George Lang

September 1994

Food Arts present the September 1994 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to George Lang, intercontinental restaurateur/entrepreneur/consultant/author/lecturer/columnist. Capping (at least for present) a coiled and illustrious career, his loving resurrection of Gundel's, a bedraggled Budapest dining landmark, has become for the world media a vibrant symbol of Hungary's reclaimed soul and plucky reentry into the global free market.

Mythologists chart the classic hero's life as a circular journey; a hero must set out into the unknown, must suffer, rejoice, vault obstacles, then finally, gathering together all he has learned, return home to tell of his experiences and, like Candide, make his garden grow. Lang certainly fills the bill. "Looking back," he reflects in his melodic Magyar purr, "my life has been made up of scores of completed and uncompleted circles."

His has been a life impossible to compress into a nutshell. Born in a small Hungarian town in 1924 into a family doomed to be decimated by the Nazis, he studied hard, learned to play the violin well, somehow survived the war, "escaped to Austria under rather spectacular circumstances in 1946," studied at the Mozarteum, and shortly thereafter received a refugee visa to America. In New York he took whatever work he could find, as lowest waiter on the totem pole at Reuben's cranky all-hours restaurant, as door-to-door Encyclopedia Brittanica salesman, as page turner for accompanists at Carnegie Hall, but with dreams of self-betterment never dimmed.

The circles of Lang's life began to arc. In Manhattan he managed to audition for a legendary music teacher named Madame Fronoroff, then past 70, whose husband had played in Russia with Tchaikovsky and who had worked with Heifetz and other greats. This would eventually lead to his winning a Tanglewood fellowship. "I was extremely thin and very, very hungry. She said 'you obviously need some food,' and afterward took me downstairs and bought me cake and coffee. The building was the Hotel des Artistes, and we ate in the Café." In 1975, Lang, by then an internationally recognized restaurant consultant, took over the operations of the Café des Artistes, restored it with artistic flair and historical integrity, and made it one of the city's must-see tourist magnets. Today, he continues to own it with his talented third wife Jenifer, mother of his two youngest children (aged seven and almost two), herself an accomplished restaurateur/chef/author/editor and hands-on director of the enormously profitable Café's daily operations.

In his teens, Lang's parents had taken him on annual pilgrimages to Gundel's in Budapest, widely considered the elegant ultimate in Central European dining. "The last time we were there together must have been in '39 or '40. It was always a very big deal. Nearby sat another family with a very pretty young daughter. I thought to myself if only I could have a girlfriend like that and be recognized when I brought her to such a splendid place!" Half a century later he became the co-owner of Gundel's with Ronald Lauder, the American financier and ex-ambassador to Austria. And on the ninth of this month, he is mounting a brilliant celebratory ball to mark Gundel's centennial year, complete with opera diva Eva Marton letting loose with a gypsy song accompanied by a colorfully costumed 25-piece orchestra. "To tell the truth," Lang confides, "I'm doing it all for my wonderful Jenifer, to give her a sense of what Hungarian life could be before the war and communism."

"The communists," he remarks, "surgically removed everybody's backbone, both physically and psychologically. I wanted to replace it. But it takes time. To recharge the old staff's batteries boiled down to two things—having a realistic plan of action and coming up with continual stimulation to keep them moving on an upward course. We ad to devise dozens of methods. As far as rewards or threats are concerned, you can only use the last one once, so I don't believe in it. We created a school, which they had to attend every morning from 8 a.m., to learn everything they needed to know to make a restaurant a success, including languages. We awarded prizes—trips to restaurants, trips to Vienna, signed books—to show we appreciated them and to show the more they learn the more they'll make." A constantly packed house and universal acclaim have been the triumphant results.

Lang now also co-owns Hungary's Royal Tokaj Vineyard and Bagolyvár (see FRONT BURNER); home is the hero and, to put it mildly, he's making the garden grow. Elsewhere, other life circles have already closed, i.e. invitations to compose entries for Brittanica and onto the board of Carnegie Hall. His secret of success? "I sit on the forward button of life," he shrugs. "Life must be spent and not saved!"