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When Hungarian chef Tamás Széll won gold at last year’s Bocuse d’Or Europe competition, he was working at one of Budapest’s most celebrated restaurants – the one Michelin-starred Onyx. Today he’s working in a market.
It might sound like a strange career trajectory for one of Europe’s rising star chefs. But pay a visit to Szell’s new Stand 25 Bistro at the Hold Utca Food Market in Budapest and everything begins to make sense. In a radical departure from the fine-dining decadence of Onyx, Szell’s latest venture aims to recreate classic Hungarian food with a contemporary twist, in an environment that’s as welcoming as it is unpretentious.
Named after its first-floor location in the Downtown Market, Stand 25 Bistro sits alongside other kiosks offering a broad range of cuisines, from traditional Russian, to Italian street food. On the ground floor there are stalls selling fruit and vegetables, meat and sausages, herbs, spices and a shedload of paprika. It’s an actual market. So why did one of the city’s top chefs make the move to such simple, humble surrounds?
Ahead of the Terroir Budapest forum on the innovative Hungarian food and wine industries, which will be held on 30 October 2017, we spoke with Tamás Széll about his restaurant and Budapest's emerging fine dining scene.
Hungarian Food with a Contemporary Twist
“We would like to present our gastronomy in a more informal, friendly, contemporary, but still very high-quality way, after the quite formal, elegant, Michelin-starred style of Onyx,” explains 34-year-old Széll. 'to me it was very important not to lose quality. To use the most excellent ingredients and the most modern Hungarian kitchen technology when we offer meals that feature the culture and history of Hungarian gastronomy. We innovated traditional Hungarian meals, we modernised and we are very proud of our Hungarian products and technologies.”
Using only seasonal Hungarian ingredients, Stand 25’s menu changes with the available produce. But staple Hungarian dishes like goulash, potato casserole and Somlói galuska (chocolate sponge dessert with cream and rum) are permanent fixtures, simply because they are favourites of the Stand 25 team.
“In Hungary we have to be proud of Hungarian dishes,” says Széll. “We would like to show really good Hungarian meals to our foreign and Hungarian guests. We don't keep our recipes secret. We already published the recipes of all our emblematic dishes, because we want everybody to taste them, and to know how to prepare them in a modern way that makes them enjoyable in the future. It’s also very important to give some kind of a measure, because these meals are often made poorly.”
A Great Success with the Public
While standards are still high, it’s a far cry from competing in the high-octane world of the Bocuse d’Or, which Széll compares to Formula One motor racing. “Both are about the joy of cooking, but there's much more freedom in this [Stand 25],” he says. “At Bocuse d'Or there are very strict competition rules. In the bistro we have to give the maximum every week, we have to keep the quality, but we have to create our menu diversely, that's the reason we change something in the menu every week.”
Whether it’s competition cooking or bistro service, Széll is clearly enjoying himself. But what about his customers? Have they followed him from the gilded portals of Onyx to the hustle and bustle of the market? According to the man himself, for the first time in the history of the market a reservation system had to be introduced to cope with demand.
“The weekend we opened people were waiting in lines for 40-50 minutes to get a table. So we wanted to make it more comfortable,” says Széll. “66% of the tables are filled by reservations, but the rest are for walk-in guests, because they are also very important to us.”
Budapest's Rising Fine Dining Scene
That the public reaction to Stand 25 has been overwhelmingly positive says much about the changing face of fine dining, but also about the fortunes of Budapest’s food scene in recent years. For too long it skulked in the doldrums, but now the city has five, Michelin-starred restaurants and an abundance of small eateries, bakeries and pastry shops – not to mention thriving food markets like Hold Utca.
Even Széll is surprised at his hometown’s transformation: “I have to be honest, if I look back to the past 10 years, nobody even imagined that today we would have all these pulsing, fresh and lively restaurants. From street food to fine dining, ruin bars, top restaurants and hotels – I don't say that we have reached the top, but we are on a good path.”