We spoke to Balázs Pethö, the chef at Csalogány 26, about the gastronomic revolution and today’s restaurant culture.
Will you tell us how you chose the culinary profession?BP: In truth the profession chose me.
It wasn’t an entirely thought-out, childhood motivation that I followed through with, but rather I was somehow guided by life, family and wisdom in that direction.
I studied to be a fine artist, painting and sculpting at technical universities and other places during the 70s and the beginning of the 80s. While searching for a career I tried out everything but didn’t stick to anything, and since my family life centered around the kitchen I learned how to cook quite well. The final decision was ushered in by my grandmother’s words – she said that he who is close to the stove will never die of hunger – and those words still ring in my ears to this day. I fulfilled my creative drive by becoming a cook. For a long time in Hungary the profession of the cook couldn’t flourish because there wasn’t a need for someone to do something different.Can you tell us about your past experiences in kitchens and how you arrived at Csalogány?
BP: Lou Lou was the first place that I consciously chose to work, back in ’98-’99.
Before that I was leading an Italian kitchen, which wasn’t my favorite, but it was much easier to cook foreign cuisine than Hungarian. At Lou Lou it was possible for one to express one’s creativity, but after 5 years I felt that I’d outgrown the small kitchen. Then the people at Páva hunted me down and I went there to work. Unfortunately, after 5 or 6 weeks I could see that Four Seasons didn’t mean in Budapest what it meant elsewhere. I then went back to Lou Lou, but I’m not sure if it was a good decision because we soon split paths. After this I settled at Vörös és Fehér, where the kitchen and restaurant were planned 100% to my specifications. There we were pretty much using my system and we got into the Bib Gourmand category. At the time no one knew what that meant, not even I knew what it meant, but I was really happy. Today such things don’t matter to me. I was there for a year, then Klassz came into existence, which I didn’t want to be a part of. I decided I wanted my own restaurant and that was when Csalogány sought me out.What kind of thinking leads Csalogány? How would you characterize it?
BP: In Budapest and Hungary Csalogány stands out. It’s the kind of kitchen and restaurant where you won’t find robots working, where people arrive to work with the intention of doing better than the day before. Lots of people come to work here and then move on to establish good restaurants here and there. This is all integral to our improvement and to improvement in general, but even so my character and style are clearly defined.You mentioned that you’ve trained a lot of cooks who have gone on to work at other places. What is your reaction to these new restaurants?
BP: From the perspective of competition? What is important is that if there will be 15 good restaurants of this type - such as Onyx or Costes, which are not different in the abilities of their kitchen staff but have a different style – and if one can eat fried food and pörkölt, or a good blood sausage in 40 or 50 bufes, things will be much better. From my personality one can tell that competition doesn’t really occupy my thoughts. Neither do the Michelin rankings. There are those that go after Michelin stars but I don’t want to be fenced in: I’d rather put up the fences myself. I respect the Michelin system; how they think and how they rank places, but I don’t want to have to agree with them. I’d rather make my own rules. There have been a lot of things successfully introduced to the Hungarian public that people thought were impossible.
For example?BP: For example the idea that you can serve a quality meal for 1400 Ft. The main thing was for the meals to be cheap, for the restaurant to be full at noon and for the raw ingredients to turn over. It wasn’t economical but the profit was made elsewhere. No one dared to have a different menu for lunch and dinner, a different atmosphere and place setting. We were the first to have two tasting menus for dinner and the first to write them out on blackboards. All we wrote was meat and potatoes and thanked the customers for their trust.A lot of people criticize the interior design of the restaurant, they say it’s dark and gloomy and could use some element of design. What would you say to that opinion?BP: It was made to be that way on purpose. I didn’t check out what were the trends in 2005-2006, what we could get away with and how. Instead I kept in focus what it was that I wanted. If I can’t do it that way I’d rather give up altogether. I’m not going to conform; I’m not the type to look through design pamphlets for restaurant fashions. I have an inner drive that means something other than going after a Michelin star. A lot of people lack this inner drive; they always need a hurdle to jump over. My world is much different and this is what makes us unique. I concentrate on the kitchen. We are a small restaurant. In Hungary, interior design concepts for small restaurants haven’t been developed. There was the string of garlic on the wall and nothing else. It’s for others to leaf through books and figure out what to do that hasn’t been done yet.
I had the idea for our concept and I saw it as part of the evolution of the Buda-side small restaurant. We didn’t want to be a haute cuisine place. We have the same kind of knowledge and skill in our kitchen as serious restaurants but we didn’t want that to show in the prices. I don’t deny that there is some elitism here, but I don’t think that in 2011 elitism is a privilege shared by only a few. Just as people don’t know what to make of this idea, they don’t know what to make of our design. I don’t know why people force the issue of design. 99.5% of French people who live in Hungary come to my restaurant, plus lots of other foreigners. Unfortunately there are fewer Hungarians now because for them it is less affordable. The foreigners love the place, for them it is perfectly normal to frequent a restaurant such as ours. There are still some things that are incomplete and the list keeps growing, but this isn’t because others say so but because I see things that need improvement. It wasn’t our intention to let them stand but as soon as the restaurant opened we’ve been working feverishly and we haven’t had time to deal with them.What makes a restaurant good?BP: The kitchen needs to be good, but even more important is the kind of people who go there. It’s totally irrelevant what kind of lamps you have. There was once a Belgian food critic here for lunch and what he said is what I am most proud of. He had lived for a long time in Spain and in Barcelona and he said that it was there that he last enjoyed himself as much as in our restaurant. My feeling from that statement was thanks, I should quit now while I’m at the top. Gastronomy has become very fashionable lately, a topic of everyday conversation, but the conversation often misses the point. Everyone wants to go after awards, they want to be number one. The purpose of a restaurant is to be a place where people can go with their friends to enjoy themselves and eat good food. Nowadays everyone inspects what’s on the plate, they sit down with the intent to analyze. I can see that when the amateur bloggers in their 30s arrive, within seconds they are already scrutinizing. But this isn’t what it’s all about. Chefs with Michelin stars play soccer on a brightly lit field made of astroturf. I play the game too, just on a dirt pitch. They’re doing the same thing that I’m doing but in a different setting. I happen to believe that revolutions start at the dirt pitch.