No more potato jokes, please

Forget Solidarity, the latest Polish revolution is happening in the kitchen.
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The Independent Culture
WITH ITS light-wood furniture, pastel-tinted dividing screens, outside patio and stylish modern bar, Studio Buffo would sit happily on the streets of any European city, from London to Lisbon. Except this is downtown Warsaw, a capital that, until recently, at least, was not renowned for its dining possibilities. Studio Buffo's creator is Maciej Kuron, Poland's first celebrity chef.

As the host of his own weekly TV show, Cook with Kuron, and the author of a cookbook series, Maciej Kuron enjoys the same kind of nationwide fame and status as Marco Pierre White or Raymond Blanc in Britain, although his cooking - and restaurant - are rather more accessible. Even the 1999 Maciej Kuron calendar, with a print run of 40,000, has been selling fast.

Kuron's light, modern cuisine, with less fat and plenty of fresh vegetables, is revolutionising Polish palates. The country's cuisine withered under Communism, when fresh food was virtually unobtainable. A "restaurant" then was a place where friends met to down vodka. Food, or something passing for it, might, or might not appear. Unable to buy decent ingredients, would-be Communist-era cooks sought refuge in mordant jokes: What's a 100 yards long and eats potatoes? Answer: A Polish meat queue.

But now in Poland, as across central Europe, Marx and Engels have been replaced by Marks and Spencer and Western supermarkets are full of previously unknown delicacies, such as fresh shrimps or basmati rice. The problem is no longer availability, but the knowledge of how to cook these cosmopolitan titbits. Kuron's cookbooks and TV programme strike a chord in the national psyche that longs for basic instruction in how to enjoy food and wine, skills that atrophied and more or less died under Communism.

At the same time, the slow development of a burgeoning middle-class is revitalising the country's taste for pleasures such as dining out. For Maciej Kuron, it's a pleasing, and profitable, synergy developing a middle-class cuisine only slightly ahead of the emergence of the middle- class itself. "My ambition was to take Polish culinary traditions and bring them up to world-class standards, with less fat, more salad and lighter ingredients. For the last 50 years under Communism, Polish cuisine did not develop. If you wanted meat, you didn't just go shopping, you had to fight. Getting a poor quality piece of beef was a major victory.

"People in this part of Europe are experts at finding substitute products. If a housewife in the West reads a recipe that requires black olives and she can't find any, she won't make the dish. A Polish housewife would die of laughter because she had to make beef stroganoff without any beef, using lungs or kidneys instead. A beef dish without beef."

Polish cuisine is one of the region's most intricate and advanced, influenced by the cuisines of both its neighbours and national minorities. The size of the country, stretching from the Carpathians on the Ukrainian border up to the Baltic coast, gives Polish cooks access to a wide range of ingredients. "We use many freshwater fish, all kinds of mushrooms, game and deer. Polish peasant food is similar to Russian food. The difference is aristocratic food, which in Russia has a French influence, but in Poland draws on Italian, Hungarian, Jewish and Armenian cuisines," says Maciej.

Kuron hopes that Polish cuisine will now begin to enjoy a renaissance, drawing on the centuries-old culinary heritage. "There is a French chefs' report from the 17th century that says Poles are the best in Europe at preparing freshwater fish. There were a lot of rivers and breeding ponds that disappeared."

Now the influx of international ingredients, together with the opening of previously unknown Indian, Chinese, Mexican and even Tibetan restaurants in Warsaw, is expanding the Polish palate.

"Even just a couple of years ago everything was grey and disgusting. The shops were so impoverished that people didn't think about going shopping, or eating well, or buying ingredients to make a dish from. Once the new stores opened up with interesting things, that was immediately reflected on their plates."

Now Cook with Kuron acts as a culinary primer for Poles puzzled at the plethora of new foodstuffs in the shops, with viewers writing in to ask Maciej how to cook previously unknown delicacies. The family name also helps, for Maciej's father, Jacek Kuron, is one of the country's best known political figures, repeatedly imprisoned under the Communist dictatorships, a leading Solidarity-era dissident and former presidential candidate. He was first imprisoned after sending a Marxist critique of the Communist system to the party leadership.

That the two Kurons, father and son, are sitting together at the bar of Studio Buffo has a certain symmetry. Back in 1959, when this was the site of the restaurant in the headquarters of the Young Pioneers, the Communist equivalent of the Scouts, Jacek Kuron had his wedding reception here. Back then, the one-party state seemed eternal, and who could have guessed that 40 years on, Communism would be replaced by Capitalism?

Even now, at 65, Jacek Kuron has not lost his left-wing ideals. Like many people in Poland, both politicians and commentators, he is deeply concerned about the widening social and economic differences across society since the massive changes of 1989.

While designer-clad young career men and women enjoy power lunches at Studio Buffo and similar bars and restaurants in downtown Warsaw, out in the countryside and small villages a new underclass of impoverished peasants struggles to eke out a living on the land.

His father was a huge influence on his life, says Maciej. "My childhood was not typical. My father spent most of his time in prison. He went the first time when I was four, I remember that the police came to the flat and arrested him."

Now the proud father claims partial credit for his son's success. "It was my idea that he would be a chef. When people asked me what my son liked to do, I always said he likes to cook, and he is a marvellous cook."

"Cooking is a kind of present to give someone and is very important," says Maciej. He is baffled by the idea of our bad-boy chefs. "I can't imagine a good cook who is nervous, angry or has a bad attitude. With cooking, I can make people happy."