French chefs to the rescue of Polish cuisine

French chefs are cooking up a sophisticated new style of cuisine and service in Poland's Warmia-Mazurian lake district, a tourism magnet for sailing and watersports, all courtesy of the European Union.

Dressed in white aprons and armed with cell phones, eight professional chefs from the region film Marc Briand, head of a three star hotel in Brittany, north-west of France, as he carefully puts the finishing touches on a charlotte au chocolat, a French desert favourite.

Together, they whipped up 60 recipes in a week as part of this professional development program financed by the European Union.

"I teach them the recipe from scratch, how to prepare pork and beef or fish from the lake and desserts," Marc Briand, 45, told AFP at a hotel in Olsztyn, the regional capital of 170,000.

A partnership between the Warmia-Mazury region and the Chamber of Trades and Crafts of the French department of Cotes d'Armor, will see 48 Polish cooks, working in groups of eight, trained free-of-charge by French chefs under an EU program this year.

"I enrolled to expand my knowledge, to learn how to make sauces and new dishes. I want to change restaurants. The more qualified I become, the greater chance I have of finding a good job," says Krystyna Wieczkowska , 28, who has worked for seven years as a cook in a small hotel in Olsztyn.

A hit with tourists during the summer months, the Warmia-Mazury lake district must however struggle to attract visitors during the long days of fall and winter.

"The waiters and cooks are hired for the tourist season. They often don't have the appropriate training," says Elzbieta Pierzchala, one of the creators of the partnership.

Through the partnership program, lasting from 2007-13 at a cost of nearly 14 million euros (19 million dollars), the region hopes to improve the quality of its restaurant and hotel services, by offering restaurateurs better-trained staff.

The four training centres in the region are also to be renovated using the funds provided by the European Union to accelerate development in the relatively poor north-eastern Polish region.

In addition to cooking classes, the French are also training waiters with some 32 set to hone their service skills in 2010.

"We try to show them how to best organize service, floral decorations and how to welcome the customer," says Sylvie Le Meaux Sorin, a co-director of a hotel in Brittany and group trainer.

The Warmia and Mazury region is also twinned with the province of Perugia, Italy, and Italian chefs are expected to start cooking in Olsztyn at the end of the year.

"We want to be inspired by the French and Italian masters, who are proper chefs, not short-order cooks," says Igor Hutnikiewicz, director of Warmia and Mazury branding bureau which awards select establishments with the "Culinary Heritage" label.

So far, 77 of the region's restaurants, hotels, bakeries or delicatessens, have earned the prized label that recognises businesses offering dishes prepared in traditional ways.

"With the advent of communism and nationalization of Polish culinary brands in 1949, Polish cuisine became homogeneous," says Hutnikiewicz.

"By training good cooks who use our local products, we're giving our food added," he said.

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