"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 Kriaszter

Máhr Attila Jr.

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...

GOURMET Magazin, 1999/2f

(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 years.

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 same time?

- 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 it.

- Did your relations with the film industry come from personal acquaintances?

- 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 open again?

- 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 well-off?

- 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” together.

- 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 cent?

- 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 as well.

- 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 process.

- People in the catering industry have different roles, different approaches.

- 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 process.

- 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.

Tamas Tordai