News » Citizen

Jacek Szarmach


In August 2006, Jacek and Majka Szarmach opened My Caffe, an Eastern European restaurant in Meridian. In little more than a year, the Szarmachs have gained a reputation not only for their popular ethnic fare, but for creating an atmosphere that serves as a cultural gathering point. Jacek, who's been in the United States since 1986, took a few minutes before a weekday lunch rush to chat with BW about becoming an American, meeting Pope John Paul II and what goes on at the cafe beyond food.

Were you trained as a chef?

No. My mother was a chef in a restaurant and my grandfather was running a bakery before World War II, but the political climate was such that they didn't want private enterprise to succeed. But [at My Caffe], my wife is the one responsible for most of the menus.

It sounds like My Caffe is a sort of unofficial cultural gathering point in Meridian.

We kind of wanted to become some little center of culture—not mainstream. There are a lot of intellectuals coming into our place, and we're generally fortunate to have customers who we can have good conversations with. There are a lot of people in the Boise area who are very interesting, and we try to talk to people who are open-minded. It's fun to not just serve food at the cafe, but to talk to people about their background. For example, some people come in of Polish origin who maybe have family birth certificates [written in Polish] but don't know how to speak the language. They want us to translate it. Also, we know the history of Poland. Like Poland was partitioned for example, and people ask, "Why is this in German?" And we say, "Well, because your grandparents were in the Austrian-Hungarian empire in 1800-something, and then that person married someone also from Poland but they were under German partition, and then these folks came from Russian partition." People just want to know something about where their grandparents came from, and they come to us with their story

So you and Majka spend a lot of time reconnecting people to their past.

Yes, that's one of the main things. Especially if we are not extremely busy, we're able to talk, and it's really a good time because those people will most likely come back later. And it's a deeper sort of connection than they can have with a McDonald's operator.

We have fantastic customers. They're not coming to fill up their stomachs, many are coming to get the memory from the past. Some people watch TV and read the newspaper, but we have an exciting life program here. And sometimes we get really busy and we have to just cook, although we do spend a great deal of time with our customers. People who are open to the world come into My Caffe, and it's a great thing. It's an unbelievable life experience. I don't have much time lately to just sit and watch TV, but I draw my entertainment from my customers, and I'm sure I give them some entertainment.

What is the most difficult thing about living in the United States or about assimilating into American culture?

The way you are when you start half of your life in one country and half of your life in another—it's not a split personality but it's like a different angle. I think I assimilated very well, but I always find that I have a different point of view and a whole different way of thinking. I think that probably haunts a lot of immigrants.

We find that American people are extremely understanding, and I feel good about living in the United States. I feel a parallel between Poland and the United States, and I feel like we fit in here very well because we have similar views. Sometimes our views are a little bit different, but at the same time, our friends here don't feel offended. We seem to be interesting to our American friends.

Tell me about meeting the Pope.

I spent nine months in Italy as a refugee. I lived in the center of Rome, and I just happened to be there when there was a Polish pope in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II. In 1985, I had a chance to be very close to the pope during his Christmas celebration. I didn't have a home; I didn't have family; I didn't have anything, and that was very special occasion, especially from someone who is so respected and such a good person to the rest of the world. It gave me a great boost of self-confidence.

Have you been back to Poland much?

Yeah, I was going back once or twice a year, but I haven't gone back since I opened My Caffe. I would like to take my kids to introduce them to family. Now, they're older, their sense of understanding is greater. It's something that will give them a better view of the world. It's always better for kids to see the world from more angles than just one.

Do your kids know why you're here in the United States?

They know some. I was 16 years old, and I was traveling to the seaside on a train and my train happened to be right next to workers striking against communist Poland and communist Russia. It was a really profound experience. I saw those brave workers basically striking against all the KBG forces and all the secret police, and when I became 21 years old, I left the country because it just became too much to handle.

That was just before the fall of communism?

Pretty much. Someday my kids will understand, and in the meantime, this became my new country and I'm a citizen. I think I'm a little critical now about how things have changed since I came to the United States. Now we're losing a little bit of that position we had before to India and China and other places. I would consider myself a global person. In my heart, I'm an American, but at the same time, I was a citizen of Poland, and it's where I came from with all the baggage of the past. I understand the world is ever changing and we have to learn to respect other nations. We're the same human beings. I like Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he's a global guy. He's been a poor guy in the past, he's been a rich guy. The pope, too, had to become a global person. I like what they're about, and I think we all need to learn from people who can think globally because we're in such a global place right now, and we just cannot expect a world of American supremacy. Right now, we have to look at the world differently.

That's the restaurant-owner angle of the world. I'm a deep thinker, and I love to observe the world. I'm very much aware of the vibrant changes that are going on, but I'm extremely curious about what is going on and how people change.