Eszter Palágyi has been managing the kitchen of Costes, the Michelin star-awarded restaurant, for over a year. She talked to The Budapest Times about her working days in the famed kitchen, women in gastronomy and the reason for her passion for cooking.
Where does your love for the kitchen originate?
My father used to be a hobby cook. Ever since I can remember I was always next to him, listening, helping him peeling potatoes. Despite all that I almost decided to study business and marketing, but right before the university was about to begin I changed my mind and started the cooking school instead.
How did you continue and end up at Costes?
After finishing the training I went to Ireland. I used to work for Mount Falcon, a renowned hotel restaurant, which has been awarded two AA (Automobile Association) rosettes. There I had the opportunity to learn about both English and French cuisine at the same time. I stayed there almost for four years. At the end I travelled a lot, I collected experience in London, Paris and Bordeaux in two- and three-star restaurants. I moved back to Budapest in 2013. Miguel Rocha Vieira, who used to manage the kitchen, heard that I was back and asked me whether I could come and help out as a pastry chef. Two weeks later he already delegated a lot of tasks to me and he named me his sous chef. When Miguel had to return to Portugal last June I took over his position as the chef.
It’s a huge responsibility to fill in such enormous shoes…
Yes! And I never even asked for it (she laughs). It was actually never my goal to become a chef or even a star chef, but life always brings me new challenges and I am glad to take them on.
Although kitchen is traditionally the domain of women, the chef profession is surprisingly dominated by men. Why?
I think that many women regard cooking as something they must do in their household, something they need to do every day. This can ruin all the fun about it. When men start cooking, they don’t do it because they have to but because they are interested in it. I never had to cook at home and I think this is the reason why I could preserve my passion for cooking.
It’s not a secret that Costes is working on its second Michelin star. What does that mean to you as a chef?
I don’t stress about it, since that would only ruin all the fun. If it needs to happen, it will happen. I think that if we are going to get a second star it will not happen because we are directing all our efforts especially in that direction, but because we are a restaurant that is always striving to be the best. Of course, I really wish that we would become a second star, for the sake of the owners who have invested a lot of money and time into this restaurant. It would be a really nice way to say thank you to them by getting a second star.
Costes opens only at 6.30pm each day but your day begins much earlier. How is a normal day at work at a starred restaurant?
Cooking dinner for 30 to 35 people does not sound like a lot but we prepare everything fresh and we have very complicated dishes, where every single detail has to be in its place. I already begin working at 8 or 9 in the morning. First I get an overview of the kitchen, I am getting the ingredients and I prepare the schedule for the kitchen team, who arrive at around 11am. There are many processes that take a lot of time: preparing a jus, for example, takes two days, marinating meat can take even three to four days. We have to follow a very strict routine, knowing exactly who is doing what at what time and who can use the oven or the fireplace from what time to what time. This is why you can see timetables all around our kitchen. Although the kitchen closes at 11pm, our job finishes only around midnight – meaning that a normal working day takes at least 12 hours for us.
What targets have you set for yourself?
I would like to collect even more experience. I would like to go to Spain one day and work for the Roca brothers. They are having three Michelin stars for three years in a row already and their restaurant El Cellar de Can Roca belongs to the top five restaurants of the whole world. Furthermore I think that it’s really special that three brothers open a restaurant together, they work together in it and they are so successful with it too. As for Costes, I would be happy about getting the second star, of course, but for me it’s much more important that we can stay one of the best in Hungary in the future as well.