Full Exclusive interview with Aleksandra August

Flavor or Poland is one of the newer shows airing on Create TV; the show was produced in 2019 and debuted in 2020. The show’s host is Aleksandra August; an actress who grew up in Chicago (home of WTTW who produced the show). Aleksandra tours her home country, showcasing its chefs and cuisine, then, coming back to the kitchen to make Polish dishes. KLCS talks to the her about how this show came about, the challenges of starting a new show for PBS and what’s her favorite, healthy, Polish dish is to make.

Aleksandra, I didn’t know you’re from L.A. or you live in LA.
I lived in L.A. and soon will again. I came back to Chicago, in part, for the show and then, family business that I needed to stay here for; so I am still in Chicago but I have an L.A. number and I’m not changing it because in the near future. I do plan to move back.

What favorite places do you like to dine at here?
There’s so much to choose from, from just the fast casual stuff I really like Mendocino Farms. Nothing specific comes to mind because it’s been a while since I’ve been out to the restaurants in L.A. I like the vegan options in town, it’s always a healthier place to eat.

I always like seeing a new show on Create. What is the theme or goal for your show?
It focuses on Poland and it’s the first of its kind because of that. There has never been a culinary travel show that’s been dedicated solely to Poland, so this is the first one in American TV history that has 13 full episodes just dedicated to the country of Poland, and it’s focus is to show not only Poland’s cuisine, to do a deeper dive into what Polish food is, what it’s been, how it’s evolved and what it is currently, but also to show the background of where that food came from and how that cuisine developed. So, in that showing Poland’s history, its culture and how that’s progressed and changed throughout the years and shaped Polish food.

In each episode, you go back to the kitchen and cook?
Yes, exactly.

Are you a chef and what was your path to cooking and this show?
I’m not professionally a chef; the show’s angle presents me as a home cook. The idea is if I can make it you can make it too. However, I did have training, in preparation for this show, I trained with one of Poland’s Michelin star chefs, so at this point I can say that I do have some education in the culinary realm. But I also grow up cooking, Polish people are like Italians, we love to cook at home and entertain, so my whole life I grew up helping mom or grandma in the kitchen. I grew up around those traditional recipes and I continue to make them today.

Learning to cook with a Michelin star chef, how did that come about, just cold calling them and saying “I’m doing a show and I’d like train for the show?”
It was a collaboration with him for our production, so in preparation for the cooking segment part of the series, the producers arranged for a training with him. So under his careful eye, I learned a lot of stuff not just as a cook in general, but about Polish cuisine specifically. Before we went to production, I went with him, I trained with him and he showed me from a more professional angle how to go about things in the kitchen and then how to prepare the Polish dishes, where they come from and the background and history.

Was he ever on your show?
Not yet, but perhaps he will be in a future season.

Was that difficult, before you do the show to cold call a lot of these Michelin star chefs, or was that pretty easy?
I think Poland hasn’t had too much marketing here in the States; we know Japanese, Chinese food, Mexican like the back of our hands, Italian that goes without saying. But Poland hasn’t had much promotion of itself as a country and even more so, as a cuisine here in the United States. So, any opportunity that presents itself to showcase that to Americans at-large is a good opportunity; it wasn’t particularly difficult to reach out to these chefs. Maybe getting a hold of them took a little bit, but once we had the conversation, it wasn’t too difficult to convince them to be a part of the program, because they’re happy to share the developments they’ve made for Polish cuisine in recent years and to give Poland that promotion here in the States among American viewers.

The segments where you interview chefs and watch them cook, does that take all day or just a couple hours?
It depends on what happens during the production day, if equipment is working smoothly or not, if the food’s cooking right but, typically it’s just a few hours. These are professionals of the highest degree that I worked with and had the honor of meeting and cooking with, so when they prepare something and talk about it, they know exactly what they’re saying, they speak English well. They’re internationally renowned professionals. So, they know what they’re talking about, they know how to present it; that makes the work a lot smoother of course. But setting up camera, getting makeup ready, preparing the food, staging it, it’s a different story when you’re at home cooking for yourself versus when you’re cooking for the camera, things need to look a little bit more prepared, even though we are actually making the food live right in front of the cameras, there is a different kind of preparation that’s involved. So, four or five hours.

How did the show come about and was it hard to get the show fully funded as a new show to put on PBS?
Yeah, it was because it was a whole new concept for Poland and Polish companies that sponsored it to wrap their minds around. The idea came from the producers, the Independent Film Factory based out of Chicago. They built the idea based on the premise [that] looking around we see all of these international cuisines that are part of American culture today, but Poland doesn’t really have very good representation. We know about kielbasa, Polish sausage, pierogi, maybe some cabbage dishes and that’s about it. And that’s barely scratching the surface when it comes to Polish cuisine; so, frustrated by that fact, they thought, “Why don’t we produce a show finally that talks more about Poland.” There are, I think, 10 million people in the United States that draw their heritage back to Poland, it’s about time that we gave them a little bit more information about their roots, where they come and the food that comes along with that. So that’s how the idea was born, they approached WTTW in Chicago and they loved the concept, a first of its kind, so they jumped on-board. As far of getting the sponsorship or the backing needed, that was a little bit more of a challenge because it was hard for Polish companies to understand what that meant on a marketing level, that the she would be a full series on public channels all around the United States advertising to American viewers all around the U.S., but with conversation and time they jumped on board and I think they’re happy they did.

I like to watch the credits and yours is one of the longest credit lists with a larger crew that I’ve seen. And they’re all Polish names. It didn’t look like it required that large a crew. Wasn’t it just a two camera, one audio person shoot?
Sometimes it was three-camera, there was also a drone involved to get some beautiful aerial shots of Poland. So I believe it was a 7-10 person crew at any given time. There’s a lot involved on a culinary travel show, because we’re not only showing the food, we’re also having conversation, we’re also showing culture and history, so there’s so much footage you need to get and there’s a lot of different types of footage that you need to get. So while one person is recording an interview, another person might be taking aerial shots of the city that we’re visiting. Someone else needs to take still photos of the food being prepared, it’s a lot of work. It’s not the biggest crew in the world, but it does take a few hands on-deck to make it happen.

Most were Polish names too.
Yes, there were just a few of us that came from the States, but most of the crew was hired in Poland. It was great to work with them because a lot of times they had been to these cities and places that we’re visiting; they grew up around there, so they were able to give us personal pointers and tips on what else is interesting, or whatever we didn’t think to shoot that might be worth showing.

When was that filmed?
Season One was filmed in 2019 and premiered in 2020, and yes there are definitely plans for a Season Two. Obviously, the pandemic came in the way of making that happen and with the current economy, it’s a little it more challenging to gain sponsorship than it was before, but the producers are nearing the end of some conversations with certain sponsors. Some are coming back and others are new and they do hope to produce a second season with me as the host.

Are you recognized from this show and what’s the most frequent question you get?
I am recognized from the show and I get a lot of questions on social media; the response honestly, with my hand on my heart, has been one of the most amazing and far exceeded my expectations. I constantly get notes of gratitude and thank-you’s for finally showing more about Poland. There’s so many, millions, of Americans that draw their heritage back to Poland, but the most they remember is grandma making that favorite cake or dish. They don’t really know what their background is. We all have a certain amount of world history that we’re taught growing up in the States, so there is a surface level background, but they’ve never visited the country, they’ve never been able to tour it, done an in-depth dive into its history and its culture and the show does that through its 13 episodes in a great way. So much gratitude from people has poured out towards me and towards the production for finally producing it, there’s a lot of people proud to have this on television. And they constantly ask for more, so we don’t have another choice, we have to make a second series if not more.

What do you doing when you’re not on the show teaching us to cook or tasting dishes in Poland?
I have a professional background in acting, I still do that. I recently did an independent film, I do some commercial work, I’m a theater-trained actress, a classically trained actress. I am also on the radio now, it’s a Polish American station here in Chicago, we mix a blend of Polish and English speaking on air. So, given my background on the show, they reached out to me and asked me to be a host on their station. I’m there two to three times a week on WPNA in Chicago. I have a business background; I’m an entrepreneur and I have a marketing consultation business that I run outside all of that as well. So, I’m a jack of many trades.

Is the radio show a cooking show?
It’s not a cooking show specifically, but given my background, sometimes I talk about Polish cuisine because it is a Polish American station so people are always interested in learning more about that.

What’s the favorite part of your job?
I grew up in the United States, I came here with my parents when I was three years old and I grew up in the Chicago area, so what I knew of Poland was what I saw the two or three times that I visited when I was a child and then an adolescent. Those were summer trips, and when you have family back in Poland, what happens is you spend most of your time with that family, maybe you tour a sight or two around the towns where your family is from, but that’s about it. So, for me, it was an incredible opportunity to not just see more of Poland but basically see almost all of it. And not only that, I got to sample some of its best food along the way and meet with some of its most esteemed chefs, who not only pass on the history of Polish food, but they’re redefining Polish cuisine. So, they’re kind of pioneers in what they’re doing because we know of Michelin star chefs renown around the world from countries like Italy or France, but Poland is only just stepping into that arena. These chefs are stepping onto an international platform and giving Poland a name in the culinary world. I could go on and on, there were a lot of moments, certain places in Poland that I visited that I only heard stories of before and I was able to finally see them first-hand and experience them and get tours from some of the greatest experts on the topic. So, I’m pretty lucky to have had this adventure.

Do you have a favorite go-to dish that’s quick and healthy?
It’s red beet kwas, I think in English it’s Kvass. It’s a fermented beet base that you would use for either a warm red borscht, red beet soup, which is one of Poland’s staple dishes or you could also, in the summer, use it as a cold version of that. It’s Lithuanian beet soup, it’s creamier, you add sour cream to that cold version and fill it with herbs, veggies, cucumbers, radishes. So it’s super, super, super healthy. But just as a very quick recipe, this is not a dish alone, but it’s something I would definitely recommend to have a glass of on a daily basis just for boosting immunity and boosting health overall. You cut up beets, cube them, put them in a glass jar, cover that with water, add allspice, bay leaf, garlic, fresh horseradish and dill. You let that ferment about three to four days. After that, you can pour it into separate glass jars or however you want to store this, put it in the fridge and have a glass of this everyday. It’s going to boost health like nothing else. And of course you can use that as a base for a warm red beet soup or the Lithuanian, also beet soup, but it’s the creamier version. The recipe is also available on FlavorofPoland.com and also the cool red beet soup.

So far almost everyone’s had a Julia Child story or she’s influenced them. Do you have a Julia Child story?
I did watch the movie “Julie and Julia” and I did happen to watch it while preparation for the “Flavor of Poland” was in its initial stages. So watching that film and knowing that Julia Child had her start in American public television was really an inspiration that kept me going. And when things maybe weren’t going so well, we weren’t sure if we were going to actually be able to make it come to life, it was an inspiration to keep going and keep trying.

Do you pinch yourself that you get to do this for a living, educating people about cooking and cooking on TV?
Yeah, absolutely, everyday when I get a nice comment from a fan of the show, it reminds me that I actually got to do this and I actually got to share not only food that I know and love, but also a huge part of my heritage with all of America. That’s no small thing.

Do you ever indulge and just watch a bunch of PBS cooking shows?
Sometimes, I’m pretty busy with all of the things I do, so I’m not able to get in front of the TV too often. But sometimes I watch Lidia Bastianich. I love watching her. I also go out to Eataly out here in Chicago, so I love going out there and it draws back to Lidia’s show so there’s that nice connection for me. A couple of times WTTW has aired my show either right before or right after Lidia’s, so it was kind of a point of pride for me to have my show come right after or right before hers.

For those of who watch the show, is there anything you want to add to tell viewers?
Be on the look out for more seasons to come! I hope that this show has given them a little bit more of a clear walkthrough through Poland and a better understanding of what the country is and that its food extends far beyond just pierogi. I know we still love those and no one’s going to stop eating them, but definitely check out FlavorofPoland.com and try some of the other recipes because there’s so much more to Polish food than just that.

Flavor of Poland airs on KLCS’ Saturday afternoon cooking block; find the full schedule on klcs.org/schedule You can learn more about the series and Polish recipes on flavorofpoland.com/ or follow the show on social media: @flavorofpoland (Instagram, Twitter and Facebook). You can follow Aleksandra on her Instagram: @aleksandraaugust

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