Found on 7-8 Vorosmarty Square, it is no mistake that Onyx Restaurant, a family business now in its eleventh year, functions seamlessly and unrivalled in quality. Onyx, along with the iconic Gerbeaud Confectionary, which recently celebrated its 160th birthday, are managed by the same two women. Both restaurants are overseen, at an already impeccably institutionalized level of hospitality, by Katalin Pinter along with her administrative partner and daughter, Anna Niszkacs. The pair’s management portfolio continues on to include Emile, a restaurant found in a villa in Buda in Orlo Utca, as well as the High Note SkyBar located at the very top of 5, Hercegprimas Utca.
At Onyx, we were greeted by not only Niszkacs, but also Adam Meszaros- the barely thirty year old chef who was hired seven years ago from the competing Costes restaurant in Raday Utca. In 2018, Onyx was the only restaurant in the region to obtain their second Michelin star this past March (not including the 5 Viennese recipients). Anna, seated in a box-like armchair, responds routinely to my question regarding the usual consequences of obtaining a Michelin star: typically a rise in prices and a change in the usual guests. “We opened with the specific goal of having a Michelin-starred restaurant. Back then we could have only hoped for this, given that a Michelin level accreditation comes with its own due process and work– be it from the kitchen, business or service side of things. At first we had mainly Hungarian guests, given that after opening we had a very fairly priced lunch menu; this changed when with our first Michelin star when 90% of diners were foreign and the remaining 10% Hungarian. After the second star though, the ratio changed again to 60-40% of guests being foreign versus Hungarian. Based on our experience though, the growth in local interest will eventually decline to the usual 90% of foreign guests.” She then added “On the other hand, we purposefully did not open Emile with these intentions and thus do not expect similar results in comparison to Onyx.”
If someone is speaking about Michelin stars, it is important to clarify what exactly that is. Upon hearing about the award, people nod satisfied and proud, sometimes declaring, with bright eyes, showing off that “oh yes indeed, I have been there!”. The Michelin star is none other than the symbol of gastronomical perfection, given out annually by the French Michelin Guide. Yearly, it ranks restaurants and hotels according to the guide’s zero to three star hierarchy, raising certain chefs high above the rest, while restraining others to inferiority. “Michelin likes to play it safe. Onyx, as the first Hungarian restaurant to receive this honor of two stars, waited eight years for this moment. In order for our local gastronomy to reach this level, 10-12 years of consistent work needed to be put in”—chimes in Adam Meszaros. Anna Niszkacs continues, “It is essential that the given country, the given city, as a whole, reaches a certain level so that we may be taken seriously enough. A swallow cannot make the summer happen. The changes that occurred around ten years ago caused diners to prefer visiting a restaurant which provides fresh ingredients, a conscious process of cooking, and an operable kitchen. This change also meant people were inspired to go to markets again and get to know new ingredients. In fact, there have never been more grastrobloggers and journalists in Hungary than at the present moment. These were all necessary conditions for Onyx to appear on Michelin’s radar.”
However, it’s been but two years since the earth-shattering news broke that Onyx’s first Michelin star-winning chefs, couple Tamas Szell and Szabina Szullo, left the restaurant in order to pursue a more independent career and to concentrate on the Bocuse d’Or world chef championships. Which they actually won in 2016. “We fully supported the Bocuse d’Or. When there was no one else there for them, we were already supportive. This was quite difficult for us economically, but it was also a huge win for the country- after all, if you are capable, why not go for the challenge?”—as Katalin Pinter had revealed to Forbes when Tamas Szell left the position of executive chef. She added: “Szabina and Tamas set out to leave and establish their own restaurant. I wanted to talk them out of it, and for half a day I succeeded. I advised them to wait until they were better off financially and could have a higher level of quality invested. But they had already tasted independence”. The dilemma of who should take over was resolved in the likes of Adam Meszaros, who had been, for a while, strengthening the team up until then. Pinter and Niszkacs thus made the reasonable, yet simultaneously risky decision to give the 20 year old Meszaros such enormous responsibility in preserving their Michelin star. Their decision was rewarded. “It is important to me that I work in a pleasant environment, and I would like those working under me to feel the same way. Of course there are boundaries, but a stressful work atmosphere is not good for anybody. An executive chef must be able to read people. The presence of passion and soul is just as significant as good technique and ingredients”. Adam represents an entirely different version of a chef his age than what most are used to seeing in gastro-trash-reality TV shows. “In my opinion, the Gordon Ramsey-type of hardcore, aggressive styled kitchens, which are all over the media, are actually in decline. Younger chef’s approaches to the career are entirely different”. Adam then smiles when I ask how exactly the menu is assembled—he reveals a few insider secrets. “Everyone has a say in the creation of the menu, but it starts out as my ideas, which together, we then make a reality. In order for everyone to feel a part of the process, anyone can do whatever they’d like and then we sample the end products. This usually happens in the restaurant’s kitchen. I also create the aesthetic aspects, and after the others add their own alternatives, we come up with the third solution”. But what he emphasises is the continuity: “It is essential to remember that Michelin knows the enormous responsibility they have. If they give some place a star, that restaurant’s traffic will greatly increase as well as the expectations of it. In the same manner, the taking away of a star has similarly drastic effects. For this exact reason they are incredibly observant and watchful. Mistakes are very rare. Their critics come by here relatively often, but they never warn us ahead of time”.
Hungary had to wait until 2010 to win their first Michelin star, which the previously mentioned Costes won. Today, you can find the most eastern two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe, and, amongst the Visegrad states Hungary also leads. According to Anna’s observations, “if we want to feel uplifted, we must look back to the early 1900s where Jozsef C Dobos (or Istvan Czifray) published his cookbooks, which upon perusing, the reader is brought to tears at what astoundingly wonderful creations lie within. Hungarian gastroculture is unbelievably deep and truly amazing– but there was a good 40-50 years which did not help us at all. We are essentially working on reviving this culture too”.
In regards to the ingredients, Meszaros did not paint a very confident picture of the condition of Hungary’s agricultural capacity. “We let the whole thing go to ruin—and to rebuild it is extremely difficult. Presently the problem is a lack of stability. In the case of the Hungarian farmer, it is totally plausible that one may have two weeks of quality products, a third week of sub-par ones, and a fourth yielding nothing at all. In a Michelin-starred restaurant it is quite challenging to prepare for this given that even the 5,000th guest must have what they order off the menu. For this very reason our restaurant requires three to four suppliers for one ingredient.” In answer to the question if there are any ingredients provided by Hungarian suppliers, Adam states, after a short pause, that the previous menu’s celery was supplied by a Hungarian, and now they also buy mushrooms from another Hungarian supplier who actually sells about 80 to 90% of his product to Austria.
Upon departure, we ask Adam—the representative of peak gastronomic culture– one more question, jokingly: “So Burger King or McDonalds?”. After a laugh and some thought, he responds “There are some chefs who declare they would never even enter a place like this, and in the end a paparazzi photo reveals their secret. So I won’t lie—I’m just as human and will eat fast food if there really is nothing else around. It’s not part of my daily routine but I can’t deny I have eaten fast food two or three times this year. However, I don’t want to do any marketing on their behalf.”
reporting by Balázs Horváth
translated by Katrina Hier
featured image: Csákvári Péter