Chef Joseph Seeletso has been at the forefront of Warsaw’s culinary rise. Now, you too can learn the tricks of the trade from the master himself.
The cult of the chef has long been celebrated out west; in Poland, however, it’s a phenomena that remains in its infancy. That’s for good reason – decades of communism left the country with a legacy of poor food served by bad chefs. It’s no surprise, therefore, that most chefs preferred to keep themselves hidden in their kitchen: no chance of revenge attacks from dissatisfied customers.
But times have changed. A new crop of chefs have emerged, every bit as flamboyant as their counterparts in the west. Warsaw, all of a sudden, has been reborn as Foodie City. Yet for all these new wave chefs, few will be more familiar than the beaming face of Joseph Seeletso.
Born in Botswana, and with royal connections to boot, he fills regular slots on channels like TVN and TVP2. For ex-pats though, he’s better known as the man who reinvented the courtyard of Duchnicka 3. Over the space of three years, his restaurant / wine bar assumed a prominence reserved for the cream-of-the-crop. But, since the start of the year, Joseph has spread his wings and flown – granted, not very far. Now operating a culinary studio round the corner from his old venture, I toddled by to act as a fly-on-the-wall.
From the outside, his new domain looks dowdy and drab. But up the stairs, a new world opens. I’ve arrived slightly late (the fault of a last sneaky smoke), to find Chef Seeletso conducting introductions. Today’s group is a gaggle of Norwegians, their number I’d estimate to be 15 (like a herd of cats they refuse to stand still making a headcount impossible). “I want you to feel at home here,” he booms in a thick, engaging accent, “Joseph’s home.” And that in itself is the first feather in the cap. In spite of its outside appearance, this isn’t some anonymous cookery institute. The colors are warm; cookbooks are piled below the counters; there’s a chess set, and a large photo of the wilds of Botswana spanning one wall. State-of-the-art equipment glints and glimmers, almost outdoing Joseph’s own gleaming smile.
Joseph, I learn, oversees numerous events – culinary shows, outdoor events, and even trips to his native country. Today though is a culinary workshop, and he talks us through the menu in store: “I cooked this dessert for King Gustav of Sweden – he loved it!” It’s a comment that draws coos of admiration from the gathered Scandinavians.
Then, without further ado, it’s a case of on with the aprons and let battle commence. “I’m not doing Hell’s Kitchen today, but I do need some help,” announces Joseph, before splitting people off and assigning them tasks. The atmosphere is casual with the Chef constantly engaging in banter and talk. The Norwegians, on their first visit to Poland, are eager to learn about the culinary stock of their new European neighbor. “The ingredients are here in Poland,” Joseph tells them, “it’s a very organic country, the only problems are if you want something exotic – then you’re reliant on Germany.”
The evening is not just about food, either. Wine pairings play an important part, and it’s while teaching the throng about his signature tartar that Joseph recommends a nice Chardonnay. “For this, I like something fruitier,” he says breaking out a Californian wine. “This one’s got a tropical nose, a bit of coconut.” The Norwegians nod studiously, snapping and tapping on their iPhone contraptions.
Preparation of the starters goes seamlessly, and next it’s the turn of the Chateaubriand. Beef, clearly, is close to Joseph’s heart. “What do I eat in Botswana? Beef! We’ve got some of the best in the world. One day, we’ll all go together!”
I note a couple of shirkers have sloped off into a corner with a bottle of wine (as a non-cook myself I feel an instant connection). But shirking isn’t an option. “I need ABS,” declares Joseph, “Able bodied seamen.” In spite of his jovial style and laidback persona, there’s a presence about the Chef that demands respect – soon, everyone is involved, whether it’s smashing garlic to smithereens or on more dainty duties. There’s praise in the right places, and prompts in others: “This needs to be chopped more finely, be a star, go for it!” It’s not just a cookery course, it’s a motivational lecture! “Is this better Chef,” asks one of the Norwegians. Joseph grins backs, “luvvly jubbly.”
It’s become pure kitchen porn: over the chopping and the clatter, one of the group breaks into song, a result I suspect is linked to the wine. “Use your hands more,” Joseph instructs over the cacophony, “be in touch with your food.” There’s practical tips as well, fundamental lessons that remain long after you leave. Then, with the legwork done, Joseph gathers round his flock to finesse and fine tune: “This needs one more minute, that’s where the flavor is.” And with that, it’s time to taste the results. The Norwegians retreat to their dining area to kick-off with cappuccino soup scented with chili, allowing me the chance of a chinwag with Chef. “My cooking is classic, because I’m classically trained. But it is with a twist – let’s say a cultural twist. I’m brave enough to play around with flavors but the recipes remain simple.”
“I’ll usually teach my signature dishes,” he adds, “I’ll send the group a choice beforehand and then they’ll come back with feedback or requests. It’s important to do this in advance as everything we use is fresh – the produce we cook is bought the same day.”
And what do people get from it all? “Look around, we have an intimacy here. No one disturbs you. It’s not a rowdy restaurant, we offer a real sense of privacy. Of course, there’s also undivided attention from me – nothing is done by a sous chef, it’s all me. Most of all, I hope they leave with a sense of both my cooking philosophy and my personality.”
On cue, one of the Norwegians rises for a toast: “Tonight, we have been laughing, we have appreciated the African spirit and the African nature. It’s been a lively evening for us, and in particular, it’s been amazing to be active rather than sitting around being served everything.” His countrymen are united in a reverential silence as he continues. “When we return home, we’ll look into our iPhones and cry a little… and then ring you for a recipe.”
Over four hours it’s proved an intensely personal experience, and I can tell Joseph is touched by this ad hoc speech. “Tonight,” he says, “I’m very proud to have been part of your family.” His reply is warm and sincere, with plenty of hugs and handshakes as they file outside. At which point, I note the rather large pile of cutlery that’s accrued. “Cooking without the washing up,” smiles Joseph, “that’s another thing you get when you visit this place.”
Joseph’s Culinary Studio
ul. Duchnicka 3, tel. 663 572 574, www.josephseeletso.pl