As Magda Gessler sailed through Gar, her latest restaurant in Warsaw, she greeted waiters and patrons, enjoying her position as one of Poland’s biggest food celebrities, a combination of Martha Stewart, Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson.
In September, her television show “Kuchenne Rewolucje” (Kitchen Revolution) — which debuted in spring 2010 and resembles Mr. Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” — broke into prime time and now averages more than four million viewers a week, though the number includes repeats on Saturday afternoons.
It seems as if every other restaurant in Warsaw these days has some association with her. She owns two patisseries and two traditional Polish restaurants and she is a partner in 12 others that have franchised her name and use her as a consultant on everything from the menu to the décor. Three more Gessler-franchised restaurants opened in Lodz at the beginning of December: Polka, which focuses on Polish food; the fast-food styled MG Eat; and Marcello, an Italian restaurant — her paternal grandmother was from Venice.
Ms. Gessler said she hoped to open a restaurant in Toronto, where her boyfriend, a plastic surgeon, lives and where she spends 10 days a month. She also writes about food for various publications, has acted as the host of a radio show and has published two cookbooks. Her newest, “The Spoon of Violets,” will be released early in 2012.
“When I was 6 years old, I thought I was a princess,” Ms. Gessler said in English — she speaks seven other languages. “I knew that I was different, that I was special and that I would have everything that I wanted.” That healthy ego has made her a controversial figure in Poland.
Piotr Fromowitz, the executive producer of her television show, said they needed someone controversial. “There was a feeling that the ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ format could be very successful in Poland, but the only question was who could host a show like this. Magda’s name came up because the show is not about cooking so much as it is about running a restaurant, hiring the right staff and the décor. She is someone who is controversial — some people love her and others do not — but she really knows how the restaurant business works.”
Ms. Gessler goes into restaurants across Poland — many are mom and pop establishments that run on love more than good food — and tells them what to change, everything from staffing to ingredients. “Gordon Ramsay has to advise a restaurant on where to source their Amaretto from,” Ms. Gessler said. “We are still on a lower level. I have to tell people to use butter over margarine.” The show has proved popular in a country where food has long played a central role in family and religious events and where even today — outside cosmopolitan cities like Warsaw and Krakow — dining out is still seen as something saved for special occasions.
“In one episode,” Mr. Fromowitz said, “she taught a Greek restaurant owner in Poznan how to make things taste right for Polish people, and she was also telling him how he should treat his wife. It was very funny. The program aired on a Saturday evening and the next day the neighbors of the restaurant were calling the owner saying he better open up early because there was a line outside. The owner told us that he used to maybe sell one pan of moussaka each day and now he was selling eight.”
Ms. Gessler has played an integral role in Warsaw’s dining culture since opening Fukier, with its over-the-top baroque-meets-kitsch interiors, 21 years ago.
“She was the first person to really push the boundaries of Polish food, making it more sexy,” said Mladen Petrov, who reviews restaurants for the Aktivist newspaper in Warsaw. “She has this unique personality and you can sense it in all her places, there is something special.”
Malgorzata Pietkiewicz, a journalist whose book “Gessler Empire From the Kitchen” was published in July, agreed. “You have to know that after the transformation in the early 1990s, Fukier was like an oasis in the desert,” she said. “The food was good, there was nice service, interesting interiors — all of which was different from how things had been during Communism.”
Much of what set Fukier apart came from Ms. Gessler’s experiences of living abroad for most of her life. Her father, Miroslaw Ikonowicz, was a journalist and the family — including her brother, the left-wing Polish politician Piotr Ikonowicz — bounced from Bulgaria to Cuba during her early years. It was in Havana — where dinner guests included Fidel Castro (whom she remembers smelling of cigars, rum and cologne) and Che Guevara — that Ms. Gessler said she first understood a meal was not just about cooking. “There is something important that happens to people with food,” she said. “Even the most powerful of men can be manipulated by a good meal.”
She went on to study art in Madrid and married Volkhart Müller, a correspondent for Der Spiegel, with whom she had a son, Tadeusz, in 1982. During her 17 years in Madrid, Ms. Gessler taught cooking courses, managed a handful of restaurants and began catering when her husband became ill with cancer. Mr. Müller died in 1989 — the year Communism collapsed in Poland — and on a trip back to Warsaw, Ms. Gessler met her second husband, Piotr Gessler, who was running what was then the capital’s top restaurant with his flamboyant brother Adam.
Food and restaurants have long been a tradition with the Gessler clan — their paternal grandmother had run a restaurant in Warsaw in the early 20th century and their father operated a string of patisseries in the capital during the Communist years. They fell in love, he left his first wife, Marta, who also owns a restaurant in Warsaw, Qchnia Artystyczna, and they had a daughter, Lara, in 1989. The couple is now finalizing their divorce.
“It was like a script out of ‘Dynasty,’ Ms. Pietkiewicz said of the acrimony within the family over the Gesslers’ getting together and opening Fukier.
Some members of the Gessler family are unhappy that she continues to use their name. That has also created some confusion because Mr. Gessler, his brother and nephews now run successful restaurants in Warsaw, Krakow and London that use “Gessler Restaurant” in their titles.
While Polish cuisine has long had a staid and caloric reputation — “it’s only simple food like fat kielbasa and pierogi that people know about,” Ms. Gessler said — things are different. Chefs and restaurant managers who moved to Europe after Poland joined the European Union in 2004 have returned with experience and ideas, opening up some top-notch places that serve gourmet Polish food with a twist.
And the food scene has indeed changed, thanks in part to Ms. Gessler’s energy. Mr. Fromowitz, the producer, said: “If you did research as to who should be our food guru in Poland, I think the majority of people would say Magda Gessler.”
Some argue that Ms. Gessler’s restaurants will not top any gastronomy lists, but she has helped get people thinking more about food, the dining experience, and restaurant themes and aesthetics.
“I think she is being more modern, moving away from traditional Polish food,” said John Borrell, a former correspondent for Time who is now a wine importer and hotelier in Poland. “If you want to build a food empire — which I think she has — it is probably smart to diversify. There is no long term big future in old fashioned Polish restaurants.”