Let’s start by explaining the reason for this interview. After all, Lenka Požárová has never established a start-up, doesn’t manage a global company, holds no patents in electron microscopy, no investor has poured millions into her business, and she graduated years ago. So why do an interview with her on a website on knowledge economy then? Well, Lenka possesses something crucial that is rarely seen in great quantities: the courage to take risks and bet everything on an idea she believes in. It’s very simple to gamble on something when you don’t have anything to lose. That’s not her case, though. Lenka regularly bets everything and writes about her losses and gains on her website and in her books. Once you start reading them, you’ll quickly realize why we’ve interviewed her, as her entire life is one big start-up.
You’ve returned to Brno after several years spent in London. What are your impressions of today’s Brno?
Different from what they were when I returned, say, ten years ago. Back then I couldn’t recognize the city because of all the construction and reconstructing going on. But now… Brno has blossomed, opened up. The animosity you might have felt 20 years ago is now gone. There were times when we used to worry about where to park our car with a Prague registration plate here. That’s all gone. Whenever I visit an unfamiliar city, I live for exploring, discovering, touching, and tasting it. With Brno, though, it’s a bit strange—I know it and I don’t, at the same, so I keep discovering things here. And there’s still a lot to discover in Brno.
If asked to describe Brno to your friends, what would you tell them?
It’s a small, nice city. If you’re a foreigner looking to experience the Czech Republic, then Brno is the place for you. Not Prague—that’s a different, atypical Czech city. Brno, though… The locals are open-minded and cordial. Unlike Prague, you can easily start a conversation with a stranger in the street here. And Brno has so much to offer. There’s so much to taste, it has numerous cafés to enjoy, you can see Villa Tugendhat and the Spilberk Castle, experience the nice things we have here and, mainly, take a trip from there to South Moravia, a magical place indeed.
Maybe you could write a guide to Brno now; you know it well, but are also able to zoom out on the bigger picture.
Well, I think I still need to stay here for a while to be able to write something like that. Nevertheless, I really do enjoy writing about Brno! So many topics the editors in Prague would never think of… Or maybe they do, but they don’t live here so it doesn’t feel right. It’s not enough to come over, stay for two hours, and then just write up an article.
In my experience, people from other towns and cities rarely make it over the first hurdle of realizing “Brno is in fact cool!”, even though we’ve never doubted it for a second. No discussion needed there. And when we want to read about the city and region we live in, we need other topics. We all already know life here is amazing, so we need other things to talk about.
Exactly! Most articles about Brno I’ve read seem too superficial—like people sitting on the curbs at Saint James’s Square, of course. What’s important, though, is to write about why they can sit like that, what has changed since the days when it wasn’t possible and why, about the fact that this just didn’t exist before, there was nothing here, and now there’re so many things… That’s what I’d like to write about. To dig deep below what’s obvious at first sight.
Arielle DeSoucey, an American living in Brno whom we interviewed not long ago, compared Brno to Brooklyn in the 1990s and said she still saw a lot of opportunities here in the restaurant business. What’s your opinion? In terms of restaurants, is there anything still missing in Brno?
A good middle ground is missing; there are lots of small, interesting street-food venues, quite a number of pubs, and then a few posh places. Brno could use more of the in-between—affordable places offering interesting food you can see someone worked hard on… Like the Atelier bistro and bar, which I simply love. For several years, no one could compete with it and I didn’t understand why. Then the Element Brno restaurant and bar opened just this summer, and it really impressed me on my first visit. Such a new, refreshing place! Badly needed in Brno.
What does this say about Brno?
Well, that’s something I’m not sure of yet. I just know that some things are often different in Brno. Prague, for example, is full of copycats; when a new thing emerges somewhere in the world, it’s just a matter of time before it shows up in Prague, too. That’s not the case in Brno, though—those things don’t reach us. Here, you can simply go to a pub or, if you want to celebrate, to a fancy place. The places somewhere in between—the ones I find most interesting, are quite rare in Brno.
Lenka Požárová (*1972, Brno) is a writer and author of unusual cookbooks and travel books as well as several novels on gourmet topics. She graduated from the Faculty of Economics and Administration at Masaryk University and worked as a tax advisor for several years. After burning out and leaving her profession, she self-published a 14-volume series of cookbooks entitled How About Some…, the first Czech book to win the Gourmand World Cookbook Award in 2008. In her work, she likes to combine the incombinable, such as unexpected combinations of ingredients when cooking or unusual combinations of genres when writing. By Czech standards, her entire work is very uncommon and exceptional. Just like her.
You recently returned from your travels and published your book Londýn prostě žeru (A London to Devour), an enjoyable blend of cookbook, travel guide, and photography collection. Among other things, you write about working as a waitress in a posh London restaurant where guests humiliated you. Is this behaviour proportionate to something? Like the richer the people, the worse their behaviour?
I don’t think it’s fair to generalize to that extent; the situation you’ve mentioned took place in River Café, which is a pretty snobbish restaurant, so I see the direct proportion there. Sometimes the guests’ behaviour was so humiliating that I told myself that I’d never get used to it. True, I had never been around people who’d made it onto covers of global magazines before and I guess there is a lot to learn from being in situations like that.
Like what? What did this teach you?
To endure it and stay professional whatever the situation, without condoning it. To find the line not to cross. I learned that it very much depends on what you permit others to do to you, not only when waiting on tables but simply everywhere.
Your book covers more than just snobs humiliating waitresses—there are other stories too. Some of them mention people you met in London who inspired you. Just like you, they all came to London and fought to claim their place. Do they share anything else?
They are all amazing people who have achieved a lot. They’re in a foreign country, doing something they never studied for, threw away everything they could take for granted in their lives, often gave up the positions they enjoyed back home, and decided for a fresh start. Each of the lives I describe in the book is heart-breaking: one of them survived a civil war in Burundi, for example. I found their stories fascinating. If I had known this sooner, I would have written the entire book about people this inspiring. I wouldn’t have cared so much about where to stay and would have paid a lot more attention to the people I was meeting. And often the most “common” people, like dishwashers, are the most interesting ones.
I understand this fascination; after all, it’s why we are doing this interview. Just like the fighters from London you’ve mentioned, you possess something quite rare these days: the desire and ability to take risks. To enter the unknown without knowing where you’ll end up. We Czechs aren’t known for being good at this. And we don’t do much to correct that, either—though we should. Have you had this ability your entire life or did you develop it?
I can’t say. I think that if you don’t take risks, you won’t gain anything. I like learning new things and exploring the unknown. I’m a demanding person and often hear “but it’s good enough like this”, while I know it could get better. I don’t know why I’m this way and have no idea if it’s something you can learn. It’s also true that I’ve had to fight this tendency a lot of times, as it makes my life incredibly complicated.
In what way?
I’ve published 14 cookbooks that were printed in five different printing shops. In the very first one, I was told I was a troublemaker for complaining about the quality and was told to take my business elsewhere next time. I had no idea what I’d done wrong; the books were about beautiful photos, so it’s not unreasonable to return them if the photos are flawed, right? I’ve always liked the creative process, taking photos, and writing; however, when I came to the printing shop and started to deal with distribution, problems just kept emerging. Eventually, I got so exhausted that I stopped publishing the cookbooks, even though people were still interested in them.
“Life in London sometimes reminded of an institution for young offenders and a scout camp combined. And this ride gets even more punk-like when you’re no longer twenty but just passing forty.”
For me, your name is a symbol of a truly free person. At the same time, however, I know that everything comes with a price tag. What did you sacrifice for your freedom?
When I got back from London, I sat down to think about what I had. I realized I had only one thing: my freedom. I’d put everything else aside. I had nothing, not even a meagre place to stay; I had been a travelling nomad for so long that it had become unpleasant, even for me. So if you’re asking what I gave up, I’d have to say that I lost most of the things we typically take for granted, like a regular salary and other stuff others would never risk in the first place.
I completely understand that a twenty-year-old would like to live like this. Yet you have the strength to do it at an age when most people need to live in comfort with at least some certainties.
I remember a long time ago, when I was leaving my original job as a tax advisor, several people told me that I was able to afford an incredible luxury—freedom. That said, people only tend to notice the good parts of that, without taking the whole picture into account. They see that I spend all my money on travelling but don’t realize I don’t have a place to live. If you want to become free, you just have to accept that your life will be full of uncertainties at some point. If you can’t do that, then you’ll go mad. Of course, sometimes I think about what I’ll be doing one day when… But thinking about where I’d live without an income would make me really crazy.
How does it change the way a person thinks when they are completely free but with nothing they can rely on in their life?
They stay on their toes—they have to if they want to make it through the setbacks they are bound to encounter. In London, I found out that every single thing in your life can change completely in just a few days. No notice period for several months like there; often, you don’t even have a contract to terminate, which lets you stay flexible. Well, I couldn’t have a furnished apartment like regular people, a place to feel at home… I say apartment but for me that meant a room, with a suitcase, backpack, and some bags to be able to move elsewhere immediately. It was really bad sometimes. But good things don’t come your way without the bad, and that’s simply irresistible for me. I’ve made my peace with the fact that getting to know something new is often uncomfortable. London was and still is a very uncomfortable place to live, but all the things you experience there, the incredible stuff I went through there… all of it was worth it.
During your life on the road, where did you hit bottom?
In Brixton, London. A devastated room, no table, just a bed, a wardrobe, and a window with just one pane of glass, so it was very cold. They turn the heating on in the morning for a short while and then mostly from six to eight in the evening, which doesn’t really give you a chance to enjoy it. Eaten alive by the bedbugs in the apartment I’d just fled, just coming out of a break-up and with no idea where I’m supposed to be, which country to live in, what job to look for… Did I mention I was unemployed? Well, this was when I hit rock bottom; everything was screwed. I went to bed and started writing my book Smashed Ego with a Side of Bacon. It was my way of escaping the murky reality that I would have to deal with eventually… just not right then.
Are all these experiences worth the trouble, I wonder.
A friend recently asked me what I was punishing myself for by choosing to subject myself to all of this. And yes, some could call my conditions in London “undignified”; but it’s impossible to explain to this kind of people that if you want to make it beyond the horizon, you have to take risks and throw away your comfort. I didn’t really enjoy the mould on the walls or the bedbugs; I love nice things and comfort. On the other hand, I’m pretty stubborn and I know that I have to find out for myself whether a path is right or wrong. So I clenched my teeth and decided to never give up…
What would you say to those who’d like to set out on a journey of personal freedom where nothing can be taken for granted, but are still afraid?
It’s very important to have some moral support—somebody to understand your need for a change who’ll stay on your side. I’ve met a lot of people who wanted to do this but their partners didn’t agree. If you feel something just isn’t right, go change it! Or at least try! If you feel you can’t bear the consequences of the changes, stay where you are and just accept them. Nothing in life is free.
It’s essential to not abandon hope.
I’m awfully optimistic, maybe even naïve at times. I love fairy tales, still believe in goodness and think everything will turn out fine. This helps keep me sane. The hard times are useful too, though, and they make life interesting. From time to time, people tell me to write a book of fiction, and I always wonder why. Life always brings something crazier and more unbelievable than I could ever come up with. I don’t have to invent anything imaginary to write about; I just have to wait for my life to write it for me.
After everything you’ve told me here, I simply have to ask: despite all the uncertainties you continue to experience in life, and the fact that your freedom has cost you the ability to own anything, are you happy? Have you made your peace with all this? Is that how it works?
I’d be crazy to live like this if it made me unhappy. There are moments when I think I need this or that to be happy, and I think that I could be earning more at my age; but right now I write interviews and I enjoy it very much. And money earning can come later in my life. Maybe this is the right time for me to learn something or let everything just flow, without planning. Simply accept the cards life deals you.