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In Search of Prague

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The El Camino Leads to Prague

The first thing you probably think of when you hear “El Camino” is the El Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route in northwestern Spain leading to the tomb of St. James. Recently, its namesake found a new destination.

Enter David Böhm — Prague’s patron saint of Spanish tapas and founder of El Camino Tapas Restaurant.

It was a Friday afternoon, just before a busy shift to prepare for the near arrival of hungry diners. David and I sat in the restaurant’s outdoor courtyard, complete with olive and fig trees, and potted herbs of rosemary, thyme, and sage. I was enraptured by the smells, until my senses were diverted to the steaming pot of sencha tea David prepared for us — brewed with optimal 60˚C water. His acute attention to our beverage preparation isn’t so different from the sophisticated composition of his dishes. From infused oils and intricate marinades to slow reduction sauces and fine dusts, El Camino showcases traditional Spanish cuisine, with a modern twist.

This culinary conquistador has an unexpected origin. David grew up in the Czech spa town of Mariánské Lázně, in a family who devoted their lives to hospitality for generations. It’s no wonder David started at a hotel management and culinary arts school at the age of 14.

“I was never good at math or grammar,” he says. “I knew I wanted to work with people and decided I would become a chef, like my brother.” (I later learned that David’s brother has a restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas, serving up “Czech and German classics.”)

David sojourned in northern Italy during the summer months doing culinary training at various hotels on Lake Garda and in Bolzano. Inevitably, he would return after graduation to begin his career. However, a short-lived Italian adventure brought him to Brighton, England, where he took a four-year hiatus from cooking, swapping his apron for a business suit as a restaurant manager.

“I wanted to learn about a different part of the business,” he says, “like front of house and hospitality.”

Unbeknownst to him at the time, a newly hired Spanish staff member would present him with an opportunity that would change the trajectory of his life. His colleague and friend to this day asked if he could help with a special event at his family’s restaurant in Salamanca. David’s consent led him to Spain’s northwest region of Castile and Léon — marking his definitive return to the kitchen and the onset of his Spanish love affair.

“It was at this moment that I experienced the most beautiful peak in my life,” recalls David.

He settled into his new home of Fermoselle, one among the village’s mere 1,200 residents. He would spend the next eight years cooking in different tapas restaurants, learning and perfecting the techniques and recipes that would later form the menu of his first Spanish restaurant, Medité, back in Mariánské Lázně.

After four years of operation, he felt a calling of his culinary roots.

“I realized my knowledge wasn’t good enough,” he says. “My first menus at Medité were very traditional — nicely presented, but with no sophisticated steps.”

He describes doing very “simple stuff” like the ever popular patatas bravas (spicy fried potatoes) and another dish he said too quickly in Spanish for me to understand.

To refine his menu and palate, he went back to the very beginning, only this time exploring different parts of Spain’s varied regional cuisine. His at once delicious and educational reconquista of Spanish cooking warranted a new entrepreneurial opening: El Camino.

“El Camino means ‘journey,’” muses David. “This concept tells my story, but also explains the philosophy behind every recipe on our menu. What we are trying to do is borrow from the traditions of the past and add to its future as products of our own imagination.”

A passionate Czech guy representing Spanish food is, if nothing else, an impressive act of culinary chutzpah.

“Even though I’ve spent a long time in Spain, I still don’t call myself Spanish,” emphasizes David. “If you are so bold as to take someone else’s cuisine, and call it their cuisine, you have to be humble enough to ask yourself: do I really know as much as I can know?”

While El Camino has received endorsement from Spanish diners who frequently ask, “Who is Spanish here?” David and his team continue the challenging process of balancing authenticity and ingenuity, often calling upon former Spanish compatriots to brainstorm new recipe ideas.

David paused to pour me more tea. I took another sip, wondering if this Japanese-Spanish fusion was some kind of culinary offense. But as David explained with his recipe development process, “Certain combinations don’t always have to be understood. I often think these two things could never go together, but then it does.” He gestured to our tea. “This could be amazing to pair with a dish.”

No Spanish meal is complete, of course, without the obvious beverage pairing of choice for which the birthplace of Sangria has long been lauded: wine. What’s more, wine pairing is a convenient necessity to ensure that you are truly paying homage to the Spanish dining experience.

“Pairing your dish with wine puts it into context and introduces another flavor dimension,” says David, who rhapsodizes about regional vintages with an energy that gets you buzzed before you’ve taken your first sip. Upon opening a bottle, he presents the cork to the table, convening diners in a symbiotic kumbaya of earthy or fruity aromas.

When asked what his most important ingredient is in the kitchen, David’s response was instantaneous.

“Olive oil.”

I recalled dunking hunks of crusty bread into the silky gold liquid that El Camino first serves to its customers, finished with flakes of sea salt.

David’s favorite dish on the menu, which changes every four months, is the salt-and-sugar-cured red prawn with shrimp croquettes and a suquet sauce. I have never heard someone describe “the sweet nectar of shellfish heads” with such gusto.

Grilled oxtail sandwich with red wine granita, cod and dried apricot emulsion, seafood saffron soup…the symphony of ingredients and flavors featured at El Camino are endless. Diners are not just experiencing Spanish food, but Spanish culture, complemented by the restaurant’s simple yet elegant décor. Tall, crisp wine glasses patiently wait for their fill, resting on tables entirely made of two, 180-year-old oak barrels.

“We wanted to explore the Spanish mentality through our design,” explains David. “We use a lot of oak because oak produces acorns, and acorns are used to feed Iberian pigs.”

But El Camino wants to satiate diners with something more than rosettes of jamón.

“I want people to leave with the feeling of happiness,” says David sincerely. “It’s the only reason why we do what we do in our industry.”

El Camino will do more than just make you happy; it will leave you craving more. Olé, olé, olé, olé!

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