A lifelong Hungarian patriot, Láng introduced Americans to Hungarian food and helped restore Budapest’s historic Gundel restaurant. His research-forward approach still rings true.
Last fall, when I was in New York, I paid my usual visit to Bonnie Slotnick, a snug, below-ground bookstore in the East Village specializing in rare cookbooks. Before long, I was talking Dobos torte with the proprietor lady when she suddenly pulled out a pack of Hungarian cookbooks from behind the counter. Some were in English, others in Hungarian and Russian. With discernible pride, she said they had belonged to George Láng.
Around the same time, I was listening to an interview with András Körner, a Hungarian-American cultural historian whose works I admire. Speaking about his first book, he mentioned it only got published because George Láng was kind enough to endorse the manuscript.
I’d been vaguely familiar with Láng, knowing he helmed the iconic Café des Artistes in New York City and that he revived Gundel restaurant in Budapest, but now I was intrigued to find out more about him.
Láng fled war- and Holocaust-torn Hungary after both of his parents perished in Auschwitz and he himself had a few close brushes with death. In New York, where he arrived in 1946 at the age of twenty two, the ambitious young man’s career advanced rapidly. After stints in restaurant kitchens, Láng became the assistant banquet manager at the Waldorf Astoria in 1956. He was then hired to develop new projects for Restaurants Associates, which included overseeing the Four Seasons, the group’s crown jewel, for three years in the 1960s. Láng ultimately struck out on his own, starting his restaurant-consulting business for clients like Marriott and Loews, opening 200 restaurants in 18 countries throughout his career.
As many successful restaurateurs, Láng was charming and witty and he understood business. But he was also an intellectual. With an interest verging on academic would he steep himself in the history of the local culture, the cuisine, the neighborhood, and even the architecture before establishing a restaurant's profile. More than anything, it was this research-based approach that set him apart from his peers. “The world will never again see a restaurateur to compare with the charismatic George Lang,” wrote Saveur after Láng’s death.
Despite his rags-to-riches ascent in America, Láng remained close to his native Hungary all his life. Apart from rescuing the historic Gundel, Láng authored "The Cuisine of Hungary," a widely successful cookbook that elevated the reputation of Hungarian food in the United States to a new level. Being Hungarian is his profession, not just his former nationality, an article once quipped. Láng wasn’t the only Hungarian-American restaurateur of his generation with an attachment to his homeland: Paul Kövi, Láng’s protege and successor at the Four Seasons, wrote an excellent book about the food of Transylvania; further west, the larger-than-life Louis Szathmáry — chef, bibliophile, and raconteur — introduced Chicagoans to the finer aspects of Hungarian food at The Bakery restaurant.
But to Láng, advancing the reputation of Hungary seemed to be second nature. His romantic love of the country combined with his sense of showmanship, media savvy, and financial backing enabled him to leave a particularly vivid imprint, as I detail below. (Next year will mark the tenth anniversary of Láng’s passing, a fitting time for Hungary to honor his unique legacy.)
The Cuisine of Hungary
In 1971, Láng published what became his magnum opus, "The Cuisine of Hungary." The 500-page book is more than a mere recipe collection: the first section — hundred and fifty pages — provides a cultural history of Hungarian food and wine, also highlighting regional cuisines like those of Transylvania and the Great Hungarian Plain. The book required years of painstaking research with Láng paying repeated visits to Hungary to conduct interviews and to get his hands on old recipes. The second part features more than 300 recipes that are broken down into categories like soups and stews and stuffed vegetables and homestyle cakes and tortes. Both the countryside fare and the foreign-influenced dishes of the Hungarian aristocracy are included.
Láng peppered the pages with amusing anecdotes, without fail portraying Hungarian food and Magyar characters in a favorable light. “Of the many reasons for this book, perhaps the most important one is to show to the rest of the world that this step-child of history, located on the eternally explosive borders of East and West, of Asiatic origin and an almost surrealistic history, has an extraordinary and unique cuisine,” wrote Láng in the introduction. But even when his patriotism is a bit too on the nose, it’s hard not to enjoy this book which is clearly a labor of love.
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The reviews were plentiful and almost unanimously positive. The New York Times proclaimed that the book was “what cookbooks should be and almost never are,” later adding that it was the first serious work in English on Hungarian cooking. The American food establishment was also on board: the 1994 edition has cover blurbs by M. F. K. Fisher, James Beard, and Gael Greene, with the brilliant Joseph Wechsberg from The New Yorker writing the preface. I wasn’t able to find out how many copies were sold, but the book has gone through several editions and reprints.
It's not an exaggeration to say that the book spawned the golden era of Hungarian food in America — in the 1970s and '80s, it was considered to be among the great cuisines of the world (since then, driven by evolving tastes and demographic changes, other countries have long since eclipsed it). It's both a testament to Láng's genius and to the marginal role of Hungarian food abroad today that nearly half a century after its initial publication, "The Cuisine of Hungary" is still the most authoritative English-language work on the subject.
Café des Artistes
In 1975, Láng took over the Café des Artistes near the corner of 67th street and Central Park West. It was a storied but struggling restaurant on the ground floor of the Hotel des Artistes, a luxurious coop apartment building once inhabited by artists. Láng struck a deal so that the eye-catching murals could stay on the walls — thereby also ensuring the historical continuity he so valued — but otherwise he refurbished the interior to his liking. Soon, Café des Artistes became a New York City landmark known for its elegant but unstuffy atmosphere of pre-war Europe. For more than three decades, the space was a favorite haunt of fellow Hungarian WWII immigrants and the city’s cultural elite. In his chatty memoir, “Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen,” Láng listed Lauren Bacall, Itzhak Perlman, Leonard Bernstein, and historians Robert and Ina Caro among the regulars.
While the menu was a mishmash of European classics — pot-au-feu, smoked sturgeon, veal schnitzel, strudels — Láng didn’t shy away from putting everyday Hungarian staples in front of his upper crust patrons. When President Bill Clinton visited the restaurant, paprika-laced venison pörkölt was one of the main courses. Other dishes, like the flourless Ilona chocolate torte, named after Láng’s mother, were inspired by his childhood.
Budapest’s Gundel was considered to be one of, if not the most prestigious restaurants in Central Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Under the helm Károly Gundel, a protege of Swiss hotelier César Ritz, the elegant restaurant by the City Park masterfully fused French haute cuisine with Hungarian fare. “He did for Hungarian cuisine what Caréme and Escoffier did for French,” claimed a 1948 New Yorker profile on Károly Gundel. Many of the dishes he invented, for example the Gundel palacsinta, are regarded as classics today. Gundel met an undignified end when in 1949 the communist regime nationalized the restaurant and deported Károly Gundel and his family to the Hungarian countryside.
Decades later, after the fall of communism when Hungary was opening to foreign investors, George Láng saw a chance to revive the old Gundel. He had long admired Károly Gundel’s legacy and restoring this landmark in his native country had special allure. He partnered with American business tycoon Ronald S. Lauder, who was also of Hungarian origin through his mother, Estée Lauder. After some tense moments with the Hungarian State Property Agency and Gundel’s numerous heirs, the duo won the concession in 1991.
Láng had cultivated a romantic notion about the Budapest of his youth — a grand, elegant European capital tinged with a bit of Magyar mischief. Now, he set out to channel that flair into the new Gundel. Sparing no expense, he hired an army of consultants to make his dream come true. Milton Glaser, the famed American graphic designer (who did the “ I ❤ NY” logo) developed the new Gundel emblem. The sinuous outline of the champagne-sipping lady evokes the Art Nouveau, which coincided with the beginnings of Gundel. Adam Tihany was in charge of the interior, which first required the removal of all the cheap communist-era furnishings. The new fittings and the 13 museum-worthy Hungarian paintings that came to decorate the walls synched up with the building's original Baroque Revival facade. To ensure a steady supply of top wines, Lauder and Láng purchased vineyards in the renowned Tokaj region in eastern Hungary. Láng even enlisted an in-house historian and researcher, Zoltán Halász, with whom he later co-authored a short book called “Gundel.”
Gundel’s kitchen was also in need of a serious update. Láng felt that “Hungarian cooks had lost touch with restaurant developments and colleagues outside of Hungary,” adding that “the borders had been hermetically sealed as far as ingredients, wines, and, especially, cooking equipment were concerned.” Láng modernized the kitchen and took charge of the recipe development. He would organize tasting sessions and write feedback to help the chefs understand his philosophy. He wanted to prepare the traditional dishes of Hungary in a way that’s contemporary and suitable to Gundel. “We must combine the learned awareness of the past with selected techniques and styles of today,” he wrote at the time. A delicate roasted fogas, Hungary's signature fish, appeared on the new menu, as did an updated chicken paprikash, goose liver variations, and a cottage cheese strudel.
As head chef, Láng hired Kálmán Kalla, who had been helming the kitchen of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington DC. “When we started, he had me go to the Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism and leaf through Gundel-related artifacts for inspiration, things like historical recipes and wedding menus,” said Kalla when I spoke to him this week. On another occasion, when Láng heard that Kalla was visiting Paris, he immediately arranged dinner for him in a prestigious restaurant. “The only thing he asked me before I left was to bring a suit with me and to take notes about every dish I liked,” remembered Kalla, who is in his seventies now and runs a farm-to-table restaurant with his wife in a western Hungarian village. He still has fond memories of Láng: “he was a father figure to me; I learned so much from him.”
Overall, Lauder and Láng spent $22 million on Gundel’s overhaul, a shocking amount even today, let alone in 1992 Hungary. The American media was fascinated by Gundel’s resurrection, contributing to an increased stream of American patrons. Láng was especially proud of hosting notable European royals — as once did Károly Gundel — that included Queen Elizabeth II. By the early aughts, Gundel had once again established itself as a temple of fine dining.
Láng’s fairy tale with Gundel came to an end in 2004, when Lauder sold the business to a London-based hospitality group, Danubius Hotels. Though the restaurant still exists, it has been struggling to meet the standards set by George Láng.