Everyone interested in good food and high-level gastronomy in this country will surely come across the name of Zoltán Herczeg at some point. He has tested over 300 Michelin Star-awarded restaurants and publishes the annual “Volkswagen-Dining Guide TOP100”. Herczeg operates some of the best restaurants in the country himself, including Costes, which was recently named restaurant of the year. He still found time to share the secret of his success, as well as the story of female chefs and super food, with The Budapest Times.
In February, Costes was picked as Best Restaurant of the Year at the Dining Guide gala. As the operator of Costes, you can surely tell us the secret of its success.
This is a simple and hard question at the same time. The definition of “the best restaurant” is something very subjective. The selection of the best restaurant is much more a message about where the highest standard of restaurant expertise was experienced this year. The most important viewpoint is probably the whole package. When we are talking about a good restaurant, it’s essential that the promise of the restaurant is kept. If a restaurant promises us something and incorporates it in its outward appearance, then the service has to correspond to that promise. Such restaurants are mostly coming from the same gastronomic area, so it’s not a coincidence that the best European, German or even Hungarian restaurants tend to have certain similar features. After all, there can’t be something new on the market each week; stability is very important, most of all when we are talking about quality. To answer your question, I would really say that the most important things are keeping the quality, the complete package and the promise of a restaurant. Me, as a client, I should be getting what I was promised in every single second.
And what is the promise of Costes?
A high-level, qualitative fine-dining cuisine, which could be successful in any Western European country. A kitchen, which is almost perfect. Almost perfect, while the mistakes that do exist are so rare that the guests can’t even notice them. When a guest visits us and agrees to pay the high price for our services, then he expects a good performance for it, since no one comes to Costes only to eat something. The guest is looking for an experience, a gastronomic experience. And this is exactly the experience that guests are getting from us. I think that our award proves that the experience we give is sustainable. Basically it was the case that the decision had to be made between three or four restaurants. It’s only small nuances in the end that decide about winning or not winning. And as I already mentioned, what does “the best restaurant” fundamentally mean? Of course, it’s defined by the quality and by adherence to professional standards. But even when a restaurant is the best, maybe I as a guest would not like to go there to eat. Costes is a restaurant where you go on a special occasion but the next day you probably want to go to another restaurant. For me, Costes is a way of artistic expression. You come to have a conversation, to get something special and because everything is just coming together so perfectly there. The managers and the employees are doing a professional, quality and permanently good job.
The Costes chef is a woman, Eszter Palágyi, which is quite unusual. How do you evaluate her performance, keeping in mind that she is the only female leading such a top restaurant?
This is a very interesting question, even if I believe that it’s irrelevant whether the chef is a man or a woman. However, it’s remarkable, since women are better suited for this kind of job from a psychological and biological point of view too, as they have more taste buds on their tongues than men. This way they are able to sense many more tastes, which is how it was developed during evolution. In order to provide for the children in the best way possible, women must have been able to taste exactly what is good and what is bad. But, and this is the reason why there are fewer female chefs than men, this kind of work is hard physical work. It demands a lot from your body to stand in the kitchen six days a week for 14 hours each day. Furthermore, women often leave this profession at an early stage, since maybe they want to found a family. This is not a kind of job of course that is well-managed alongside the family. Concerning Eszter, for me she is such an excellent chef that it does not matter whether she is a man or a woman. We are not focusing on gender when we choose our chefs. Of course, there are fewer female chefs for the reasons I mentioned but on the other hand, there are far more women cooking in the world than men.
This not an easy job, of course. I have also worked many years in gastronomy, so I know how life in a restaurant kitchen is. Communication often happens in a very raw, aggressive tone. How do you think your female chef manages to earn the respect of her male colleagues?
Of course, this is not easy, you have to work hard for respect, especially at the beginning. However, for a woman who has built her career in this field and was socialised in this industry, it’s somewhat easier. She will notice quite fast if she is right for the job, if she can endure it or not. Eszter, however, is a confident and tough lady, which comes from her daily duties and responsibilities. The kitchen is a very feudal and monarchist place where you don’t get to discuss much. The chef is the boss there, and I think Eszter does raise her voice when necessary.
I spoke to Fausto Arrighi before the gala, who assisted you during the compilation of this year’s Dining Guide. How do you evaluate working with him, the experienced Michelin tester?
Fausto is a very skilled and always prepared professional. Such experts are very rare in Europe. Working for Michelin for 36 years – this is a great performance. Working with him was hard only at the beginning, until we put our stereotypes away about the other one and got to know each other better. After that I learned he is very open and warm-hearted. He is always striving to discover the gastronomic specialities of a country and adjust his judgement to national and regional features. This means that he judges the Hungarian kitchens and the Hungarian dishes in the way that they have to be prepared in Hungary, and not following other measures. He does not compare a local fine-dining restaurant with one in Düsseldorf or Paris. He approaches things very objectively and with professionalism. When he is working in Hungary he is thinking in Hungarian measures and not foreign ones. This is the way a professional behaves.
The trend of alternative foods and the hype about “super food” is increasingly present. How important are such trends in the world of fine-dining restaurants?
In high-level gastronomy these trends are not really popular, similarly to the other trends such as paleo-diet or macrobiotic nutrition. The super food movement is not really represented in our gastronomy either. When we prepare our dishes, we always use high-quality products, partly even bio products. But we do not prefer certain products because they are super foods; rather because the high-level gastronomy strives to give the highest possible level of delight to the guests. When we are preparing a dish, we are doing it with the aim to create a taste with the help of selected products and a bunch of spices, taste-enhancers and oils, so that the end result will be harmonic and versatile. Of course, we are influenced by the different movements of the past 20 years, such as vegetarianism or veganism. The gastronomy also shifts a little bit towards those directions, however the work of the chefs is not focused there. Furthermore I think that these different trends and nutritional methods are not all natural – in my opinion, people are biologically determined as omnivorous, and they need to have a little bit of everything. This means not too much meat but also not too many vegetables. They need a balanced diet, which is giving a leading direction for high-level gastronomy as well. In this context seasonality and regionalism are also important. This means for example that we do not offer strawberries in the winter, and at summertime we prefer to put as much game on the plates as possible.
Finally, could you tell our readers what else you expect in the field of gastronomy for this year?
As soon as the annual Dining Guide gala is over, the preparation for the next edition begins. I will be busy with that this year too. Furthermore, we have a monthly magazine and a portal about good restaurants. These have to be filled up with content also, and we have to reach as many readers as possible. Of course, we will still be doing our best to give a clue to our readers about what they can expect at each restaurant. If we want to find the 100 best restaurants each year, there is a lot of work behind that. We are going to test and try 30 to 40 new restaurants this year. In Hungary we can talk about circa 300 very good restaurants, unfortunately there are not many more in the country up until now. In other countries, which are larger and more developed in this context, there are about a thousand. Hungary is only on the way to establishing so many high-level restaurants.