It’s just before noon, and in the open kitchen at Costes Downtown restaurant, Budapest, chef Tiago Sabarigo is busy preparing lunch with his team of seven assistants. A smile here, a few words there: the mood is light, yet of nimble, focused dedication.
“Don’t write how many hours I work, I’m not sure if it’s properly legal,” Sabarigo tells bne intelliNews during a short break from his work, “but I’m usually here at 9:00am. I like to be here early, to keep up the quality, and let’s just say I usually leave late.”
For the 29-year-old Portuguese chef and his team, such dedication has paid off: in March, Costes Downtown – whose motto reads “Without Compromises” – received the much-coveted Michelin star, propelling it to the elite of gourmet restaurants worldwide.
En route, the French publication praised the “chic bistro styling and a friendly atmosphere”, along with its offerings of “refined modern dishes [which] follow the seasons and feature excellent texture and flavour combinations. They offer a good value business lunch”.
The feat is all the more remarkable since Costes Downtown only opened its doors to the public in June last year. Granted, as chef Sabarigo is the first to admit, his restaurant’s ‘older brother’, the original Costes (still operating, just one kilometre to the east, in the hip end of Budapest’s District IX) helped pave the way – awarded Hungary’s first Michelin star in 2010. Still, to win a star after less than a year is, as he puts it, “amazing, anywhere in the world”.
Equally amazing, at least to those unaware of the thriving Danubian foodie scene, the latest award confirms Budapest as the standard bearer of fine dining in the region, according to Zsofia Mautner, a Hungarian restaurant critic, author and television presenter. “I really believe it’s one of the best food cities right now. We have five Michelin-starred restaurants: I think this is the highest number in Central-Eastern Europe. You have a really nice choice here,” she tells bne intelliNews.
This is not mere patriotic rhetoric: true, Prague, with 31 restaurants in the current Michelin guide, just bests Budapest (29) and Warsaw (28) as regards numbers listed. But in terms of starred establishments, Budapest, on five, easily outdoes its northern Slavic peers, which boast just two each. (It seems the Michelin reviewers have not yet deemed eateries in Bratislava, Bucharest or any other capitals in the former Socialist bloc worthy of mention.)
What Mautner terms “the Hungarian culinary revolution” began in 2007, when a so-called ‘culinary charter’ was signed by “hundreds of chefs, restaurateurs and producers”, who pledged to make Magyar cuisine “good quality and famous again”.
For most foreigners, what she calls the “Holy Trinity” – paprika, onion and lard, before she throws goulash into the mix – “are probably what first comes to mind” when thinking of Hungarian cuisine. “I think it’s very important to know there is so much beyond [this]. Hungarian cooking has such an amazingly rich heritage, it’s actually a multi-cultural cuisine, with Jewish, Turkish, French, Gypsy and Transylvanian influences. That’s very surprising to a lot of people, according to the feedback that I get,” Mautner says.
Hungary was, of course, following the culinary trends pioneered a decade or so previously by the likes of the US, Spain, the Nordic countries and Austria – where chefs sought to use locally sourced, high-quality produce to emphasise the individual flavours of each ingredient. Out went the traditional huge portions along with dollops of lard; and, sourcing better produce from both the growing number of farmers’ markets and well-supplied supermarkets, in came specialist cheeses, sauces, jams, fine-cuts of meat and a variety of spices once common, but long-since abandoned on everyday kitchen shelves.
While the revolution was led by a handful of fine-dining establishments, these in turn inspired many more to take up the cause, leading to the proliferation of eateries across the Hungarian capital today.
This transformation has been well received by the visiting masses – as the expanded girth of many a budget airline passenger attests on leaving Budapest – and at the highest levels of international gastronomy. As a result, Budapest will host the European finals of the Bocuse d’Or, the popular biennial global competition for gourmet chefs, on May 10-11.
Over the two days, masters of the kitchen from 20 nations stretching from Turkey to Iceland will strive to cook their way to the finals in Lyon, France, in 2017. (In truth, as the jury will choose 11 winners, each entrant stands a better than evens chance of progress.)
Since attendees will include a veritable army of gastronomic glitterati, Budapest, led by Hungarian finalist Tamas Szell, chef at the Onyx restaurant, will be given the chance to bake, saute, simmer and stir-fry its stuff to the world.
“This is a huge thing. It’s the first Bocuse d’Or final in eastern Europe. All the former winners, big chefs, everyone who’s interested is going to be here,” says Andras Lexa, food and beverage manager for Costes. “If we can really show that our restaurants – us, Onyx, Winekitchen [or] wherever they go – are high-quality, this will only help culinary tourism here.”