Welcome back to Eater in the Embassy, where we ask ambassadors, diplomats and the chefs behind DC's diplomatic receptions and events about their native cuisine, working in an embassy kitchen and their favorite places to eat around the city. In this latest edition: Embassy of Hungary Resident Chef Viktor Merényi.[Photos: Missy Frederick/Eater.com]
It's no surprise that Hungary's embassy chef, Viktor Merényi, makes a mean goulash (or gulyas, in his own native tongue). But it was mastery of one particular ingredient — beets — that helped bring the chef into the spotlight last year, and he's enjoyed increased visibility ever since. Beets were among the "secret ingredients" in last year's Embassy Chef Challenge, which Merényi won last year. He helped judge this year and handed over his title last night to New Zealand's Nathan Bates at this year's competition. But for the past year, he's enjoyed an increased interest in his cooking as a result of the victory, one that Merényi says he prizes more than any other culinary honor he's received in his career.
Head to WAMU.org to catch Metro Connection's Rebecca Sheir's interview with Merényi (it will air during today's 1 p.m. show), and read on to hear about Hungary's native foods and how Merényi brings a contemporary twist to their preparation.
"There's a lot of pressure; people want to know, 'Why did this guy win?," said Merényi, cooking in his embassy's kitchen Monday. After his victory at the annual competition, both a battle for bragging rights and a fundraiser for Cultural Tourism DC, the embassy decided to install a new, live cooking show of sorts called "Culinary Corner," where nine guests get the chance to dine in the embassy's private kitchen and enjoy four courses with wine pairings. Merényi explains the technique behind his dishes, and even gets the guests to help out with the cooking.
"The atmosphere is totally different than in the private dining room," he said. "People cooking together, having a dinner together; it's beautiful. I can do it all day." On one particular day, he got the chance to cook for one of his culinary idols — Hungarian chef Janos Kiss, now a corporate chef for Hyatt.
Merényi has been cooking in high-end hotels and fancy restaurants in both Hungary and Ireland since he was 15. He took on his current position four years ago. Sometimes he misses the camaraderie of a big kitchen. "But I like being here; they give me huge freedom to play with the menu," he said.
Merényi's approach is to take traditional Hungarian dishes and give them a modern twist that shows off his culinary training and creativity. When making gulyas, traditionally a heavy beef stew, he instead makes a broth that is a clear consommé, and decorates it with individual, rounded seasonal vegetables for a delicate presentation. "The guest eats first with the eyes," he says.
Merényi's favorite way of cooking: "smoking meat, cooking over a fire," isn't one that he employs frequently during his job. Part of his responsibilities as embassy chef is to cook for the Hungarian ambassador, György Szapáry, fish usually ends up being on the menu. "If it's a three or four course dinner, one of them is usually fish," he said. The ambassador is partial to a pan-fried fish with a paprika sauce. He also enjoys a veal liver dish prepared by Merényi, prepared in the traditional sauce lecsó.
Hungarian pancakes, palacsinta, are a dish that many people associate with the country. The very thin pancakes are crepe-like in texture. "They're difficult to make; you have to practice," said the chef, who can manage making two at once — he's seen vendors in his native country master eight pancake pans at once while preparing the dish. The dish can be served savory, simple or sweet. One popular dessert approach has a walnut sauce and is served on fire. Monday, Merényi serves them with a sour cherry confit and a touch of powdered sugar on top.
The chef often runs into misconceptions about Hungarian cuisine during his duties. Many people don't realize that the country has four seasons, so therefore often relies on seasonal ingredients in its preparations, he said. Different regions of the country have different culinary traditions. People do know Hungary for its dumplings and its stews such as paprikash. Its streudel pastries are also well-known; Merényi approaches the dish by following his grandmother's recipe. People assume the cuisine is fatty, spicy and features lots of pork.
When it comes to enjoying dishes from his native land, D.C. doesn't really provide a lot of options for the chef. "You can't find Hungarian dishes here," he said. He'll occasionally see a European restaurant attempt a particular dish, but it's never quite traditional he said. It's not surprising. Only a few thousand Hungarians live in D.C., though there are 1.5 million in the U.S., many concentrated in Chicago and Cleveland. Preparation for a big event at the embassy usually means stopping at four or five different grocery additions to assemble the meal he wants to create.
Hungarian cuisine will be thrust into the spotlight later this summer; the country is one of those featured in the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. During that time, Merényi will showcase dishes such as Hungarian sausages and cold cuts, and the Transylvanian and Jewish influences on the country's cuisine. He'll prepare his own take on Hungarian Chicken Paprika (csirke paprikás ). The dish is usually prepared with meat on the bone — he'll grill the chicken, take off the skin, and top it with paprika sauce for a more refined presentation. The embassy receives a new shipment of the prized Hungarian paprika each year; it's an even deeper red than one might find in an average grocery store, and has a rich, assertive smell.
Hungary has its own drinking culture as well. Palinka, a fruit-based spirit,
is a national beverage of sorts. It can be found in about 20 different fruit flavors, from plum to peach; Hungarians found themselves with an easy inside joke when Barack Obama was first elected president, as barack palinka is an apricot flavored version of the drink. The country also has a varied wine culture, with wines hailing from 19 different regions; the country has grapes less familiar to American audiences, like Hárslevel? ,and also excels with some more familiar ones such as merlot. In the summer, Merényi favors a simple beverage — white wine mixed with soda water. It's "better than lemonade," he claims.
· Eating In The Embassy: Getting Hungry For Hungarian Food [WAMU]
· All Previous Editions of Eater in the Embassy [-EDC-]