Two years ago, Kevin Szabó worked at the world's most prestigious cooking competition in Lyon under Tamás Széll, and now he teaches guests in the countryside what really good Hungarian food looks like
In January 2016, we fought as one person for the Hungarian team at the Bocuse d'Or final in Lyon, where chef Tamás Széll and chef Kevin Szabó competed as the first place winners of the European final held in Budapest. The pressure was huge on them, the whole country was paying attention to them, and not by chance, they finished in fourth place and won the award for the best meat dish. But what is going on in the minds of the contestants? How do they prepare for it? What is the biggest challenge in boxing? And what about after the race? We talked with Kevin Szabó about the preparation, the competition, fine dining and life after the competition, while he watched the Hungarian team, chef Ádám Pohner and commis Richárd Csillag, compete.
I don't think I've managed to process this until today, as I look at it now, the memories of what the race was like and what it was like to be in the pits come back.
The commis helps the chef, and in addition, he manages the commis commissa, that is, the fellow student who is drawn next to them on the spot. According to the rules of the competition, they can only be under 22 years of age. But how does someone fall into the world's best cooking competition at such a young age?
I entered Onyx with great difficulty as a student when Tamás Széll and Szabina Szulló were chefs there. I went to school in Győr, I was also an apprentice at La Maréda restaurant, and there the chef saw in me that I really wanted to do this. We went to several events, and at one of them I met Tamas and one of his assistants. Then we met again at the Buda Gourmet Festival. I gathered my courage, and my chef also helped me to find out if I could be an apprentice with them in my last year. We exchanged e-mail addresses, I wrote to him several times, but he did not reply. But I didn't give up, I wrote to all the e-mail addresses on the Onyx website, I also wrote one or two to Szabina, and then all of a sudden I got a reply saying "Okay, come in, let's talk". I went in, we talked, Szabina said, I'll get a week, I'll either succeed or not. In retrospect, I know that they had several students with them so that Tamás - who by that time had already guessed that he would like to enter the competition if time allowed - could choose the best helper. He never told me why he chose me, but once he asked if we would play bocce, and I said of course. Before that, I had a Bocuse d'Or replacement competition, which I luckily won, and then Tamas and I were already preparing for the Hungarian final.
How much can you prepare for this at school?
If I want to be brutally honest, I would say that I was really disliked at that school in Győr. It is certain that I did not behave as I should have either, but I felt that I did not receive the support, guidance and teaching from them that I imagined, so we parted ways. Then I had been a student at Onyx for some time, and I was working without a profession, when I transferred to the Gundel Károly Hospitality and Tourism Vocational School, which I completed in the evening section, and that's how I got my chef's certificate.
Okay, you've decided to go. How to proceed from here? What is the process until you figure out what the menu will be?
The competitions always have a theme, starting with the qualifiers. In other words, it is a mandatory element around which the rest can be built. The Hungarian final is one of the latest to know what the theme of the European final will be, so it is practically a preparation for the European competition as well. In addition, we immediately reached the Hungarian final with a green card, which goes to those who have already represented our country in the world competition. We didn't know what the theme was yet, but we already worked on the side dishes, practiced, learned new techniques, had punches made, acquired tools, foiled, and came up with the theme of what we want to raise awareness about Hungary.
Later we found out about meat and fish, which for us was a deer gun, which is the jointed spine and thigh, as well as the meat. When Onyx was on winter break, we visited and prepared in the same way. Tamás had specific drawings of the side dishes, we discussed them, I also added what I thought, and our menu came together nicely. We prepared for the Hungarian final as if we were going to the European final.
At the European final, the bowls were aesthetically very beautiful, obviously also at the world final. How do you figure this out? Does a designer help with it, or does it really only seem to lay people that it's very fiddly, and you can put it together little by little?
After we won the Hungarian final and knew that we were representing the country in the European competition, we were joined by an old Bocuse legend, Rasmus Kofoed, head chef and owner of the three-Michelin-starred Geranium. He ran for her three times and brought silver, bronze and gold medals from Bocuse. He agreed to help us train. We also went to his restaurant, and he also came to our Bocuse d'Or Academy. We also had very good designers working with us, so we created as a team how the food should look. You have to imagine this in the way that we brought leaves from the forest, dried a hen's leg from Bresse, blew it onto silver, and put it on top of the bowl. Or we figured out how to make the dish smoke, as if the deer were really grilled. I brought hookah charcoal for this, and we lit it, so the whole team really did everything.
This is practically training, how can you imagine a cooking training?
We went six days a week and prepared according to the competition regulations. On the first day, for example, we prepared everything in the box as if we were already in Lyon, packed. We put each machine where it suits us, as close as possible, so you don't have to hold it twice. We prepared for how to pack the dishes, what the work processes are, and in what order what dishes are needed. I knew that if a process required scissors, a piece of paper, a coil and a box, then I prepared it nicely at the same time, so that precious seconds would not be wasted on such things, but rather we could deal more with the food.
We have gone over the competition rules a thousand times, very carefully, what is allowed and what is not. For example, cut vegetables could not be taken, but washed and cleaned ones were allowed, we also prepared these. That was Monday's assignment. On Tuesday, we entered the pits, Frici (Frigyes Vomberg, member of the Hungarian team's preparatory coach - ed.) started the stopwatch, and we had 5 hours and 35 minutes to complete it, exactly as in the race. And then, just like in the competition, we didn't go out for coffee, we didn't run to the bathroom, but we worked strictly.
We're in it, we're doing it. Then it seems that it can be put together quickly, but then we look at each other and everyone realizes that this was a very serious process.
The 5 hours and 35 minutes they were allowed to cook doesn't seem like much, especially if you look at the plates or the bowl. In the final, you finished 14 seconds before the end of time. What is it like to experience this from the inside?
The pressure, the adrenaline, the music around you, the noise, the cameras, the shouting are all things that you have to exclude. You actually have 5 hours, or even less, because in those 5 hours you have to prepare everything, pack it up and send the first plates. After that, we had 35 minutes to change over, put away everything we don't use, and then build the bowl. It was necessary to fit the final touches, a little more browning of the meat, a little smokiness, put it on the plate quickly, and the 35 minutes have already passed.
You had to pay attention in both directions, since in addition to working under Tamás, you also supervised the work of the other helper.
There they drew a student in Lyon and at the European finals, I had to pay attention to him too, he had to work under our supervision, but at the same time I had to do my own task. This should be imagined in the way that we have exactly who is calculated for every second. I know that Tamás has to hand over the chopped truffle at exactly 5 minutes and 5 seconds, for example, this had to be monitored so that it doesn't slip. But fortunately, it wasn't like that, because I drove the commis a lot, but I had to pay attention to whether there was anything to wash, and whether it was necessary to quickly set it back to wash a little, or if something dripped, to wipe the counter quickly. In the meantime, I also watched Tamas, where he was holding, what he needed under his hand, but in the meantime I produced side dishes by myself from start to finish, in a funny way, by the way, he worked under my hand and boiled something for me.
Besides the flavors, what else should you pay attention to?
For everything. They are very strict and look at everything. How much raw material you throw away, how quickly you pick up the pieces that fall, whether you collect the garbage selectively, whether you throw it away in the right place. Everything had to be the most beautiful, the most precise, everything had to be wiped down beautifully, there couldn't be a single crumb or tiny s alt crystal on the counter, because they were also watching. There are a lot of juries, they look at a lot of things and they are very strict. You need to pay attention to things like whether the stove is properly wiped down, or whether there is a water drop stain on the back of the faucet. They check how clean the dishes are, whether our hats are on properly, whether the sleeve of my coat is hanging in the food.
At the world competition, one country was watching you, many people were also looking at your chances. How much pressure did that put you on?
After we managed to win the European final, a much heavier chain was placed around our necks, but I think we managed to cope with it, and we really achieved a good position, as Hungary appeared in the final for the third time. I think that the fact that we achieved a podium position, that we had the best meat dish, is a fantastic result. Of course, there was a lot of pressure, but we didn't want to satisfy anyone, only ourselves and each other within the team. And it succeeded. He was a geek in Lyon. If you look at the meat bowl, there is a small silver bowl in the shape of a soap dish on both sides, which is also covered.
You have to know that the bowl will be taken away, shown to the jury, photographed, brought back, we have to take it apart on a plate, then taste it, but the elements must still be warm. In other words, everything was scalding hot, including the serving elements. But if it's too hot, it dries out, runs off, melts, so we had to pay attention to that too, i.e. everything had to be put on the plate at the very last moment, the freshest, the hottest. One had chicory chips spread like a leaf, the other was a pacifier with puree that could be pressed onto the plate. They didn't let us put this on, they said that if we had spooned it on the plate, it could have stayed. I asked if I could press it in quickly and put it with a spoon, but they wouldn't let me.
How much of a nightmare was the judging for you?
The jury is divided into two parts, not everyone tastes everything, one part tastes the bowl, the other part tastes the plates. The human factor comes into play here as well. Some people don't like us, some people are full, and that's why maybe he'll taste only one of the beautiful plate on which we put forty items, and then he'll say thank you, I'll only score this one. Each element had to be such a flavor bomb that you say, "Wow, this is so good, I'll just try the rest." Despite this, there was a jury that only tasted the potatoes and scored them. After that, they take the plates behind the stage, where the students rush to them, the rest goes in the trash, whether it's the food of any team.
Can you keep an eye on what other teams are doing? Maybe you got a bite before it went in the trash?
What we do is calculated so precisely to the second that we can't pay attention to other competitors. On the first day of the two-day competition, we cooked, and the next day we also went out, but we were so tired that we just looked around to see who was using what tools and how well they were working. We only saw who made what on the internet. We couldn't taste anything, let's say, a few jury members couldn't properly admire the bowl of the winning American team, because we saw that the side dishes fell off it.
Also, you were also banned from using the grill…
We were told that we couldn't bring a grill, despite this, the French used it, and no one deducted points for it. It wasn't fair because I know how much we fought, how much work we put into all of this. We gave out the plates and the bowl flawlessly. We still don't know why they didn't allow that puree on the plate. Otherwise, we performed perfectly, no points were deducted from others when side dishes fell off the plate, if they ran out of time or if they used a grill when we couldn't. In the end, the best and worst results are eliminated so that it is not possible to directly score someone up or down, but it was bad to see if the jury's scores were influenced by sympathy.
Right after your cooking, you said that the hardest thing was to endure without a toilet.
Fric and I used to have a race to see who could get to the bathroom first. It was also important to eat during the 5 hours and 35 minutes, since you are still under so much pressure that you have to concentrate. We also ate chocolate to raise our blood sugar levels. In the meantime, we sweated and worked, and although we don't run in a kitchen, we work very quickly. I think I drank at least two liters of water during the competition, although before that I had a problem with the fact that I often opened my water during the preparation only when the plates were sent, that is, in the fifth hour. That's why during the competition they ordered and forced me to drink, so I wasn't kidding, it was really hard for me to endure without a toilet.
How much has your life changed after the competition?
I stayed with Tamás and together we started the Stand at the Hold street market, I didn't have time to think much, I went into the kitchen and continued my profession. At the competition, we also insisted on showing what good Hungarian food is like, and it was also reflected in our side dishes, for example we had cucumber salad. We all love Hungarian cuisine, it could be a little more refined, but we also thought it important that if you try a goulash, for example, it should always be of the same quality, always made from good ingredients, and you could say, yes, this is the real goulash soup.
Didn't the world of fine dining attract you after the competition?
Of course I was attracted, but to be honest, I got a little tired of it. At the same time, I'm still young, I don't allow myself to break away from anything or sit back. In today's world, if someone leans back, they don't even notice, ten people have already passed by. Fine dining never really appealed to me, rather finding high-quality food and good ingredients was a challenge, and there were indeed many invitations to go abroad to several Michelin-starred restaurants, but in the end I chose Tamásék. Then we have been working together for five years now, it is impossible to say and describe these five years, but I felt it was time for a change.
You are now a chef at Bori Mami Restaurant in Gyöngyös, you have also put together a new menu, how is life in the countryside?
I'm not saying it's quiet, it's a bit quieter than Pest, but there's plenty of work here, there are events, and many people come to us from Budapest as well. Here you get to know the ingredients better, I can go to the producers, I can tell you exactly what I need, which is not so easy in Budapest. The basic concept was that I would not turn the restaurant into fine dining, but rather into a rustic gourmet place, I would use my knowledge to bring a clean, bistro line.
I've only been here for three months, but I teach the guests that this line does not mean deep-fried meat and not the average broth. Obviously, these dishes can also come, as long as they are above average. We explain to them that of course we can make it gluten-free or lactose-free, only then will it contain this and that. We are talking about the side dishes, so that the waiter is not asked for onion crumbles, but why do we add something else on the side. I think there are buyers for this, and in the future the goal is to focus more on this on the menu, to bring Mátra even more to the fore, and the plan is to have a small menu of 4-6 courses.
Then let's talk about this year's competition, where Tamás Széll joined the jury on the first day due to the illness of Zoltán Hamvas. How fast can this be done?
Tomi is routine, it doesn't cause him a big problem. We were still talking about the judging, and from that I know that for him this also means that he receives the food, he immediately checks whether the food is hot, the plate, how it smells, how it is served, and whether everything is fresh on it, then the tasting. He does it by tasting what he likes the most and goes around whatever happens to be next to him. I think he can tell with a confident sense of taste what tastes good and what doesn't. It's sure to be a tough jury.
What do you think about Ádám Pohner's menu?
I really support them, I know where they started with Ricsi, where they have developed, but I also know what it is like to meet this difficult task, so I support them from the bottom of my heart, I hope they achieve the best possible result.
Do you think you'll return to the Bocuse d'Or as a chef?
It would be very, very honorable, yes, but a lot depends on both the management and the team, which can be left in the kitchen and just focus on the competition. The question is, do you have the help or framework to get yourself the best ingredients that will actually be there? It doesn't matter whether we work with mirelite or with completely fresh ingredients. It doesn't matter whether we find a student who is suitable for this and we can work together, we can help each other, so it depends on a lot of things, but it might be good to start in the future. I learned a lot from the people who surrounded me every day at the Bocuse d'Or Academy, I met a lot of good professionals, including cooks, chefs, and designers.