Jarek Mika (born Jaroslav Mika), 1978
Jarek Mika was born in Ostrava in eastern Moravia in 1978. His father, Josef, was from a small village nearby, and Jarek has fond memories of visiting the farmhouse with his many relatives and experiencing his grandmother’s cooking. Jarek grew up with his mother, Radana, and his older sister. In fifth grade, he was expelled from the Pioneer organization after decorating a bulletin board with pictures of President Reagan. Jarek recalls the Velvet Revolution in November 1989 and says that the ‘mentality of people changed’ after the fall of communism; he also noticed a marked difference in his teachers. Jarek attended a private high school in Jihlava which focused on business and management. He says that his expulsion from Pioneers had prevented him from taking Russian language classes and, instead, he studied German with a private tutor. As a result, Jarek spoke fluent German upon beginning high school and found a job at a language school teaching German to business executives. According to Jarek, this experience widened his horizons and he decided to move to the United States to learn English and study.
In 1996, Jarek began studying English at a community college in North Carolina and transferred to the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He graduated with a degree in international business. While in school, Jarek worked for a bank and, by the time he graduated, was working as a loan processor team leader. He then moved to Washington, D.C. to continue his banking career where he worked for an international banking group for two years. After several years in mortgage banking, Jarek left the profession and decided to open a restaurant. Drawing on his love of cooking – Jarek says that he often cooked to unwind from his stressful career as a banker – he took culinary courses at the Art Institute of Washington and opened Bistro Bohem, which features Czech cuisine, in March 2012.
Jarek received his American citizenship in 2011, a step he took because he ‘feels American.’ His mother moved to the United States to be closer to Jarek, and he visits the Czech Republic often to visit his sister and her family. Jarek also has several real estate properties in the Czech Republic. Today he lives in Washington, D.C.
Jarek says growing up under communism is still a ‘fresh’ memory
“I have very fresh memories of walking by a grocery store or pharmacy and seeing empty shelves, or seeing a line of people waiting outside. The practice was that, if you saw a line in front of a pharmacy, you immediately went and stood in the line because something arrived that was never available, and it was the bizarre stuff you’d expect. Sometimes you would get to the end of the line and they had toilet paper. Sometimes you would get to the end of the line and there was butter and you could buy one stick of butter. But having that experience helped you appreciate the small things in life because all of the sudden you realize that they are not automatically available, which is kind of the difference between living here and growing up in communism. Because, when I go to the store here, I see the overwhelming amount of color and everything. I still remember there was a time when I would go to the store and it was empty, gray; I’m sure you’ve heard of the expression ‘Russian Safeway,’ which we have some of in Washington which are Safeway stores that are basically always empty because they cannot keep up with stocking the shelves. So that’s sort of my memory of Czech grocery stores, and seeing the difference.”
Jarek remembers his school days before the Velvet Revolution
“During my years in school, we had to participate in defensive exercises because we were preparing for the West attacking us. The duck-and-cover exercise was basically the same thing, somebody running into the classroom saying ‘It’s happening,’ meaning ‘We’re being attacked! Duck and cover!’ as if that really helps. And we also did a chemical attack exercise when we got plastic raincoats and plastic bags and a gas mask – everybody had a gas mask according to the size of their mouth – and we would put the mask on, plastic bags on our hands, the raincoats, plastic bags on our legs and somebody running in saying ‘We’re being attacked,’ and then the whole classroom of kids would have to go for a walk, a two- or three-mile walk, around town in this plastic cover to prepare us for when the attack happens. I’m not sure, thinking about it in retrospect, how helpful the plastic bags would be, and how far could we really get in this plastic dress-up?”
In elementary school, Jarek found himself in trouble because of his creativity
“I was standing at the bus stop one day and I remember seeing a lot of people smoking and throwing cigarette butts on the floor, and I thought it was not very good, so I went and took a plastic bag, picked up all those cigarette butts, came to school, and made a school [bulletin] board that said ‘Smoking is Not Healthy’ with a hundred of these cigarette butts on the board. It was very artistic; it was very creative for the time and for my age, but the teachers did not appreciate it. They were communist teachers and there was no room for creativity. There was no room for deviation. Everyone was growing up to be a little communist, thinking of Russia as our savior, and I did this unpredictable act of saying that smoking is bad when, during communism, smoking was encouraged as a way of relieving stress. There were actually magazines printing guides for pregnant women [saying] that if they smoke a little bit it can help with stress. It was a different time; it was normal. Nevertheless, the school took the board down and told me that that’s not acceptable, called my parents in, and my mom, who was not a communist – she was actually anti-communist – did not like that at all and got into a conflict with the school.
“They did give me another chance and said ‘Well, we took this down. Do another board for next week. Do something about an influential person,’ and I think the hint was ‘Do something about our president.’ I came home, and my mom had been participating in some anti-communist activities, which I didn’t know back then, so she was doing a lot of typing at night. Later on in my life I learned that she was re-typing a newsletter called samizdat or different reports that my aunt would bring from a little magazine, three pages, and my mom would re-type it ten times, then she would leave and distribute it, and I was thinking ‘What a strange activity.’ Anyway she had a magazine there from Germany with a picture of a president on a horse, and I thought the pictures were so beautiful and I looked through it and it said ‘Reagan, American president.’ So I took the magazine and I cut out all the pictures from the magazine and brought it to school and did a board about President Reagan. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but it was not a good thing. Reagan was not to be celebrated in a communist school in the Czech Republic in Ostrava, and this was my second board that did not go very well. So after my Reagan board was posted, I was expelled from Pioneers.”
Jarek became fluent in German and, in high school, found a job teaching the language
“I went to study at the first private high school in the Czech Republic, which was a school of business and management, in Jihlava where it was a totally different curriculum. The communist guidelines were thrown out; it was basically people that wanted to teach a Western way of studying, and I was the second year of school. When I started, I was fluent in German and, during that time, people were obviously looking for managers, foreign companies were coming to do business, but also people had to learn foreign languages. Nobody spoke anything but Czech. There were a few people moving back from overseas that spoke English, French, and German, but a lot of companies started to get foreign investors, and lot of them came from Germany. So as it turns out, during my second year in high school, I was offered a job at a language school teaching executives from Czech-, now German-, owned companies German so that they could communicate with their staff. So I was teaching Bosch in Jihlava; I was teaching at Tchibo, really interesting environments, but mainly I was introduced to high-level executives at a very young age and I had to work basically full days. I would study during the day and I would work late at night because, first of all, I was able to make money and support my school and, second, there was a high demand.
“I think it helped me to grow up really fast because being 15 or 16, and teaching 45 to 60 year olds how to speak a foreign language sort of makes you a little more mature. There’s a certain level of authority and self-confidence that you have to present which normal 15 and 16 year olds don’t have, so you go through the struggles of building it up really quickly so that you can make it through the teaching process, and I think it happened. So when I finished my high school in the Czech Republic, I had a really interesting view on life because it very much resonated with my idea of freedom, travel, doing different things from what everybody else does.”
Jarek explains the importance of his American citizenship
“I spent a long time living in the country and getting to know the country and learning all about the history, and actually I learned to understand how diverse it is and how there really is no description for what it is and how very well I fit in – because everybody does. So it just felt as if that’s home. I feel very much welcome and very much a part. I feel very much different when I travel. When you travel around the world and you talk to people and you have the American experience, you understand what diversity is and you understand what we do, a lot of people don’t understand. A lot of people don’t understand why you have due process in cases that are easy and clearly decided. There’s this sensitivity that comes with being part of evolved society, which a lot of people don’t understand, that you develop. Once you do, you realize how valuable it is and how priceless it is.
“And traveling, going back to where I come from – I love where I come from and I love the culture, but I come from a communist country and I come from a country that’s filled with people that lived during communism, half of which wanted communism, and I have to say I have a lot less in common with people that are left there and are living there than with people that live here. So I think being American also means that one can evolve and decide that, even though they come from place A, that might not have been where they should be, and having my experience of fighting the system in fifth grade when I couldn’t finish my board and having all these things happen, I think it was clear all along; I just didn’t understand it up until I was given another opportunity.”
In 2012, Jarek opened Bistro Bohem. He talks about his grandmother’s influence on this new venture
“She was super smart and sophisticated because of her life experiences. She had ten kids, lived in the village, and had to work in her little fields to produce her own potatoes, cabbage, anything there is to eat – you didn’t buy anything back then. She had a few pigs, a few chickens, so there was always food and there was always something being cooked in the kitchen. I remember every morning, getting up, there was always a pot of boiling something on the stove. Now I understand she was making stock from bones and carrots and she was simmering it for hours, and I remember coming into the kitchen in the morning and it smelled amazing. I remember, it was usually around 10:00, there was a little bit of bones with meat on it provided to everybody in the kitchen. All the kids would hang out and then start picking chicken meat off of chicken bones, and at noon there was usually a big soup lunch. She was also a big baker and, because she had ten kids that all had grandkids and there were sometimes 20-25 of us in the house, she learned how to bake very quickly, how to make a lot of good breads and a lot of good cakes. I remember her sitting by the stove with a bag of flour and the flour floating everywhere and her getting kolaches out and pastries and little dinner rolls and making sheet pans and sheet pans of dinner rolls, and we were all sitting there waiting for them to come out of the oven so we could take them, and she was making them almost on demand. So that was my first experience of cooking and I liked it a lot. I was really intrigued.”
Jarek says history is important to his restaurant
“Getting familiar with history, I learned a few things about Czech cuisine that I didn’t know until I got into the culinary world. I didn’t know that back in the day, during the art nouveau era, Czech cuisine was maybe even more interesting and pristine than French cuisine. I didn’t know that Czech pastries and Czech bakers were way farther advanced than French ones, and maybe the French kind of took a little credit for Czech history. But knowing that and realizing how much there is that we used to do before communism and how good things were, thinking of Prague in 1910, 1905, 1920 during the First Republic, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to take some of that history, some of that knowledge, and showcase a Czech cuisine here to people that have never heard of it, most people don’t think it’s any good because the Czech Republic is known for its beer, not its cuisine and sort of take a different spin on Czech cuisine and see if people will react.
“I didn’t want to limit myself to Czech only because I am Czech; I wanted to cover a bigger a region, but it turned out that a lot of our focus is on Czech cuisine and it turns out that its way more popular than I expected and it very much resonates with people. I think it did what it was supposed to do, which is attract people that have the heritage and have the history and want to experience the flavors that they have known from their grandparents, which happens a lot. We have a lot of people that come in, have an amazing experience and have an amazing meal, and say ‘My grandmother used to make this and this is just as good as hers,’ or even better. And it also exposes the food and the culture to people that might not have ever thought that there is food in Czech Republic worth eating, so it raises a little bit of awareness to the culture and the food.”
Category: Oral History