Louis Szathmary

July/August 1995

Food Arts presents the July/August 1995 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Louis Szathmary, chef, restaurateur, author, food historian, culinary archivist without equal, and crusader for elevating the professional status of chefs.

Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, has designated Szathmary "chef laureate"—a most fitting honorific for a chef who has devoted so much of himself to improving the status of his colleagues.

Chef Louis, as he is known throughout the industry, is perhaps most famous for his landmark Chicago restaurant, The Bakery, which he operated for close to 25 years until he "retired" in 1989. He is also widely admired for his role in persuading the Department of Labor to designate chefs as professionals rather than domestics. A large commemorative plague at the American Culinary Federation headquarters in St. Augustine, Florida, salutes Szathmary, Lewis J. Minor, and Lt. General John D. McLaughlin for their efforts, which culminated in this official reclassification in 1977. What has come to be known as "Chef Louis's Fellow Domestics" speech at the ACF convention in Cleveland in 1974 proved the spark that ignited the movement.

And it was Szathmary, in his role as manager of new product development for Armour and Company from 1959 to 1964, who designed flash-frozen meals for the homemaker and the first six frozen items for Stouffer's. The frozen spinach soufflé he devised for Stouffer's is still sold in supermarkets today. And it was Szathmary, the avid reader, who amassed such a vast collection of cookbooks and other food-related books that he ultimately donated 22,000 of them to the University of Iowa and another 30,000 to the Culinary Archive & Museum at Johnson & Wales, along with his staggering culinary collection of nearly 400,000 items including menus, graphic arts, postcards, culinary paraphernalia, and presidential papers relating to food, drink, and entertaining. Thanks to his generosity, the Culinary Archive & Museum is now dubbed The "Smithsonian of Foodservice." When Szathmary operated The Bakery, he kept 31 upstairs rooms filled with books. Today he estimates his home library has whittled down to about 8,000 volumes.

Chef Louis came from a "bookish" family. He arrived in this country from Hungary in 1951 with only $1.10 in his pocket, but he had 14 books in his suitcase, and he never stopped reading.

Chef Louis's life has been dramatic since the moment of his birth. He entered this world on a cattle car when his parents were escaping from Transylvania to Hungary. He credits his insomnia, which he says has allowed him only four hours sleep a night throughout all of his 77 years, for his Herculean accomplishments. "Thank God when I was born there was no shrink around, only a country doctor. He said, 'How lucky you are. You can do everything more than others.'" He received a doctorate in psychology from the University of Budapest and probably never would have thought of becoming a chef had it not been for the Hungarian army. "I had to write little booklets for the soldiers, like how to use the telephone or the two-way radio. When it came to how to use the field kitchen, I had no idea, so I asked to go to the cooking school," Szathmary explains. After the war, he decided to emigrate to the United States. "When I arrived here in 1951, I started to cook and decided that's what I wanted to do," he recalls.

Teaching, lecturing, and arranging exhibits now occupy most of Szathmary's time. And nothing, in fact, makes him happier than when former students come up to him and thank him or tell him that he literally changed their lives. "It is indeed something to be proud of," says Chef Louis, "if somebody can teach what he does well."