By age 10, Tomas Slepicka was ready to embark on a culinary journey — one that would stretch from his hometown of Brno, Czech Republic, to his wife’s hometown of Cedar Rapids.
Now 38, he’ll be leading others in the immigrant folkways of Czech cuisine, through five online classes offered through the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids. Students can pick and choose the classes they’d like to take, or sign up for the whole series, which begins Wednesday and continues select Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons through July 1.
Because of physical distancing protocols, Chef Slepicka will teach from his kitchen, while participants will follow along in their kitchens. United by their computers, they will prepare mushroom sauce and dumplings on Wednesday; Czech open-faced sandwiches on June 6; Czech honey BBQ ribs on June 13; Czech soups on June 24; and dumplings filled with sauerkraut on July 1.
But their journey will transcend food prep. They’ll be wandering through history, culture and geography, too, exploring the gastronomic connections between countries and cuisines.
“Ingredients used in each cuisine are really specific to the region, with what they could grow, what’s common, what they like,” Slepicka said. “You can learn a lot about culture, you can learn a lot about history.”
Marjoram is commonly used in Czech goulash and potato pancakes, he said. Caraway, also known as Persian cumin, is another Czech staple, used whole or ground, with whole seeds popping up in sauerkraut. Onion and garlic are commonly used, as well.
“I actually like to talk with people about food and how and where it comes from,” said Slepicka, who teaches adult education classes for Kirkwood Community College at NewBo City Market, as well in the Czech museum’s kitchen. “Especially Czech cuisine, it’s really influenced by more people around the area, because people didn’t do just one thing one way, just within the borders of a country.
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“For example, my open-face sandwiches, which in the form that I present them, aren’t strictly Czech, but a lot of similar kinds of influences from a broader area,” he said. “I like to use the example of schnitzel, which is German sounding, but originated in Italy, then it traveled to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Vienna, and then Czech people adapted it to create their own version. So you have a lot of these things in the Czech Village.
“You can talk in one class and learn about one cuisine and one nation — in our case, the Czech one — and start to comprehend and learn essentially about a lot of interesting stuff without realizing it. Even the dumplings are essentially an Asian cuisine. Dumplings originally came from Asia to Europe,” he said.
“People who are taking a Czech class are not just doing a Czech meal. They’re learning the perception, and it’s fascinating. When you learn more, the things start clicking and you realize the dumpling in the Asian restaurant or Korean restaurant is similar, but it’s not. And that’s kind of the magic — it’s really coming together and helps you understand better the perception of how things were developing over the years and how they influenced each other.”
Slepicka was born and raised in Brno, located in the South Moravian region. With more than a million residents in its metro area, Brno is the Czech Republic’s second-largest city, behind Prague. Situated at opposite ends of the country, Prague is in the northwest, closer to Germany, while Brno lies diagonally southeast, closer to Austria and Slovakia.
Slepicka began cooking as a child, and by age 10, was baking cakes and Christmas cookies, then started focusing on meals.
With restaurants and catering being common in the Czech Republic, he earned a degree from a culinary school in his hometown. While still in school, he established a successful full-service catering company, which operated in the Czech and Slovak republics, and Austria. His focus on creating a fine-dining experience reflected his eclectic tastes, ranging from Czech and Italian to French, Indian and Asian cuisines. He also likes a good burger.
“I like new things — I like different flavors,” he said. “Ultimately, every cuisine supports each other in a good way. I try to take advantage of that. If you have a Czech meal one day, and the next day, a Thai meal, you appreciate them a little more.”
In 2008, he changed directions completely, creating a language school in Brno with his brother and Maggie Grove of Cedar Rapids, who had come to the Czech Republic to teach high school. Bucking tradition, they taught American English, rather than the standard British English.
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Slepicka and Grove married, and when they were ready to become parents, decided to relocate to Cedar Rapids in 2014 to give their children more educational opportunities. Keeping up a very Czech tradition, they bought a house just four houses away from Maggie’s parents, for an easy walk — something Slepicka misses from his pedestrian-friendly homeland. His brother still runs the language school, and he and their father visit here about five or six weeks each year.
Tomas and Maggie now have two daughters, Lily, who is almost 4, and 6-month-old Maisie. For his day job, Tomas is a financial consultant for nonprofits, and Maggie is specialist in technical writing at Pearson, an educational and professional assessment company based in Iowa City.
“No matter what I’ve done, always cooking was my passion,” Slepicka said, and it’s driven him “since an early age.”
“When kids say, ‘I would like to be the garbage man,’ or anything, I was always thinking, ‘I would like to be a chef,’ or ‘I would like to be the restaurant owner or waiter.’ Not like most people who said they will be garbage men, I actually ended up honoring cooking and focusing on that.”
Initially self-taught, he spent a lot of time watching his grandmother in the kitchen and reading cookbooks.
“I was trying to be independent and trying to surprise people. That was kind of the key,” he said. “And it worked sometimes more, sometimes less, but I always enjoyed it.”
Most of the recipes he uses and teaches are his own, with a few from his grandmother tucked in. From 2015 to 2016, he operated the Czech Deli in NewBo City Market, where his open-face sandwiches beckoned like works of art. CSPS event audiences also could nosh on those at the time, tying in with the Czech tradition where the fancy sandwiches are considered a theater snack, eaten with wine at intermission.
This winter, Slepicka remodeled his home kitchen, which dovetails nicely with the current need for online teaching. While that practice keeps his students in their kitchen comfort zone, using their own utensils and equipment, the disadvantage is that they don’t get to sample his creations.
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He’s also branching out with his blog, Cookingwithfamily.com, and is in the midst of writing a cookbook featuring his own recipes and techniques, which he’s already divided into three volumes.
Since he keeps a fully stocked pantry and freezer, he hasn’t been feeling the pinch of not being able to find staples at grocery stores during the pandemic, but he realizes others are. He is heartened by the way people have been cooking at home more than ever.
“Cooking is one of the essential activities in human history,” he said. “You take some ingredients and turn it into a meal. That’s magic. That’s what brings people together. Even somebody who doesn’t cook very often and decides to cook something is being creative in an essential way.”
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• What: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library presents Immigrant Foodways: Classic and Modern Czech Cuisine online classes
• Instructor: Chef Tomas Slepicka, Czech native, now of Cedar Rapids
• Wednesday: Mushroom sauce and dumplings, 6 to 8:30 p.m.
• June 6: Czech open-faced sandwiches, 2 to 4:30 p.m.
• June 13: Czech honey BBQ ribs, 2 to 4:30 p.m.
• June 24: Czech soups, 6 to 8:30 p.m.
• July 1: Dumplings filled with sauerkraut
• Cost: $20 per class for museum members, $25 for non-members; $90 whole series for museum members, $115 for non-members
• Details: Ncsml.org/
• Chef Slepicka’s blog: Cookingwithfamily.com/