November 20, 2018

Game takes pride of place in the cuisine of the Costes restaurants, in Budapest, where traditional Hungarian recipes are combined with French sophistication

Even, as a child, Eszter Palágyi knew how to hunt deer, as dictated by Hungarian tradition. ‘I used to go hunting quite a lot, so I know something about how to use venison,’ explains this chef from Budapest, who will take part in Madrid Fusión by giving a talk on large game. ‘You need to treat venison in quite a special way in order to cook it. I always like preparing it with some kind of special ingredient.’ Palágyi, one of the youngest chefs to have been awarded a Michelin star at just the age of thirty, went on to become head chef of Costes restaurant and retained the star that was first awarded in 2010, also began experimenting with food when she was very young. Learning to walk and cook were practically the same for her thing at their family home, and she was influenced by her father’s recipes. ‘I’ve got lots of recipes from my father and my grandparents, I’ve got lots of old, family cook books,’ says Palágyi. ‘My dad taught me many incredible techniques about how to prepare different kinds of meat and I learnt a lot from my grandmother about how to prepare fresh noodles.’

Having grown up among sharp knives and the heat of the stove, she was never interested in any other profession. ‘As soon as I finished studying at cooking school, I got a job abroad working at an English gourmet-food restaurant,’ she recalls. ‘In Ireland I had French co-workers, and they got me interested in French cuisine.’ That great, refined cuisine inspired what she did next. During the years she spent training, she worked with teams at prestigious restaurants in various countries in Europe, until she decided to return to her home town where she began working with the traditions and produce of the land. ‘When I talk about Hungarian culinary traditions, I mean the flavours of my childhood and family get-togethers. Of moments when the whole family would cook and bake together,’ says this chef. ‘When I cook at Costes, I combine family recipes with French techniques. That way I preserve Hungarian traditions but make dishes that are better received and more appealing to everyone else.’

Like a solitary hunter, her ritual is based on silence. ‘I like working alone in the kitchen,’ she states. ‘I like gathering my thoughts and carrying out my daily activities in peace and quiet. Whenever I can, I’m the first one in the kitchen and I set out everything that I need for the day.’ Her technique and inspiration are nomadic, like the large animals that inhabit the steppes. ‘My dishes are always changing. They are influenced by a season, a flavour, a colour, a scent, raw materials; even a memory can inspire a dish,’ claims Palágyi who, shortly after returning to Hungary, won the 2016 Chef of the Year award thanks to the way she combines the traditions of her country with the most innovative aspects of gastronomy. ‘When Hungarian dishes are refined with French technique, the recipes become purer and more modern, they become elegant,’ she says, revealing the secret of her cuisine.

However, this chef does not give much importance to fame, nor to awards. In a world that has been dominated for so many years by men, geniuses and figures like her are now emerging. Is it the turn of a generation of women who are fighting for equality? ‘I just cook,’ she exclaims. ‘We just cook, that’s all! It makes no difference to me if the food has been prepared by a man or a woman, as long as it’s good and the diners at the restaurant are happy. It’s a big responsibility, of course it is, but I focused on my cooking and our diners.

– Doménico Chiappe –