They’ve agreed to meet me at a particular kebab restaurant on Ječná street in Prague. It’s called Can Bey, and it’s an eatery which they have rated with particularly high marks. So we will have a kebab there together and discuss what makes for a good kebab, a bad kebab, and the overall kebab-eating experience in the Czech Republic.
So, we’re sat at the table. Can I ask who is who here?
“Petr, alias Emperor.”
“Pavel, alias Grylls.”
“And I am Jan, alias Ralf.” (Jan’s English is not so great, and so he stayed largely silent)
We’ve all ordered some different items. I’ve ordered a veal döner kebab...
The obvious first question is that you’ve all asked me not to identify you (by your full names). Presumably that has something to do with the fact that you write reviews of food establishments. So why do you prefer to remain anonymous?
Pavel: “Sometimes when the review is not as positive as the owner of the place might have wanted, we think it might be a little bit dangerous, because some kebab outlets, especially in northern Bohemia, are often owned by ‘shady characters’. But we also think it is better because when we go out and sample the food for our reviews, then no-one knows it is us, and so they can't give us some (unrepresentative) perfect kebab...”
Petr: “It means we can be objective. That is the important thing.”
And the website – is it just a labour of love? Something you just do on the side? You don’t make any money from it or anything like that...
Pavel: “It is just a fun project.”
How many kebab establishments have you visited, and how many kebabs have you tried?
Pavel: “After a year in existence, we think it is about sixty or seventy places.”
And that is mainly in Prague, or across the Czech Republic? And I also noticed some reviews from Germany and London...
Petr: “Yes, but most of them are from Prague. I think we may have even done some reviews in Turkey, though.”
If you have to give a score out of ten for the average, or overall, kebab experience in the Czech Republic, what number would you give it?
Pavel: I would give it a seven, nine being Germany and Turkey. You can never get a perfect score, because everywhere, obviously, bad kebabs pull the average down. But I think our standard is quite high. Compared to Germany, it is maybe a little worse, but it is still quite high. When you compare it with the Netherlands or England, then I don’t think it is as good there as in the Czech Republic.”
Petr: “I enjoyed the experience in London, but then I only visited two or three kebab establishments.”
So now we take a small break and eat – otherwise our food is going to get cold! I am going to tuck in to my veal kebab, which looks very nice...
(a few minutes later...)
When you come across a bad kebab in the Czech Republic, what kind of things can go wrong? Obviously it is a big business here now. Presumably many people are running stalls with very little skills or culinary talent. So what makes for a bad and good kebab?
Petr: “In Prague alone there are probably eighty such establishments. What can go wrong? Many things. Soft bread...”
Pavel: “When the bread is not crispy...”
Petr: “Or when the vegetables are not fresh.”
Pavel: “Or when you see flies hovering over the food. But I think that the meat is the most important component. When the meat does not come straight from the grill (rotisserie), but rather from a pot hidden somewhere under the table, that is always bad...”
I am eating a döner kebab, which is minced meat. And Petr is eating a chicken dürüm kebab (a wrap) which is filled with gyros – whole pieces of meat – which are also grilled and then scraped off the rotisserie.
What is the most popular kind of kebab here?
Petr: “That’s a hard question. I’d say it varies. Some people like dürüm, some like döner, and some like a pita kebab, which is what (Pavel) is eating today. For me, dürüm is my favourite. But if you want to taste every component of the kebab separately, then of course döner is better.”
Let me ask about yourselves. I am guessing you are all in your early thirties, professionals – what is known as white-collar workers...
And you all work at large companies, or that sort of thing...
I read in your online profiles that one of you even wanted to be a kebab cook, but that was a dream that didn’t come to fruition...
So instead you eat kebabs and write reviews.
How come you all share this passion?
Pavel: “It started because all of us studied abroad. Specifically in Germany and in Turkey. And when you are a student then eating kebabs is really the only thing you can do, because it is cheap and it is good. and that is the perfect ratio. So I think we found our love for kebabs there. Now, of course, we are all white-collar, wearing shirts and ties to work and so on, but our love for kebabs remained.”
Petr: “The reason why we started with this project was that our friends wanted recommendations for where to go and what to order.”
Let me ask you a difficult question: not that I want to generalise, but if Czechs are becoming big fans of kebabs and Middle Eastern food, but many headlines show that eastern Europeans and Czechs are fearful of Muslims, and migrants, and these kinds of things. Is that hypocritical? Or are kebabs opening cultural avenues of potential friendship?
Pavel: “I would say that the fear of Islam, or hateful comments – that is all just words. In the real world, Czech people like kebabs, and they don’t avoid kebabs just because Muslims made them.”
Petr: “I think that the media exaggerates this, saying Czechs are afraid, or Czechs are racist. I don’t think that is true. I think that most people here that like kebabs don’t care – or they don’t mix issues like the migration crisis and kebabs. Those are different things.”
Compared to the West, there are not as many foreign faces in the Czech Republic or other former Eastern Bloc countries. So what kind of nationalities are making kebabs here for the public?
Petr: “There are many nationalities. Most are Turkish, I think. But some are from the former Soviet Union – Uzbekistan, Armenia, or Ukraine.”
And Can Bey, where we are today, are the owners Turkish?
Pavel: “I think the place is owned by Turks, but many of the behind-the-counter staff appear to be Ukrainian. But the people responsible for the quality of the meat are Turkish.”
How many kebab outlets would you estimate exist across the entire Czech Republic?
Petr: “We’ve discussed this among ourselves and we think that it must be about 500-600 across the whole country. Right now, we think such outlets exist even in every small town, and pretty much everywhere.”
What kind of feedback do you get from visitors to your site? And also from the restaurants themselves – let’s say you give a bad review, have you ever had the proprietor say: “Sorry, I’ll try to do better!” ?
Pavel: “We get a lot of feedback from readers. Many write in asking us to review places that we haven’t yet been to. Their favourite places, and that kind of thing... As for feedback from proprietors, in the case of bad reviews, sometimes they write “OK, please come again,” or “Why was your review so bad?”. But when the reviews are good, then they share it on their Facebook and are happy about it. They then follow our Facebook page and so on. So I think that they appreciate it.”
And how many readers – or hits – does your site get?
Petr: “I think that we have 5,000 per month.”
That’s pretty good...
Petr: “Yeah, it is.”
And all without sponsorship of any kind.
Petr: “That’s right. We just buy kebabs out of our own pocket and then write reviews.”
So how do you actually rate the kebab-eating experience? Because you use a number of criteria, right? Like vegetables and service...
Pavel: “We have put a lot of thought into it. We have criteria like the restaurant interior and cleanliness. Then we rate service. And we have five criteria which are directly related to the quality of the food alone. The vegetables, meat...”
Petr: “Which is the most important, of course. The meat, the bread, vegetables, and the dressing.”
Can readers also contribute reviews?
Petr: “Of course. We have one part of the site for us, and then the readers can also do the same thing.”
So they can rate kebabs from one to ten?
Pavel: “The way it works is that we rate seven criteria, while readers can give a single overall grade.”
Petr: “Also from one to ten.”
So, with stomach full of tasty kebab my thanks to the three reviewers behind .