Imagine the times when the Old Town of Prague used to be beautiful, romantic, and mysterious. The times that Jan Neruda described in his Tales of the Lesser Quarter, when lower castle inhabitants knew each other very well, played cards in the pub ‘U Kocoura’ together, and sat around on their doorsteps. You can hardly see this at all today on the famous Nerudova Street, the overcrowded main street to the Prague Castle which exchanged the magic of old times for profit by selling souvenirs and traditional pastry called trdelník.
However, under the castle, there is one street, symbolically named the Nový Svět Street (New World), which hasn’t lost any of its original charm. Nový Svět moves at its own pace. There are a lot of artists living here, including Jan Švankmajer, and it has recently become popular for its café, where local people meet and chat. Times have changed and coffee and wine have become more popular than beer. New world meets the old world in this cosy café owned by the Forman family.
You will feel like you are living in the past when looking out through the small windows into an empty and dark street where a strange-looking person wearing a coat passes by in the rain. At the table next to you, there are people whispering and you can’t get rid of the feeling that you know them. You can dream hours and hours here over a cup of hot chocolate. Believe us, you will not wanna leave – back to the busy streets, crowded trams and into the anonymity of the perpetually rushing city.
Almost anyone can use the label of ‘family business’ today but you really work that way. How is it to spend all day together and meet for dinner at home later? Who is the boss in your café?
To be honest, it is very hard because everybody in our family has a clashing opinion from time to time. It can be said that leading a family business is often more difficult than having a business with a normal hierarchy of roles. On the other hand, you can rely on the others more as you would not abandon your family as easily. It is the same with leadership but our main boss is our mum. She takes care of the café on an everyday basis and makes sure we open at all. My dad then decided about the interior and repairs. We appointed him the architect. My sister helps out at the weekends and shares her culinary visions with us. She likes experimenting (as do I) bakes bread and gives us directions during our passionate discussions. I take care of café, orders, promotion, visual side of the café, and try to manage the business in general. But it is not easy as I have university during the week. Thus, everybody does a bit of everything, which is not ideal. We discuss all the major decisions together and you can call it so-called family democracy. It basically means that every decision during the reconstruction and furnishing was preceded by intense arguments.
Nový Svět is a place with beautiful atmosphere and amazing peace, although only a few meters from the main touristic attractions. What is living there like? Do you get a bit of the surrounding rush?
I think it is a really special and peaceful place and we have tourists here but only those who are really interested in visiting here. When we were founding this café, the main thing we cared about was the atmosphere of the place and not the potential profits we could get and having prices in euros. We are happy about the opposite really, having loyal customers who walk here daily from Břevnov or Dejvice, sit down, and absorb the peace of the whole street. At the busy weekends we still have Czech customers who don’t mind waiting for a table. We are happy to meet people who come once every week or two. We can see their kids growing up, build relationships with them, so the customers don’t see us only as a café, but as a place between work and home where they can drop by and relax. This is what we’re trying to achieve.
You are the main barista here. How is working with old great Faema and Doubleshot coffee for you? Do you enjoy any other alternative methods of coffee preparation? Where did you gain barista’s skills?
It is I and two other people and we can’t say who is the main barista. We often talk about what coffee grains we want and about catches from abroad. Working behind the bar at our place is quite specific. We try to be the café where you can get a truly delicious cup of coffee but we don’t have enough means to be as good as, for example, EMA espresso bar where they have the opportunity to play with it a bit more. On the other hand, it is not our goal. We have on-going debates here about what the ‘bigger espresso’ means for people. I was learning barista skills myself at first, we had a small espresso maker at home and because my dad loves good coffee, I always tried to do more. I have formal training from the Roberto Trevisan’s School of Coffee. My whole family received it. But you only learn how to make a nice cup of coffee by practising. Jarda Tuček from Doubleshot helped me a lot too. I think that he has done a lot for Czech coffee culture and Doubleshot is one of the best and the most stable coffee roasting rooms in Prague and we always enjoy cooperating with them. My co-worker Martin has experience from Canada and New Zealand, and Alina used to work at Mamacoffee and other Prague cafés. It can be said that they are way more experienced than I am but it is me who makes them care about details such as placing the teaspoon in the right position. Our coffee machine Faema E61 is not only time-tested but also a design element and the heart of our business. My dad and I fell in love with it at the first sight. There are better and more efficient (and expensive) coffee machines but we wanted something that will help to create a special atmosphere and people like it. Alternatively, we would be happy to make you a drip from the popular Hario V60. You can often try three to four different cups at the bar. I personally enjoy experimenting and trying new alternatives very much but there is not enough time to try new technologies, unfortunately.
Coffee culture in the Czech Republic has progressed a lot in the last couple of years. Is there still somebody of your customers who would order a simple Turkish coffee?
It is true that coffee culture has been progressing rapidly and it is amazing. There used to be very few places with delicious espresso and flat white but there are plenty in Prague these days. I’m afraid, though, that it might turn into the ‘art for art’ principle because excellent coffee places will only get a special sort of customer. This is for example what we are trying to change - by helping new uninitiated customers to understand the types of coffee that we have and to choose the one type they will enjoy the most. I get the order for Turkish coffee several times a week but there is nothing wrong with it. The way is to explain to them why we don’t have Turkish coffee on our menu, effects that it has on health, other options that they might have at home, and, of course, to help them find what they are looking for, whether it be an Americano, drip, etc.
You are also famous for delicious cakes and pies. Do you have a usual menu or does you mum enjoy experimenting? What would you recommend for us to have with our coffee?
It is hard to say. My mum tries to balance the menu so everyone can find what they like. Plus she always adds something extra and exciting. She also uses seasonal ingredients, now, for example, we have a rhubarb pie. Specialities on our menu are raw non-baked desserts and new gluten-free brownies without flour.
Apart from the family coffee business you study filmmaking. How do you want to link these two professions in the future?
(laughs) We will see. They are both very different. However, you need a cup of good coffee when filming and cafés need good directing. What I am really interested in is connecting the public space with art and creating local community spaces and subcultures. This doesn’t need to be just about film and photography but also literature, music, and creative community events. Coffee places were always the spots where political and socio-cultural movements and opinions were formed. This declined during the communist era and after the revolution it moved to varied student associations and other places where a regular person doesn’t have access. I would like to revive this, to move it back to coffee places, to provoke ordinary customers’ minds. Thus the customer would feel a connection to a certain place. This is my personal strategy for Café Nový Svět in the future – the possibility to build a new multicultural place in Prague’s Hradčany.