"All our life is a search for answers of secrets. To answer the whys. We are trying to find out why we like a place, why we can have such a good time there. Meanwhile we are trying to beat the clock and most of our questions remain unanswered. Only feelings stay, that now and again we managed to make the right choice, and we really had a wonderful time doing what we like, with whom we love to be and where it all fits.
Why are we still regulars at Aranysárkány after 35 years since its opening? Because we liked queuing at the entrance in heat or snow in the old days to get a free table? Not really. Because we were charmed by the magic of the open-plan kitchen behind the huge vine press? For such a sight we could have always visited the Skanzen Museum nearby. Because of the polite service, the tasty dishes and the generous portions? We could have very well found that in other restaurants in this country. Just because we could run into a head of state, an international celebrity or a Hungarian public figure sitting at the next table and our elbows touch in the small steeping space in an attic? Who knows...
I think, quite simply, we have always been and still continue to look for the answer in this small Serbian-Dalmatian town, in the narrow side street evoked by the writer Karinthy, where Attila Máhr started his restaurant in 1978. Even if we fail to find the answers to all questions of life - here we can always feel that we are the right place, in good hands and in the best company. Where we want to be, with those who share this feeling and among people who believe dining and drinking are matters of trust.
There are no more questions... How about the answers? I suggest look for them here!"
Attila was born on 23 April 1974, he is a second child. Even as a young boy
he easily found his way around her mother's kitchen who is an excellent cook
herself. He was four when his father opened Aranysárkány Restaurant. In the
begining his dad used to take his sister to work for summer jobs at the restaurant.
Attila was about twelve or so when he made up his mind about his future: he
decided he wanted to be a chef.
In 1988 he successfully applied to the Huba Street Vocational School for Catering,
but when his father was asking Ákos Niklai, then manager of Hotel Forum, Mr.
Niklai suggested another school in Sopron, a city about 220 kms from Budapest.
Attila found himself in the brand new HungarHotels Vocational School for Restaurateurs.
This school was started by István Vránich, manager of Hotel Lővér, a member
of HungarHotels Sopron. The idea was to launch a specialist corse combining
the teaching of cooking and wating skills, German language, general knowledge
of the catering trade and everything else a restaurateur might need. This was
achieved by implementing a rather strict routine: small classes with a boys
only policy, 5 visits home during the school year, limited visiting times for
parents etc. To balance all this the school and the teachers did everything
they could to provide students with the very best: 1-week language course in
Dresden, 1-month summer jobs at exclusive businesses in Vienna, Austria (Boat
Strauss, Rathauskeller etc.) and driving lessons with the prospect of a license
at the end of the course. Work practice possibilities were varied and together
they provided a wide range of areas of the catering trade. The boys worked in
hotels as porters, receptionists, telephone operators, life guards at the swimming
pools, chambermaids, they even saw how the laundry service is organised in a
hotel. They visited meat product and confectionery businesses. Mr. Vránich would
sometimes dine out with the boys when he thought it was the best way to teach.
When some special ingredient was needed the boys were taken to the Vienna market
by a driver - in those days this was the only way. During these three years
of training a number of artists and experts were invited to give lectures and
presentations to the to-be-restaurateurs. Today it might sound odd, but all
students had to watch the news every night. These were turbulent times when
the political system was changing fast and students studying at the vicinity
of Hungary's western borders needed to be well informed about the situation
and the emerging possibilities. The results speak for themselves: the second
batch of students, 16 boys started their training in 1988, 11 of them got as
far as the final exams in 1991 and 9 of them would successfully take the specialist
exam for restaurateurs. These were formative years for Attila.
After finishing school Attila worked in the Grill Restaurant of Hotel Forum
for a year, and then decided to continue his career at his father's restaurant.
14 years after the opening, 1992 finds both Attilas, father and son in Aranysárkány.
The restaurant has had culinary programmes abroad, too: in the 1990s Attila
worked in Vienna in a partner restaurant and representing Hungarian gastronomy,
he worked as a chef at the Hannover Expo in 2000 and in Helsinki in 2001.
Attila's son, the youngest Attila Máhr was born in 2000. As the youngest member
in a family of restaurateurs he might also continue the tradition...
(A gastronomic conversation with Attila Máhr, the owner of Golden
Dragon Restaurant, Szentendre.)
- I suppose the political change must have had a serious influence
on your life as well; while in the seventies and eighties a private
restaurateur could enjoy the advantages of an exceptional position,
after 1990 you became only one among many others.
- I have never had any problem with this as I was not regarded
as a typical self-employed person in the meaning of the word in
those days. I was the first private restaurateur in Hungary, this
is an historical fact. In those years this category didn’t exist
yet; cheap eating houses were the highest level of private catering.
When my business was taking shape, from the very first moment
I had the idea of a real restaurant in my mind. An eating house
has a different function, some of the good ones still exist, nevertheless
there are owners who do not seem to know exactly what they want
with their businesses. I always wanted to have a restaurant, not
an eating house, but at the same time I never had any ambition
for the exclusive, sparkling-and-glittering type of catering,
what I actually wanted was a small restaurant in a small town.
Anyway, in the period of political change things worked out in
an interesting way: different businesses of the very same origins
opened one after another. Everyone knows the stimulating effects
of competition and being copied can also be nice. To tell the
truth, there were times when it annoyed me that our recipes and
menu innovations had been stolen, our style had been copied. However
when my first anger was over I had to realise that this was a
rather positive feedback. If others are copying me, this means
that what I’m doing perhaps cannot be that bad.
- What was Szentendre like when you started?
- More concentrated. The HÉV (the local train from Bp.) came
every 45-50 minutes, car traffic was minimal, the majority of
visitors came from those circles of Budapest who were fond of
arts and the town of Szentendre. On their part it was a kind of
secondary demand for spiritual freedom.
- It is a strange definition…
- Nevertheless there are other things like this as well, for
example there is Unicum (a strong Hungarian aperitif with a bitter
flavour) which used to be a drink with an overtone of “opposition”;
drinking it showed some sort of standpoint and resistance. We
went to the smoky cafés of the time: Luxor, Belvárosi, Astoria
or Manyika’s Miniatu^r, where you could see the dark- and light-coloured
spirits on the tables, Bonbon liqueur, Unicum, cherry brandy,
vodka, Hubertus… And for some reason Unicum stood out …
- And it was sometimes difficult to get it…
- Unicum was unique in the original sense of the word and that
certain demand for spiritual freedom was about to make itself
felt a little bit here, in Szentendre. Although the artists were
sometimes a little “artificial”, they were coming on their own
initiative. They started to settle down here. Subsequently it
can be explained at a more academic level, but the attraction
of the town was certainly one of the reasons. The artists also
had their coteries, circles of friends which created an interesting
mixture of folks: people of different professions and interests
moved in the same direction. Many people visited Szentendre, they
wanted to see the place. The first antique shop of the country
was also here (besides the well-known Ecseri market in Budapest)
and in those social circumstances it was regarded classy and posh
when someone was enquiring about rustic lamps, old spinning wheels,
paraffin lamps or Berliner shawls.
- Do you like the Szentendre of today? For visitors it seems
to be a little overcrowded, although business must be better than
in the old days.
- Talking about business, I had the chance to see the changes
from the very beginning and I knew exactly about all the new shops
and places what kind of buildings or ruins they were replacing
where people had been living in terrible, unhealthy circumstances
unworthy of human beings, getting t.b. and diseases crippling
them for life. People have to be aware of all this. As the attractiveness
of Szentendre was inevitably increasing these places were dramatically
improved to a viable state, technically perfect for the next 100
Some kind of practical comfort has been created and that was
very important. Another issue is the significance of local people,
downtown inhabitants, shopkeepers, local businesses, their relations
and potential. Unfortunately these people were so much influenced
by simple social and financial reasons, such as accumulation of
capital, that others took possession of their properties. It wasn’t
difficult at all as those who had previously owned these places
could at last move to one-and-a-half-, two-, or three-room “palaces”
where they had hot running water. For them it was a huge progress;
having hot water, a kitchen as such, a gas cooker… As a result,
when drawing a circle of 800 m you can see that the number of
original downtown inhabitants is now restricted to a couple of
families, so they hardly exist. On the other hand the reconstruction
of these buildings and shops (and not their stock!) is equivalent
to European standards in quality. Of course their style or architecture
can be criticised but the engineering construction and the material
that was used made these buildings stable for the next 100-150
years. You can think of outstanding examples such as the reconstruction
of Gallery Erdész. A fantastic interior atmosphere has been created.
The courtyard is also worth looking at as the other half of the
building has been recently done up as well. Or there is the house
second along the street from mine which was designed by György
Vadász. It is slightly eclectic, but everything can have a place
in its central courtyard.
- But the whole place looks a bit overcrowded with these shops,
there is hardly any space for walking.
- You mean cram-full of goods? Yes, indeed, it is called demand
and supply. Perhaps it’s the customers who should be replaced.
If people didn’t want to buy carved pencils or sets of carved
chess, shops wouldn’t make a living. We have to be aware that
the general taste is like that. Even in Paris you can get those
small versions of Eiffel Tower made of rubber. If an audience
of higher culture and better economic background came, if people
were interested only in art galleries, 19th century and contemporary
artists, Hungarian material of the highest quality and good architecture,
well, in that case these shops wouldn’t make a living. But this
is a rather unrealistic image, it is impossible to find a place
like that in the entire world.
- Let’s go back in time. How did you start your career?
- Well, my father was a technician and he wanted to make me one,
too. I had every chance for a future like that. I have my childhood
memories from the earliest age such as playing with the Märklin
toy set which belonged to my father and we could play with it
only at Christmas and solely in his presence. That was the time
when I realised that a screw thread is nothing but a slope and
this was a genuine surprise for me. I can still make a good use
of my manual skills. Nevertheless – being a fatalist, or a real
fatalist, if I may say that – an interesting scrap of memory also
comes to my mind: on one of our school carnival parties I was
dressed up as a cook. I cannot recall exactly how and why, but
the main point is that it happened.
- Where did your family live ?
- I’m from Nagytétény (22nd district, a village-like suburb of
Buda). It was annexed to Budapest in those years. When I was a
child my grandparents kept a big house. I grew up there. Both
of my parents worked, so we had our big, mid-day meals at the
weekends. A Sunday lunch used to be a holy thing, without the
shadow of a doubt. You couldn’t just stand up from the table,
we had to wait until everybody finished their lunch. I’ll never
forget the way my father used to roast coffee in the morning and
then he let me grind it. We had these interesting ceremonies of
Saturday dinners, Sunday lunches, and the preparation of breakfast
in the mornings. We had to listen to Grandma and Grandpa and when
we had guests we had to listen to them as well.
- Did you also have to hold books under your arms?
- No, we didn’t have that type of training but there were essential
things for example salad, soup and main course served on separate
plates. My grandma would stand up from the table and do the washing
up although at that time water had to be taken from the courtyard
in a bucket. We had an overall tranquillity and regularity. Even
today I think it is very important.
- These experiences are deeply engraved in one’s memory.
- I could say that I was an instinctive cook as I always liked
hanging around in the kitchen and from a certain age at special
occasions my help was expected. When we bottled preserves in the
summer I had the hard job of turning the tomato press round and
round and I also helped with steaming the different types of conserves
and jams. A lot of things grew in my grandparents’ garden so the
jobs had to be shared. In the spring the small kitchen garden
had to be dug over, seeds had to be sowed, seed onions had to
be planted. I actually picked up a lot of things there. Of course
there were occasions when I wanted to play but I had to hoe peas.
I didn’t like that as I couldn’t join my friends playing football
outside and I was let out only much later.
- All this could have led you to the other direction as well:
away from the kitchen and food.
- There might be some truth in that. Whatever I achieved I always
did it with detours. It’s like when I was at high school and I
was allowed to learn some English by joining a class specializing
in Russian. It was very typical of the time that if you wanted
to learn a little bit of English you had to specialise in Russian.
After finishing secondary school I chose a technical career, in
those days I knew about everything that could swim, roll or fly.
In our computerized, digitalised world that knowledge is not worth
much but I finished my schooling, anyway. I was quite young when
I got married, the children were born and things were going according
to the rules of the Hungarian reality: co-operative, commercial
buying, car servicing… I liked all my jobs and all the changes
came by chance. For me it was always important to perform very
well in my official job to feel safe and after that I could work
hard in my second “shift”. I was in the taxi business.
- Is it legal taxi driving you are talking about?
- Ah, no… It was absolutely illegal. I had just moved to the
city centre and I worked in Veres Pálné Street besides Belvárosi
Café and I often went to Vörösmarty Square and Rákóczi Square.
Of course I was reported to the police, there was a real fuss
about it, but finally nothing was proven. While driving my “taxi”
I came across the profession of collecting and selling antiques.
First I was driving all over the country only to do deliveries
for an antique shop in Szentendre, later I joined the business
and I became a collector myself, too. Mortars, bottles for example...
- What about lamps? It was very popular.
- No, not lamps. For me those were articles to sell. Being a
collector is not very healthy when you are in the antique business
yourself. After a while the clients of your acquaintance become
aware of the fact that you are also a collector and from that
point your position is changed. You can even be blackmailed in
the commercial sense of the word, you cannot get the piece you
really want to have unless you buy other things as well. In my
opinion it is not fair.
- And what about being a picture dealer and a painter at the
- A good painter… Why not? In those days I was very intensively
working in the antique business and in the meantime I got involved
in the film industry as well. I worked together with scene designers
during the shooting of films by Zoltán Várkonyi, Károly Makk,
András Kovács (film directors). This table for example was used
in almost every film shot during that period. My wife went mad
every time we took it away because these occasions always coincided
with the seasons of family gatherings. Both of my children wear
“reminders” of this table on their foreheads because when they
grew to that height and were chasing about they kept bumping into
- Did your relations with the film industry come from personal
- Yes, you can say that. I worked in the shop, we had rural lamps,
country furniture and these people simply came in.
- Where was this shop?
- Here, in Szentendre, on the site of the post office.
- Was that the time when you actually came to the city?
- While I was taxi-driving I made contact with a rather wide
circle of people, this was the way I met the owner of the antique
shop. It became kind of a work relationship as I delivered things
for her many times. Sometimes she asked me to take her somewhere
in the country. One day she ran out of money and asked me whether
I had 5000 Forints on me. I said I had. “All right, I’ll give
it back to you at home.” After this I gradually got involved.
“Do you have some time?” I had so I stayed in the shop while she
went into the film studio. And many other things like that. So
finally I had to choose between the two jobs I had. In my official
job there were all kinds of problems, but here I could feel a
form of freedom, I could do what I liked doing. I also had to
make ends meet and this work meant a higher income as well. So
I gave up my job and became an employee in the antique shop. And
then I took up collecting. Gradually I got the bug of antiques,
I kept some at home and I gave away some to friends, so the bug
started to spread. I bought spinning wheels, old lamps, we did
them up and then I sold them. It went very well. I became more
and more interested, I started collecting old mortars, bottles,
but in the meanwhile I concentrated on my main job. All this happened
in the middle and at the end of the seventies. That was the time
when the construction of Skanzen (the open air folklore heritage
centre in Szentendre) started, so I got involved in that as well.
You can have a look at the bottle collection in the Museum of
Etnography, I sold them the majority of the bottles. My mortar
collection was bought by József Antall (Hungarian Prime Minister
1990-93) who was then the Museum of Medical History’s director,
so the mortars became part of the museum’s pharmacy collection.
- And nothing about the restaurant yet…
- That’s right. The antique shop was in an ancient house in Szentendre,
on the site of the modern Post Palace. It was the era of grandiose
developments and huge construction when someone came up with the
idea of building a huge post office in Szentendre, so as a result
expropriation and reorganisation followed. The owner’s whole family
lived there, they were indemnificated, they got a flat on the
city’s high rise estate. However the local council couldn’t provide
premises for the shop except from one spot between a garage and
a grocery shop on the estate. It was not the same milieu, the
old shop was 300 metres from the HÉV (local area train) station,
where everybody had to pass by our place. Then came an idea of
a possibility on Main Square but cultural politics wanted to turn
all the houses opening to the square into museums. And there was
no way for anybody with private business to be there. Some buildings
were expropriated, for others they simply said no. However, we
tried to play according to the rules of the game, so in the meantime
we were making queries to the local council. We got a negative
answer to all our enquiries. “Maybe No. 2 Vöröshadsereg Street...”
The building was in a strange state but we thought some business
could be started there. The antique dealers financial sources
were limited. I had some savings and seeing the house I became
quite enthusiastic but it came to light that there were plans
to build a studio for the artist Jeno~ Barcsay in this particular
building. He himself was also a regular customer of ours, he frequented
the shop mainly for the company there. Many artists came to us
from Budapest, there was a nice and friendly relationship between
the clientele and the local artists. We have remained friends
with those who are still alive. I delivered furniture even into
Béla Czóbel’s (painter) house. We bought him a biedermeier cupboard
at the antique dealer in Szép Street (Budapest). But anyway, this
building was picked out for Jeno~ Barcsay. We showed him around
the place cunningly. “No, no” – he was mumbling – “It’s too dark.”
Then I asked him to tell those who were to make the decision that
he didn’t need this place so that we could rent it or we could
find a way to negotiate with the owner to open a business on the
ground floor. Finally we succeeded. The property was liberated
from the threat of expropriation and it also seemed possible to
get a licence if the renovation was approved. It was a necessity
in a difficult situation because there was a resolution that if
a premises was expropriated, another one should be provided. The
then owner of the house turned out to be a tough man who negotiated
for his family. There was also his brother living in the house
and an old fellow who worked for the railways, who was settled
in there, too. And finally on the ground floor, where the folklore
shop is situated now, and we wanted to have our antique shop,
there lived an invalid journalist who had already been assigned
a council flat by then. Of course, there also was nationalization
but when the building was at the edge of collapsing, it was returned
to private ownership. So what shall we do with the house? Shall
we buy it? We were negotiating with the tough owner who didn’t
have too much money. I was even thinking about moving out from
the city centre, some fresh air for the kids, I thought. Let’s
buy it together: the ground floor with the shop for my partner,
the first floor for me. We went into details with the owner, he
offered an attractive payment option because we were to buy the
house with the tenants living in it. We didn’t really understand
his reasons but we were happy with the opportunity. Meanwhile,
we found a two hundred year old fresco in the building. Experts
restored it. One one hand, it made everything complicated, on
the other hand, we were sponsored as the house became a listed
building. Finally, the antique shop was opened. We were very happy,
that part of the house was really fantastic. Our former customers
came back, it was going very well and at that point I was also
fully in the business myself.
- Did your relationship with artists revive as the shop was
- We co-operated more and more with the film industry. And also
people liked coming to us to buy presents for Easter and other
occasions. It became kind of a posh thing to do. Klári Katona
(singer) has a brass bed from us, the one that can be seen on
the cover of her LP. It is the bed that is in all the turn-of-the-century
movies of the time, whenever there is a bedroom scene. Finally,
she was the one who bought it.
- Were things rented or bought?
- Both, actually. Actors, artists, props people liked this place.
A social network emerged which later produced many other relationships.
- How did all this turn into a restaurant?
- With a detour. The city’s drainage system was being built,
in this main street as well, of course. It was dug up 4 m deep
and left like that for a whole year. You have to know that the
building consists of two renaissance houses built on a fundation
from the middle ages, that’s why the roof is not traditionally
constructed either. In brief, the main wall started to move away,
so much that the roof opened up. This was our trump card against
the engineering department of the local council as the condition
of the house declined because of their fault which could have
been a reason to sue them for our damages. During the course of
reconstruction, we talked to the civil engineers about things
like how to strengthen the building, how to build a garage on
the first floor. Someone who knows the district might have an
idea how big the level differences are in these two-floor buildings.
The engineer told us that anything could be carried out in the
first floor, we could have “enough room for dancing”. This sentence
gave me the idea. What if the place were turned into a restaurant.
Going back to the antique business for a moment, when I was in
it very intensively, I travelled in the country a lot, hawking.
I had to know the traditions, how to behave to be let into the
houses, up to the attics. I ate at all kinds of places: pubs,
restaurants, bistros, eateries at railway stations. I knew where
to get a good meal of tripe, liver, stuffed cabbage, fresh “pogácsa”
(scone-shaped spiced pastry), and I “tried” many other things
in the catering trade. “Tried” with quotation marks. There were
places where the waiter would say that the reason the soup was
sour was not because it was off but because it was the local style.
I hated when I asked for lecsó (Hungarian ratatouille) not with
rice as a side-dish but with boiled potatoes and I couldn’t get
it because the price of the meal wasn’t calculated with potatoes.
I felt terribly offended when I ordered the goulash soup and I
ate it with some bread which I love very much, and when I was
paying, I heard “32.20” and the question about the number of sliced
I had eaten. I said three, and the waiter said not three but five.
It is incredibly humiliating. An extra 20 Fillérs. I would have
given a tip anyway... I found it absolute nonsense and lamentably
ridiculous. In the meantime many of these disturbing negative
experiences were imprinted in my consciousness, although I only
realised it much later. Besides, I love eating out. It was a part
of my life, it was a lifestyle to go to the different pubs, restaurants,
bistros, many times with people from the film industry, the television,
for discussions or sometimes only for chatting. It was very influential.
So the idea of a restaurant started running in my head; my sense
of business was stirred. I started to collect information. How
to do it? How to start the whole thing? I went to see the then
head of the council, which is an important moment of the whole
story. He was a former teacher, someone interested in humanities.
I knocked on his door and asked how the heads of the town would
respond to something like a private restaurant. Interestingly
enough, he said that it was great idea, and that I should go ahead
and do it. So I applied at the engineering department for a license
to open an eatery (in the meantime it became clear that it could
be only that). My application was turned down because of my lack
of a trade license. I was also turned down by the department of
commerce for the trade license because I didn’t have premises.
Catch 22, Hungary, 20th century... I collected all these papers,
took them to the head of the local council and, surprise (!),
he understood that it was absolute nonsense. He ordered in the
heads of the two departments and told them to solve this problem.
And from then on, the story was publicly known in the town.
- Let me have a look in your “pocket”: did you become that
- No, not that much. An unexpected turn came. My partner with
whom I worked together in the shop sold her flat in the housing
estate, bought my floor in the building, and moved in. As a result,
I got some money, some capital was at hand. When this information
was found out, the owner of the building sent for me (I still
owed money to him). I was trembling. He offered me a seat and
told me that he had heard the news. “Are you sure?”, he asked.
“A restaurant, for these people, here? Do you know who I am?”
I said no. “The Görög Kancsó (Greek Carafe, a famous old restaurant
in Szentendre) used to be mine but it was nationalized, taken
away from me. Do you think they won’t do the same to you?” I thought
he would ask for his money right there. But he didn’t. “You are
young, if you really undertake that, it will be a great adventure.
I myself cannot believe them anymore. But go ahead and do it.
But you are going to have a lot of expenses at the beginning.
So don’t pay me now, pay later, when you can.” We drank a glass
of wine, and he gave me a couple of relics of his past as a restaurateur.
As a veteran of the profession, he shared some of his ideas with
me which I can still recall and which are still a source for a
whole sequence of new ideas for me. He talked about the profession
and the opportunities with such enthusiasm that I have been under
this influence ever since. After all this, construction started,
one side of Hungarian reality of the time. Running out of money,
the contractor raving with anger. That was the moment when I had
to get rid of my two favourite collections: the bottles and the
mortars. During the construction, and even after the opening of
the restaurant, the business in the antique shop continued as
usual. We had a perfect timing for the official opening because
the open-air theatre performances on the Church Hill were taking
place just then. In one of the scenes with Bacchus I was given
a line to invite the assembled crowd and Bacchus down to the restaurant
to open it...
- Where did you learn the profession?
- I managed to find an excellent chef who later opened the first
pizzeria in Hungary. He’s an excellent professional, I am still
very grateful to him. I had no special knowledge but as a very
active restaurant-goer, I knew what was good and what wasn’t.
The chef was a real talent and it was totally within his power
to choose furniture and equipment. We were getting “polished”
- When you talk about catering, what is the proportion of
material and marketing elements?How much myth and style is there?
- We have to acknowledge a basic reason for anybody walking into
a restaurant, and I know this from experience. People want to
enjoy a nice, delicious meal and they also want to have a good
time at a gastronomical level at least. That’s the basis. The
importance of what you actually get is 70 to 90 percent. Of course,
there are other factors that can motivate people.
- Does this mean that there are places with this basis and
people choose those where they can find the extra 10 to 30 per
- I don’t know. Things that are on your plate are essential.
Quality, presentation, quantity... But other elements that may
not seem to be that significant at first, turn out to be very
important. The right balance has to be found. Civil values and
social structure are hackneyed expressions but in my experiences
many people choose this particular restaurant for the clientele.
- Do your guests come because it is a posh thing to do or
because they can meet people in the flesh whom they would see
only on the screen otherwise?
- Jeno~ Barcsay [painter], Ferenc Karinthy [writer], Piroska
Szántó [painter], István Vas [poet] were regular guests, Bertalan
Farkas [the only Hungarian astronaut] often comes here. It has
its significance but it is not that very important. The relationship
between those who personify the restaurant and their guests is
the most essential.
- I like it when the staff in a restaurant are friendly but
they also know when their presence is not needed. They know your
name, they can remember what you ate last time but they don’t
want to hobnob with you. They appear when you need them. The problem
is that the waiter and the guest are from different social circles.
- Why? Just because I’d ask ”What would you like to have, Sir?”
I do ask him and then I serve him but I am not his servant, it
is a job to do for everybody’s convenience. It is the social game
that goes around: I feed someone who then goes to the petrol station,
the guy who fills the tank goes to the dentist who needs a mechanic
to repair his car. The mechanic goes to the grocer who goes to
the cleaner. The cleaner himself usually takes a taxi, the driver
of which comes to my restaurant... And the whole thing starts
again, and I could join this circle at any point myself. In the
service industry everyone has to know their place. Guests have
to accept being served and they should not look down on the professional
staff serving. A technical and a general intelligence are both
needed. Sometimes uneducated snobs come and they always will.
We have to put up with it. I often meet them. But I have to be
careful in a situation like that as I don’t want to be an enemy
of my own money. I always look at it as if it was a game, and
I try to persuade my colleagues to acquire the same attitude.
Well, I am the one who is at home. If the method does not work,
it is my fault, it means I don’t know people well enough. It is
nice to have a profession like this, to get to know the guests
after a couple of minutes, after a lunch, or after two dinners.
In this setting we can get closer. I can be ready to hear that
my guest has had a bad day, fell out with his wife, wants to make
up with her boyfriend, has been made redundant, hasn’t been well,
or is just in a bad mood and now I’m trying to handle all these
from the listener’s point of view. Just being sympathetic. To
behave so that the guest should feel better and we feel better
- You must have gone through many things, you are very experienced.
But what about the young guy who was born in one of the villages
in the neighbourhood, went to a school and finally got here to
work? Would the spirit of the place influence him?
- The spirit of the place? It sounds nice. But I would simplify
it a little. It is important to set an example, the job required
has to be explained as in school. You have to make your employee
understand what is going on, to help him to experience success.
I myself had no knowledge about catering. I still don’t have it
formally. But I do know a lot of things that are better not to
do or other things guests are grateful for. A pre-heated bowl
is one of the examples. It is nothing special, no professional
knowledge or technical background is required to provide a hot
bowl for the soups when they are served. Some of our guests who
frequent the best places are still surprised when the pre-heated
bowl arrives. I have regular guests who like bringing their friends
here, telling them to be careful because it is going to be hot.
Then a choreographed game follows when the friends don’t want
to believe it, and he or she will cunningly let them touch it.
- What things shouldn’t be done?
- A classic example is the gentleman who always comes with a
different girlfriend. “Going for the same as yesterday?” is not
a good question to ask. No way! Even if we know exactly what he
wants to have. The other example is the husband who comes here
with his wife and his girlfriend. We don’t make fun of it, even
if he comes on Friday with the girlfriend and returns to have
his Sunday lunch here with his family as well.
- Do you see any generational difficulties?
- Unfortunately, good manners are sometimes amiss. Here in the
restaurant it is easy to see when people don’t know how to behave.
Let’s say, four young people arrive. Not teenagers, men and women
between the age of 25 and 30, and they are not familiar with the
most basic things. It is not only that they don’t help the lady
with the chair when she’s taking a seat and they don’t give a
hand when she’s taking her coat off but also they have no idea
how to order their meals. They don’t know the choreography of
it. Whatever age we live in, catering has to be respected for
its own status. I don’t want to exaggerate it, it is not the glacé-kid
glove way I mean, standing rigidly besides the table while the
guests eat. But some basic manners are essential without any ceremony.
- How much time do you spend here?
- Quite a lot. 6-10 hours a day.
- How did the inner profession change in the last decade?
- Let’s look at it from one aspect, from the hierarchy of the
profession, for example: waiter, cook, chef, headwaiter, owner,
and varieties of these. There are no real examples to look up
to other than a couple of famous celebrity chefs from the capital’s
best hotels, but they are in their ivory towers. At the second
level there are the good chefs who worked for example at my place
and now have their own businesses. The problem is that they don’t
have the time and energy for development because of the economic
pressure we are exposed to. It is so tough that self-development
is hardly alowed at all. Another version of the same story is
when different investors dip their hands into the profession,
for a while they are trying to “buy” the best professionals but
when the business doesn’t turn out to be profitable, and the purple
mists of enthusiasm are gone, people leave burnt out. A certain
desire for development is gathering force everywhere but neither
the financial, nor professional conditions to allow it are given.
Being an excellent headwaiter doesn’t necessarily mean that the
same person can make a good boss. The same is true the other way
round. During these twenty-something years in 99-100 % of cases
I was lucky to work with colleagues who were fully qualified professionals
with an amazing knowledge. The places they left for speak for
themselves. I learnt a lot from their actual work, from our background
conversations, the story-telling. There is the classic chefs-against-waiters
conflict, which was a kind of a time bomb set by the former political
system. It is still there. The fact that chefs were better paid
suggested that waiters were allowed to help themselves from the
revenues. One example of many: the chef was offered a drink by
a grateful guest, he never got it, but the price of the drink
was listed on the guest’s bill.
- What should I do when I want to express my satisfaction?
- It depends on the place, if one of my guests comes up with
something like that, I usually say, “Thank you but my colleagues
don’t drink because they drive and they are also fairly paid.”
But in a situation like this I ask my guest to simply tell the
chef himself that he or she liked the meal.
- Who is the worst guest?
- People from the profession. If someone of this type goes to
a restaurant, it is worth watching. They wear all the accessories
that can give them a look of status. This comes from a feeling
of inferiority, which we should get rid of. It will be a long
- People in the catering industry have different roles, different
- To the west from us, an owner is not necessarily the operator
but he or she knows perfectly the interests of an operator. It
is very important in long-term thinking. Calculating for 5-10
years would change things. A person like this would leave a mark
of his personality on the business although he doesn’t have to
be around the guests. There are owners whose personality is simply
not ideal for handling guests. Someone who knows this about him-
or herself can still be very good at running the place from the
background. There is no consensus about what a fair level of payment
for people working in the profession should be. We don’t know
how much a good waiter is worth. Sometimes a waiter is overpaid
by his first employer and so he sets up a measure for himself.
Nevertheless, I once had a chef who worked at my place for the
half of his former salary, being aware of the fact that his former
income had nothing to do with the business turnover at the other
restaurant, he had just got lucky but it couldn’t be repeated.
For half as much he worked hard and well.
- What kind of personality should a boss have to run a restaurant
with the utmost efficiency?
- You have to be consistent. It is impossible to please everybody,
the jobs have to be assigned, then checked and double-checked.
And when the staff gets accustomed to his control, you can sometimes
forget about double-checking, but you cannot take things for granted.
I have also learnt that independence for professional creativity
should also be provided. People have to feel that you trust them.
Besides I look at the catering industry as a social game in which
guests are participants and certain accessories are also required.
The gastronomic part of civilised catering includes consuming
drinks and wines, but unfortunately a lot of deeply rooted mistakes
and bad habits are associated with it. The wine selection is extremely
important. At the moment I have sixty types of wine. I have been
gradually increasing the selection which is still far from perfect.
Interestingly enough I became aware of the “gaps” during the range-extension
- From whose point of view? Yours or the guests’?
- Both. From the side of the sellers and the wine-producers.
In the meantime the guests’ expectations are changing as well.
We could take an active role in this procedure, it is something
we have to own up to. Economic factors are also significant but
they are not the only ones. Some patience is needed now. The guests’
solvency and a healthy greediness on the part of producers are
essential. The latter wants to make better products so big investments
have been started. The problem is that many people seem to forget
about a fair division of the revenues. The vine-grower, the producer,
the wholesaler, the restaurateur and the guest should be able
to sense this. The guests’ habits are also important. I agree
that a ‘fröccs’ [a long drink consisting of 0.2 l wine and 0.1
l soda water served in a tall glass] can sometimes be a nice refreshment.
Or what about the sweet red wine? As long as you find sweet red
wine on the middle shelf of your local shop, no wonder that some
guests ask for it. To tell the truth every third table would order
sweet red wine. I have to be very careful with getting into a
conversation at the end of which I can explain to these guests,
without hurting them, that in Hungary we don’t have sweet red
wine because it is biologically and chemically impossible. I can
proudly report that sometimes I successfully go through the whole
process with my guests.
- You must have a vocation for popular education…
- Our aim is not to rob our guests. We are directly connected
to their money, they pay us for the wine so it is our responsibility
to care about the future. The money is not only ours; it has to
be poured back to the vine-roots. But the same can be said about
beef, goose-liver, pork. A typical question is: “What would you
recommend?” I have to be careful again. I have many direct and
indirect ways to avoid answering. I would ask instead what they
had for breakfast, for lunch. Then we get into a dialogue about
their day and communication has been started. I still wouldn’t
recommend anything, what’s more, I wouldn’t do it later either,
I’d rather go on chatting. Just as if I said at the very beginning:
“Look, Sir. You have never been to this restaurant before; you
don’t know our menu at all. Please have a look at it, read it
through, you’ll find pork, poultry, beef, veal and much more,
so that’s what I recommend you select from.” I want them to make
an effort. But of course I cannot say this because it would be
rude, so we would get into a discourse instead… If we are good
at it, our guests come back and it is not only money we are getting.