HOME STYLE COOKING IN A CART, CZECH STYLE
For many, the road to becoming a professional chef is a long and arduous one. For Karel and Monika Vitek, owners of the Tábor food cart in Portland, Oregon, the journey was much longer and more unpredictable than most.
"We would not be in the food business if we had remained in the Czech Republic," says Monika. "But being immigrants gave us an advantage."
It was not an easily earned advantage. Karel first attempted to escape from the former Czechoslovakia, then under Communist rule, in 1984, by applying for a one-day tourist visa to Turkey. He was foiled, however, by the presence of undercover police in the region, and forced to abandon his plans.
Karel made a second attempt the following year, this time by forging documents permitting him to travel to nearby Yugoslavia. On his own, he made his way to the border between Yugoslavia and Austria, where one barrier remained between him and freedom: the Mur River. Karel realized that his only chance was to swim fast across the expanse: "It was a short border and turned into Hungary quickly. You had to be careful, or you would drift into another Communist country."
His only hope for making it across meant leaving behind the few possessions he had taken with him when he escaped. "It was springtime, the water was gushing down from the glaciers, and it was brown and fast and furious. I couldn't take anything with me," Karel says. "But it's amazing what people will do for freedom, whatever that means for them."
Make it he did, and once in Austria, was granted asylum. "Everyone was very kind," Karel remembers. Six months later he made his way to the United States and settled in Portland, where he pursued a degree in philosophy at Portland State University. Years afterward, he met Monika, who was visiting a cousin there. "I left when [the Czech Republic] was already a free country," she says. "I didn't have to make the difficult decision of leaving and never being able to go back."
Nevertheless, leaving home created a void for both of them, one they tried to fill by cooking. "We were interested in cooking because that's what defines home, and we were very passionate about the food because we could not get it anywhere else," says Monika. The couple began by cooking socially, for both American and Czech friends in Portland. After much encouragement, they decided to open a food cart, and named it Tábor, after Monika's hometown and in tribute to their culinary heritage.
Karel, who spent many hours as a child watching his mother in the kitchen, now prepares most of the food for the cart. Czech cooking is a time-consuming process, so "it seemed to me that she cooked continuously," he says. Today Karel relies solely on those memories of taste and process ⎯ no cookbooks or formal training to re-create the foods of his childhood. "Sometimes I am in awe," Karel says of the way he learned to cook. "My grandpa was an excellent cook as well, and even though he passed away long ago, I wonder if he was lining up behind me and giving me a hand."
Tábor serves Czech specialties, such as goulash (a meat and vegetable stew), spaetzle (soft egg noodles), schnitzel (a breaded and fried meat cutlet), and bramborak (a Czech-style potato pancake), all made from scratch. Although these dishes are common across Eastern Europe, they vary greatly from region to region. "They might use the same ingredients," says Monika, "but there are very distinct differences in the timing, temperatures, and presentation of the meals that create different outcomes specific to the various regions." The Viteks also serve a few Americanized versions of these dishes, such as the Schnitzelwich (a schnitzel cutlet sandwich with paprika and horseradish spread), as an introduction to Czech food. "Then, if our customers are feeling adventurous, we recommend something else," says Monika.
Thanks to the Viteks and Tábor, Czech food is gaining prominence in the United States and beyond all due to word of mouth, as the couple has never paid for advertisements or promotions. Tábor has been featured in Bon Appétit, the New York Times, Details magazine, and the Toronto Sun.
The Viteks are eager to seize the opportunity their success is bringing to teach their community about Czech culture through cuisine. They offer cooking classes and visit local schools with food samplers to bring lessons about European culture to life. "We recently brought strawberry dumplings to a preschool class," says Monika. "This is not a very traditional dish; it's more like a grandmother's dish. They were very excited."
The Tábor cart, painted in cheerful red and green tones, is located in the Pod, a popular lot in Portland, at SW 5th Avenue and Stark Street, that is home to a variety of stationary, rent-paying food carts. Leading the trend toward gourmet food carts, the Pod is now a national dining destination, where the Viteks enjoy the friendly, competitive vibe among the vendors. "It's good for everybody. We watch each other and we try to better ourselves and be number one," says Karel.
For now, the Viteks are happy to be operating out of a cart. "We played around with the idea of a restaurant, but it's a huge commitment," says Monika. And after such a long journey to get to where they are, staying put may be a welcome idea.
Follow Tábor on Schnitzelwich.com
Published by permission of The Vilcek Foundation, © 2011. The Vilcek Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring the contributions of foreign-born artists and scientists to the United States. Learn more at www.vilcek.org.