The Michelin Man: Daniel Pawełek, the founder of five Michelin-lauded concepts, speaks out
There wasn’t much in Daniel Pawełek’s early life to suggest a future at the very prow of Poland’s food revolution. Raised in Sosnowiec, the founder of the Ferment restaurant group reminisces of a youth spent pooling his pocket money to spend on slab-like pizzas slathered in ketchup and greasy burgers in unidentified sauce. “Looking back,” he smiles, “it wasn’t till I first visited London that I had a legitimate bottle of wine.”
London was where life found a firm direction. Moving to the British capital at the age of twenty-two, Pawełek was naturally drawn towards the hospitality industry, spending the next fifteen years immersing himself in the world of restaurants. In this, he excelled, and by the end of his stint abroad was heading The Grill at the legendary Dorchester Hotel. “I’ve always been fascinated by hospitality,” he says. “So it felt rather natural that I’d end up doing something that allowed me to express that.”
More than just a footnote in Pawełek’s story, it was here that he learned lessons that would shape him for years to come. “The Grill didn’t just help me understand European culture,” he says, “but taught me things I remember to this day. At that level, a restaurant is almost run along the lines of a small corporation, so it gave me an entirely new business perspective whilst also teaching me about recruitment processes, motivational practices, the value of standards and working with vision.”
All this would bear fruit when, in 2011, he took his next big plunge to launch Butchery & Wine in the heart of Warsaw. “I had a huge moment of doubt the week before,” he recalls. “I was literally on the verge of a breakdown, but was fortunate to be able to count on friends, family and a wife that helped me push past the finish line. Together, we did it.”
It was, in Pawełek’s own words, the pivotal point of his career, the moment he moved from manager to restaurateur. Yet if the opening of Butchery & Wine was the defining triumph of Pawełek’s life, for Poland it meant more: it caught the zeitgeist, becoming the year’s most talked about restaurant. With the country already teetering on the verge of a gastronomic transformation, it helped tip the scales for an all-out food revolution in which quality and craft were to become the buzzwords of the day.
Since then, there’s been no looking back. Working closely with his sister, Marta, and wife, wine importer Beata, and operating under the umbrella of the Ferment Group, four other restaurants have been added to the portfolio: Brasserie Warszawska, Rozbrat 20, Kieliszki Na Hożej and Kieliszki Na Próżnej. All have won considerable plaudits, and the expanding nature of the Ferment Group has not resulted in the erosion of standards. On the contrary, all five have been entered into the 2019 edition of the Michelin Main Cities of Europe guide.
“The growth has been organic,” says Pawełek, “at the end of the day, we just want to share our values and flavours. It was never the intention to have a whole crop of restaurants, but despite that I don’t see a ceiling for us – ultimately, it’s about building something special. We’re not here to cash in on this one day, we want to create a solid foundation that can be passed onto our children.”
Pushed on the future, Pawełek remains coy. “It’s just a case of remaining vigilant and observing the market – trends change, so do financial conditions. You need to keep aware of them. There is no five-year plan that demands we open something else, but sometimes a unique site will come along, or maybe a good chef will become available – opportunities like that are often the spark for new projects.”
Fundamental differences aside – some flirting towards fine dining, others to a more relaxed modern bistro style – all of Ferment’s restaurants are linked by a core set of values, a dedication to high-quality product and a fiendish attention to detail. Pawełek himself confesses to eating in his restaurants three or four times a day to ensure his benchmarks are maintained. “We want to be the best,” he says matter-of-factly, “and that means getting every aspect perfect – from the wine glasses to the reservation system. We don’t want to have venues where people just turn up to be fed, we want people to enjoy great experiences with their friends.”
Credited and celebrated for demystifying and de-formalizing the upmarket dining experience, Ferment’s restaurants have blazed a trail in a country now several years into a remarkable culinary renaissance. Everywhere, Pawełek sees reason for optimism. “I’d compare Poland’s F&B sector to a big balloon that’s growing in every direction,” he says. “Whether it’s fine dining, Asian street tastes, rustic Polish or whatever else, everything feels like it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
Will the bubble burst? “If I knew that I’d be a financial advisor,” laughs Pawełek, “but from my point of view I’m not scared of the future. Likewise, all I can say to people entering this industry is don’t be scared. If you truly believe in something, do it – the worst that will happen is that you’ll just have to close! Believe me, I’ve made mistakes myself, but so long as people do their homework and really know what they’re doing then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t succeed provided they have the fundamentals in place.”