Dominik Unčovský was 14 years old when he started as an assistant in the kitchen of ace chefs Roman Vaňek and Zdenek Pohlreich. He visited well-known Czech businesses, mountain hotels and an internship in India. Last weekend, he put all his skills acquired over the years to good use and won the national round of the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition, which is compared to the gastronomic Olympics.
He is tired and still a little nervous when answering questions. He hasn’t slept much in the last week, but he talked a lot and ran around. “I put all my savings, time and energy into the competition. In the last months, I practically just worked, I didn’t have a single day off. Even if I didn’t have a shift, I still went to work for at least a few hours to train for the competition. To be the winner is an indescribable experience, it’s everything for me,” admits Dominik Unčovský in an interview three days after the announcement.
He emphasizes that without family, friends and a coach, he would never have won his first participation in a professional gastronomic competition.
The Bocuse d’Or competition, which returned to the Czech Republic years later, was founded in 1987 by the French chef Paul Bocuse. A total of ten finalists strove for victory in the national round. In less than six hours, they had to prepare a dish of rabbit back and rabbit leg and a second, vegetarian version, in which potatoes and garlic were mandatory. All this in an open kitchen with the participation of hundreds of spectators and a whole series of judges in the O2 universum arena in Prague.
“When I felt tension, I breathed into my diaphragm”
“When I entered the huge arena with the audience, I was soft and nervous. But then I told myself that I am a person like everyone else, I am going to cook and I have the same chances as the other finalists. The first five steps were the hardest for me, I had window and I didn’t know what to do. Then I looked at my notes and started to function as usual. I was aware of the audience, but I concentrated on my work. Every time I felt tension and stress, I put everything aside and took a breath I’m in my midsection, as my teacher taught me in high school,” says Dominik Unčovský about his feelings.
Winning the prestigious competition is a team effort and requires weeks of training and commitment, says the Bocuse d’Or winner. | Photo: Daniel Martinek
“The layman might wonder what he was planning there for five and a half hours. Did he go to iron the rondon and change his socks? But to cook two hot dishes with 15 different components and serve them in the best condition is very difficult. In addition, you are cooking 14 portions and you have to to decorate the platter and plates. The timing is the most difficult, because with every minute the quality of the raw material decreases,” the chef describes. He trained the timer for weeks before the competition with an alarm set, because the jury deducts points for not keeping the time.
In addition to the result, time or appearance of the food, the international expert evaluators also focused on the amount of waste produced, the cleanliness of the workplace, recipes, allergens and preparations before cooking itself. “The day before the event, we had to consider everything and describe exactly how we prepared the raw materials and how they were transported,” he explains.
Potato trdelník and Czech rabbit killer
Just like athletes at the Olympics, chefs also have their coaches at the Bocuse d’Or. They give them advice, encourage them or watch the time during the competition itself. The coach of the winner of the national round is chef Lukáš Čarný, who works at the Makro Academy. His other assistant is Adam Tišer from the Field restaurant.
A jury consisting of thirty respected figures in Czech and foreign gastronomy praised his rabbit inspired by a Czech butcher and potato trdelník or moss pond as a vegetarian version of the assignment. The experts highlighted above all the originality of the processing of Czech raw materials.
“We got curds, buttermilk and the first spring mushroom – morels in the food. And I think we also had a nice plate and decorations. But I think it’s always about the taste, which we managed brilliantly,” he says, adding that apart from spring, they were also inspired by the Czech field.
From Bruntál to India
Dominik Unčovský was introduced to gastronomy by his family, who had their own business in Albrechtice near Bruntál. As a teenager, he helped prepare food there, and later, thanks to his uncle, he even got to apprentice with Czech chef aces.
He studied at the Prague Culinary Institute and previously worked in the Prague restaurants La Bottega di Finestra, Sansho and Mánes. In addition, he has worked for almost three years at the prestigious Austrian hotel A-Rosa in the Alps and an internship at one of the most prestigious hotels in India, Radisson Blu Plaza Mysore. For the past few months, he has been acting as an ambassador of the Makro Academy.
The experts highlighted the originality of the processing of Czech raw materials in Unčovský’s creations. | Photo: Daniel Martinek
According to the chef, people in gastronomy must not lack humility and respect for people. “When I was on probation at the five-star A-Rosa hotel, it was humility, talent and respect for people that made me rise to junior sous-chef,” he says. He was also shaped by a month-long internship in India, where he went with his friend, also a chef and yogi.
“He offered me to go with him to India to learn about culture and gastronomy. It was a big challenge, I didn’t know where I would live or what I would do there. About two weeks before the flight, my parents persuaded me to stay in a hotel and do something I will teach there. The Radisson Blu Plaza Mysore is one of the most prestigious hotels in India. I had the privilege of working there alongside a local chef. Every night he took me to cook in the tandoor, which is an oven in the country where they make naan over fire ( bread) or meat inside the cauldron,” he describes.
The winner of the national round of the Gastro Olympiad also admits that the Indian trip has changed him. “She helped me in my personal life, I rearranged my priorities and my outlook on the world and life changed. Little is enough to be happy. You don’t have to have a big car, a house and a lot of money in the account. It’s important to have a family and a good heart. Indians don’t have much, and they’re absolutely brilliant anyway,” he says.
“The people I met there bought me a small gift from their savings to say goodbye – a statue of Krishna as a souvenir. He was with me during the competition,” he claims.
Dominik Unčovský celebrated his win with his closest friends, but the Bocuse d’Or gold plate remains with his coach. The European round of the competition awaits him next year in Trondheim, Norway. 24 countries will gradually reach the world finals, which take place every two years in Lyon. Jan Všetečka last participated in the final for the Czech Republic in 2009.
What exactly awaits the Czech winner now, he has no idea yet. “I have to have fun with my bosses and the management of the Czech Bocuse d’Or team, what that entails. But I want to give everything to the preparation for the European final,” he says.
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