Interview with Szilard Toth, the chef of INNIO
Interview with Szilard Toth, the chef of INNIO on the fair kitchen, the hungarian situation, humbleness , about the common things with INNIO, veganism, aims, stars and joy of cooking. And on why does it worth being a cook.
INNIO was starting as a bar. With time it became a wine bar, then a restaurant. By now INNIO is a fine dining restaurant. GM 15 point. 2 hats. (2017) Scandinavian influence. Future plan. Trust. Educatational intention.
Szilard Toth. Chef. Husband. Father. The brain that dreams the food to the plate. The hand that puts it there.
– The main purpose of this interview is to let the guests meet You and your team, since You are not in the „floor”, but in the kitchen – hided. When You started at INNIO 2 years ago, You were still on the „cold zone”, slicing the mangalica ham, and with the greatest energy learning, working, even working gratis. How did You manage to become the chef of INNIO only in two years?
– Well, it took a lot of luck. (he is laughing) Csabi Sajben(who was a sous-chef that time, and with whom we are still best friends) – he gave his word for me in this kitchen. It was not an easy period for me – that is for sure – but what I liked in INNIO even in the first second is the „agent de provocateur” kind of outlook, the punk vibrations, and it goes so much with my personality. (he is laughing again. Dalma! – he asks for a coffee, he will drink some during the interview, since it is a hard day in the kitchen.) It feels like a relationship: we are shaping each other : me and INNIO. And it goes back and forth. Radical changes never happened, just small compromises, that have made both of us very blissful long term. My heritage when Attila Kurucz left (the former chef of INNIO – chef of Tiszavirag, Szeged now) was already a well-built kingdom, I just have to skive it to perfection. I am never fully satisfied, I always find tiny defaults on my dishes. I am terrified from the day when I do not find that little bloomer, because then I have to quit. There is no path beyond that point.
– Do You have freedom in creating the menu? If – for example – one night You dream about a special kind of terrine, is it possible to put it on the menu the day after?
– I have absolute freedom in the kitchen, I can do whatever I would like to. In the history of INNIO maybe it happened only two times, that Zoltan Benko (the owner) told us off lightly: Let’s try it differently! Maybe it is not the best way to do that! Sometimes there are tiny moments, when I wish if only there were some rules to follow, but that moment goes after a second, and I cannot believe again how lucky I am for all the trust, and belief in me.
– What is your favourite dish on the menu nowadays?
– In this moment my favourite is mackerel. It is a starter in the a la carte, and I believe this is the most complex dish: based on how it looks and taste.
– Is there any food, that even if they put a gun to your head – it would be impossible to be on the menu?
– There is no such thing, whatever comes, has a chance to be on the menu. Everything have interesting sides, dimensions, it is up to me, if I am able to light it or no. It is possible to make miracles out of such a simple thing as potato. If You know Heston Blumenthal’s fries, You would understand. This is a genious thing to do.
Hungary is quite a water-headed country, nearly 20% of the population lives in the capital. You are originally from the countryside, do You still get a lot of inspiration from your roots?
I am coming from a very poor family, every food has its place, there was not any waste. Since my parents were working all the time, I realized that if I wanted to eat, then I have to be cretive, and I kind of developed a telent for it. And I felt successful, and I liked to do that.
I studied in Vasarosnamény to be a cook, in the East of Hungary. I knew instantly this my future, nothing else.
And the point that changed everything was around that time, I was 19, and my first salary was 50.000 HUF. When I first saw it, I became furious. This is the amount they valued my effort, I felt so angry, so the next day I was on the train already. I packed everything I had into a backpack, and moved to Budapest. Here everything started over again, I was a petit ecolier for a long time. I was working till 2 am and after I had to stay to prepare the beefsteak for an event the following day. I went home, had a shower, afterwards came back to work. I turned myself to a sous-chef, but at that place I couldn’t evolve anymore. When the time came to develop myself, they did not support me, so I quit. I started to work for high-quality places, even for free, because I just really wanted to learn. I had some money saved, and who-are-you-related-to unfortunately in Hungary it is still a very strong tradition. It was Gyorgy Rethling (owner of BORS soup bar), who put his trust into me – withour even knowing me – and the doors started open up in INNIO. Attila Kurucz ( the former chef, now chef of Tiszavirág, Szeged) was my boss, and I learned a lot from him. Csaba Sajben (former sous-chef) is still a very good friend of mine, and it was such a warm place for me after the terrible learning years. Everybody helped me, teached me. You can feel that if a chef is a good man, he likes to work with similar people as well. They didn’t keep secrets from me, and shared every knowledge they had. I try to give this attitude to my team every day, and pass on the spirit, what I was lucky to get. It is not me alone in the kitchen, I am part of an awesome team.
– When Tamás Széll was competing on Bocuse D’Or, You went to cheer him personally. The rest of Hungary crossed the fingers here. It is incredible what the Hungarian team accomplished. But what did we really accomplish? Where is our place with our 4, starred restaurant, and what is much more important where are we heading to?
– In the field of the Hungarian gastronomy there are positive signs, but there is awfully few real supporter of the development. The carriege is too heavy and only a few people carry it. And there are characters, who are pulling the carriege backwards and not leting it go forward. „Hungary is the only country in the world, where there are left and right wings even in the field of gastronomy.” Maximal amount of disagreement, minimal amount of agreement. The majority of the cooks in Hungary choose the easy way, instead of the right, however a rocky one. Regarding the preparation, ingredients – the quality does not matter, rather the price and the quantity. But You know, it is the fault of the market as well. As far as I see – and this is hopeful – there are more guests, who share the same mindset about the fair kitchen we are representing.
People are shocked about a bresse or perigold chicken fried, is possible to eat for 4.000 at us, and some other dimension restaurant 2,500 HUF. But what they don’t realise is that, where they are „dishonest” they buy low quality chicken for 500-900 HUF, and sell it for 2500 HUF, while we are buying it for 3000 HUF per kg, and sell it for 4000 HUF. Quality, good food, more expensive, but with a smaller merge. On one hand there is the profit orientation, and ont he other hand there is the customer focused, professional attitude. This is what we stand for. This has to come from the top as well, since Zoltan Benko (owner) trusts me, trusts us. It is a great luck, he never questions me, he treats me as a partner. This is a great sacrifice from an owner, he agrees with me: we are not doing it for the profit, but for the educational purpose. We would like to show the restaurant culture, that really matters for our guests. All of our food is fresh, we do not serve reheated chicken, but dishes possible for human consumption. In the countryside the situation is catastrophic.
– Isn’t it possible that the hungarian wallet is to blame, and not the attitude of the people?
– I do not agree with that, I think we don’t need bresse chicken to maintain a fair kitchen. You can use local ingredients, frozen food is more expensive in a lot of cases, so it is not a matter of money. I believe in the fair kitchen is not a question of money. But a question of education.
– What is the connection between You and INNIO? What are the aims? For You personally and for INNIO as well?
– At INNIO wines are just as important as the kitchen itself, this is very important to know, as this is the message of the place. To take a fair place in the Hungarian gastronomy. To represent values, that are focusing on quality and honesty. We are starting to be present, but we are far away from a leading role. This is our aim. This is the common purpose, the purpose of me and INNIO. The biggest fuel we both have the wish to show who we are and that we are worthy. The final dream? Big family house in the countryside, children, Hungary. I am sure, that if somebody wants it very much, he is going to achieve. In Hungary You have to work six times more, but it is not impossible. There are stations, but the destination is clear. Carreer-wise I will push myself to the limits, until I am able to. I am not going to set for material things, I see stars while I am dreaming, but i believe in the flow, if something has to come it will come naturally, You mustn’t push it. These are things that are independent from me, I dont want to be depending from them. So I should be afraid every minute they are going to take it away from me, this is human nature. It would be a huge honour, but does not determine me. If a guest is happy after his meal, I am just as happy. These are the reasons behind I am doing this. Both of them are feedbacks of the market, and both of them are important. I promise one thing though if one day I will get the Michelin star, I would go McDonald’s to work a week for free. ( he is laughing)
– Whenever You have some time You are watching series of famous chefs, restaurants and reading books about them. You are educating yourself without any kind of pause, You are working free for Michelin-star places. You are reckless when it comes to seek new flavours, new compositions, not long time ago You have been to NOMA. But You have also visited Geranium, and Dill. Who are your biggest figures to follow? Who would be the person, who You would like to have a conversation over a dinner?
– This might be a very weird thing of me, but I cannot tell one person. I want them all! I am very greedy. I would put them in one line, and each and every one of them i would like to ask questions, listen to them, I would like to learn from all of them. What are their opinions about the newest technologies, and how they think, their point of views what are their methods, their taste, their pairings, their attitude. This is a much more interesting experience for me than to eat there as a guest. Because at the end of the day the path is what really matters, not the finish.
My favourite cuisine is the scandinavian one. Partly because it is organic, and also because if You take all the frippery away, it would be very close to the old Hungarian one. They are building up from the basic things, like youghurts, and fermentiation. These could be our oppinions as well, but they represent it in a much more sophisticated way. It is one of my sweetest memory when we went to seek for mushrooms to the forest with my grandmother, and we prepared them after ourselves. I like to fish as well. For me nature is the most inspiring form of ideas. Ingenuity, natural ways, simple shades. These are the values I respect.
What is your oppinion about the trendy waves? I know that I have annoyed you a lot of times with my everything-free ciusine. The most of your cuisine is meat-based, and I do not really feel your fondness for alternative diets.
There is nothing new under the sun. We are always going back to the habbits of the old times: some kind of fundamentalism. And we are always surprised: Wow! That is good! That will work! This is healthy! These are put on a dog and a pony show. Just the bio label itself is not a guarantee for the healthyness. Eating just one-sidedly won’t be good for You. Vegetariasm with wide knowledge on nutrition can work out, but only if You are really educated on all the need of your body. Eating is everybodys private/own business, but healthiness has to come first. Ingredients coming from the animals are part of the healthy diet as well. I am not focusing on the market, whatever comes as an idea, I try to form it into action. Either if it is a cabbage or a beefheart. But when I feel forced I am not comfortable – that is for sure.
– Thank You for the interview so much Szilard! I really would like to ask for a mackerel if I would not be vegetarian.