As a child of the Soviet era in Poland, Paweł Albrzykowski grew up amid austerity, shortages and uniformity. Then, when he was 14, he visited Chicago, and stumbled upon Chinatown. It was the starting point of a remarkable career that drew him into the exotic mysteries of Oriental cuisine, and set him on a path to become one of the most respected exponents of the Eastern culinary arts in Poland.

Since then, Paweł, who now runs the kitchen at Kraków’s Pod Norenami restaurant, has studied under 20 master chefs, from Shanghai, Beijing, Sichuan, and more. He learned Chinese, the better to understand the subtleties of Far Eastern cooking, wrote four successful books – on Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisine – and translated more, and has even earned the title Dai Shifu. This is an honorary term, marking him as a master chef himself; but it’s not a title that has gone to his head. Paweł said that the term Dai Shifu marked a starting point in a chef’s career, not its successful conclusion.

“I don’t see myself as a master, I know how long a road is ahead of me. Somebody told me that, when they received their first black belt in karate, they thought ‘now I can start to learn karate’. It is the same for me. When you receive your driving licence, it doesn’t mean that you are a good driver. It means that you have 20,000 kilometres to go before you are a good driver.”

Paweł can speak knowledgeably and in-depth about his art. His simple passion for the cuisine of a region that, for many Europeans is still a place of secrets and otherworldliness, seasons every word like the carefully chosen spices in his dishes. He explains how to source the best, fresh Thai basil in Kraków, outlines the history of the curious hybrid Vietnamese-Chinese restaurants that are so common in Poland but that produce dishes that would be unrecognisable and quite probably incomprehensible to anyone in Vietnam or China, and patiently explains the process of creating the perfect Hao You Niu Rou (beef in oyster sauce)… without using either beef or oysters.

This last is perhaps one of Paweł’s, and Pod Norenami’s, greatest strengths. For this is a vegetarian restaurant through and through. There is nothing on the menu that could offend a meat-free palate, and many of the dishes are suitable for vegans too. That’s not to say that meat eaters will go away hungry or dissatisfied; dining at Pod Norenami’s menu puts paid to any notion that a vegetarian meal is a light option, and eschews the factory kitchen values of the many veggie outlets that rely heavily on endless varieties of pulse-based dishes. Instead, Paweł  and his team serve up full, flavoursome creations that make it something of a challenge to get from starter to dessert without feeling somewhat over-indulgent.

Authenticity, too, is high on Paweł’s list of priorities. He seeks out the outlets where he can buy the best ingredients and spices, and is completely at home chatting to other Chinese chefs – in Chinese, naturally – in order to learn new skills and methods that they bring with them from the Far East. One important thing that he has learned, is the huge variety within the different ‘national’ cuisines of the Orient.

  Paweł said: “China covers a very big area. So there is really no such thing as Chinese cooking, only Chinese styles.
And if you go to a Japanese restaurant in Poland, or in Western Europe, you should expect a high quality of Miso soup… but what kind of Miso? Saying ‘Miso’ in Japan is like saying ‘cheese’ or ‘wine’ in Italy or France.  All of the regions, all of the villages in Japan have their own kind of Miso and their own way of preparing it.”

Paweł Albrzykowski is clearly a man eminently qualified to practice, teach and discuss eastern cuisine, yet, as we sit together in the simple, welcoming elegance of Pod Norenami’s dining room, he reminds me constantly that he wishes to be considered a student, not a master. The only glimmer of self-congratulation he ever shows is when asked what makes him happiest in his work.

“When people come here and eat, and tell me that the food tastes like it does in Thailand, that is my prize,” he said.

 Paweł Albrzykowski