kafe Zielony Niedźwiedź (lit. green bear) often features meat dishes that don’t come with potatoes. “There have been a few raised eyebrows,” our waitress, Edyta, laughs, “but most people seem to manage handsomely without them.”
Rather than abandon Polish customs, the restaurant embraces them. Its menus are celebrations of Polish classics, speckled with little surprises here and there. A perfect ratio of familiarity and discovery ensures happy customers; both old and new Poland pack out its tables week after week. When the restaurant hosted a birthday party for Wojciech Amaro, the only chef in Poland to be awarded a Michelin star, a special dish of Duck Tongue with Pistachio was created for the occasion. Mr. Amaro was so delighted the dish appeared on his own menu for 2 months. “We want people to try something new that they wouldn’t find anywhere else,” Edyta says.
Tucked behind Warsaw’s Powiśle train station in the middle of a park, the restaurant has been quietly making its mark on the country’s culinary landscape. International visitors flock to the restaurant for an authentic experience, and they get it in double portions. There is a story behind every item on the menu, effortlessly told by its staff in minute detail. Interesting titbits like “Oh, we get the meat from Mr. Grzegorz in Podlasie,” are casually shared with warm affection for the names and places behind these products. Mr. Zbigniew himself is in the wings somewhere, but his influence on the restaurant’s every aspect is clear. Its staff, full of passion for what they do; its customers, knowledgeable about the food they’re eating. Its walls, lined with small batch, artisanal and sustainable products. The road is long, but he isn’t walking it alone.
Kafe Zielony Niedźwiedź
Smolna 4, 00-375 Śródmieście, Warsaw, Poland
Reservations: +48 795 794 784