Expat Entrepreneurs: Andalusian Chef Caters For The Czech Republic With Unmatched Mediterranean Recipes
Melis Karabulut’s series profiles some of Brno’s foreign entrepreneurs to explore the challenges of running a business in a foreign country. This week she spoke to Enrique Garcia, a chef who is building a catering business to bring the healthy and delicious gastronomy of his native Andalusia to the Czech Republic. Photo credit: Enrique Garcia.
The Brno Expat Fair on 9 April provided a great opportunity for foreign-owned businesses to showcase their work, network, and find out what’s new for the expats living in Brno. For me, one of the best takeaways of the event was meeting Mr. Enrique Garcia, the Andalusian chef whose poem-like narration of Mediterranean food could conquer the hearts anyone that shares and understands the Southern European food culture, and metaphorically fly them away to a laid-back seaside restaurant for a delicious paella. Listening to his story of being an expat entrepreneur definitely swept me away from Brno and landed me in Andalusia, which he describes as a magical place “…where olive oil is the holy water of the region and the cure for everything; the sea and the sand are rich in minerals, good food is in every corner, people are relaxed; and where the mountains of Morocco can be seen from the coast.”
Garcia’s story of becoming a professional chef and business owner came alive in Olomouc, Czech Republic. Originally a lawyer with a master’s degree, he always knew that his passion was cooking. He worked as an assistant cook during his university years in various restaurants to earn some pocket money, or he cooked for his friends on special occasions. He first approached cooking as a profession after he came to the Czech Republic in 2014 to join his wife who was doing her PhD studies at Palacky University in Olomouc; today, he is a successful caterer across the country, well-known for his Andalusian paella.
The Beginning of Building a Business
He talks about his early times in the country with nostalgic eyes: “I had lived in Italy and the Netherlands before I met my wife and moved to the Czech Republic, so I knew what it was to be an expat, and moving to another place and relocating again did not scare me much. On the other hand, my life completely changed more than it ever had when I moved to Olomouc. The city was definitely not very expat-friendly nine years ago. The country as a whole was not as international and welcoming as it is today, too. It was difficult to find English-speaking people or to adapt to everyday life and find a job. Accordingly, I found leisure in cooking as I welcomed a new life and country with its ups and downs. I started cooking for friends, who enjoyed my food and always gave me good feedback.”
When I ask what pushed him to turn his passion into a full-time job, Enrique answers, “I believe it was 2018, a friend offered me a temporary job, which was to cook for 35 people at a chata in Jeseniky for a week. This was my first experience cooking for a group of people on a daily basis by myself. I was expected to prepare the breakfasts, lunches, dinners and coffee breaks for seven days, for a hungry group of people skiing and doing other sports every day, with a budget of CZK 80 per day per person. At first it looked like a task that could never be done with such a low budget, but in the end I was able to plan it well enough to cook fulfilling, tasty food and not use even one fifth of the budget! That one week was an educational experience for me to see my capacity for logically shopping for groceries, budgeting, menu planning and cooking. That week was the first step of taking cooking more seriously as my future career.”
Opening Czechs UpTo International Tastes
Regardless of the big blow that the pandemic brought to the gastronomy sector; he continued to cater at small gatherings and local festivals, as well as cooking and delivering lunch menus in Olomouc. In a short time, he better understood the Czech approach to food: what the people of the region liked to eat and what did not work for them, which was a full adventure for Enrique.
“Vegetarian recipes did not work with the local people at all when I first started showcasing my food at festivals,” he says. “People were very judgmental about food without meat, they told me, this is for pigs. Or, they were strongly against frying with olive oil. Of course, people showed way more interest in traditional Spanish food in big cities like Prague and Brno, and they were more willing to pay for the good quality of food. People in smaller cities like Olomouc had different eating habits than what I had to offer – bigger portions, cheap prices, a lot of meat. To sell more and attract customers, I could have adapted my cooking to the demand by using cheaper ingredients and not cooking the traditional Spanish recipes, but that would make me just another mainstream chef giving up his style. If I had done that, I would have quit cooking by now. I enjoy cooking, because I enjoy eating as well, and what is enjoyable to me and the Spanish people has to offer healthy, fresh, good quality ingredients. The ingredients make the chef successful, as they make the main difference,” he explains. “So, I did not give up on trying to show people a different approach to food. During the many local gatherings where I cooked, I said to people, just try the food and don’t pay me if you don’t like it. In the end, everyone did. I was proud of myself and of the process, that I brought something new to these people’s lives and introduced healthier ways of eating – even though I first had to introduce the traditional Spanish cold soup gazpacho as tomato juice to break the prejudice and just make them taste it, fall in love with it, and then ask for the secret!”
By cooking at festivals and events in the region, in a short while, he made a name for himself in Olomouc and was eventually able to get a job as a chef at the Hotel Congress. “The hotel was my real cooking school – both in learning the Czech cuisine, the Czech language, and also cooking for hundreds of people in a single day. Even though it was very difficult to get used to this busy environment in the beginning with very limited local language skills, the great people in the kitchen welcomed me with open arms. They were motivated to teach me all that I had to learn. My time there helped me deep-dive into the local eating habits as well. I better understood what Czechs liked to eat, what worked and what did not work with them, and how to attract them into trying different cuisines. Gathering knowledge, experience and building my network, I was finally ready to start my catering business,” explains Enrique.
Launching El Romero
Enrique’s catering business, El Romero (meaning ‘rosemary’ in English), is named after his grandmother’s surname. “My grandmother gave me the love of cooking, and taught me the Andalusian ways of understanding food. My business keeps her legacy alive,” he says. His catering business, just like his own character, is strongly attached to Andalusian culture, family traditions and what comes naturally to the people of the region. “For us, quality olive oil is the basis for every recipe. We like to eat a lot, but we eat healthy food at all times. This is, accordingly, what I care the most about in my catering business here, even though my business is thousands of kilometers away from Spain. Obtaining the best quality of some of the ingredients such as the eggplants, tomatoes, peppers or the seafood is rather difficult; but I always try my best to cook with the highest quality possible. I do not compromise on using Andalusian olive oil, and we import it from there. It is costly, but it is worth it,” explains Enrique.
Even though the pandemic has brought many challenges to his business as it did to many others, Enrique has been successful in catering to weddings, Spanish embassy events, openings, and other events and requests. As a part of his journey in creating his business from scratch, he has been offering cooking lessons at public schools all around the Czech Republic for the past three years. “The cooking lessons have been very enjoyable, and I have found myself connecting well with children through cooking, even though there are language barriers in between. It also helped me travel around the country and get to know the Czech people from different regions. I visit more than ten schools a year in Liberec, Karlovy Vary, Ostrava, Havlickuv Brod, Jihlava, Olomouc, Mikulov, Prague and Brno, and these lessons also helped me gain more networks throughout the country and also in Slovakia and Austria,” says Enrique. As demand for his catering grew, the family moved to Brno, which allowed Enrique to get better connected to his customers and to the culinary market.
Today, Enrique is delivering catering orders every day, cooking more than 5,000 portions of paella in a year, and is determined to make his signature salads the next big hit after his paellas. “Czech Republic is a great country to make your dreams come true. The opportunities are vast, you just need to play the game carefully and one step at a time. Opening a restaurant is definitely my next step. It has long been my dream; but I am moving forward with my business while I remain safe in the market. Now, we are paying double the price for the food and energy, and running a restaurant would definitely be more costly. I am enjoying the steady growth of my catering business, while I keep my fingers crossed for the next steps of it. I would avoid opening a simple tapas restaurant with low prices, as I deeply care about authenticity in my food. When Andalusian friends taste the food that I cook in the Czech Republic, they enjoy it just the way they do in Spain. As Spanish people are the biggest critics of their own people, I take this feedback as a compliment, and as a standard that I would not like to give up on,” explains Enrique.
Enthusiasts of Spanish traditional food can visit Garcia’s portfolio and get more information here.