Eszter Palágyi, born to cook
She knew how to peel potatoes before she could crawl. When she was little, she would spend every hour of the day in the kitchen. At school, she missed the holidays when she would help her father cook dough-covered pig’s trotters or ham sausages. Those were truly magical days! She always knew she would become a chef. And, also, that she would have to travel a lot to make her dream come true. So, just like all young, European chefs, she went from stint to stint at some of the most prestigious kitchens in the trade.
She learned the secrets to the most exquisite cuisine at Joël Robuchon’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant; surrendered herself to the local ingredients at Steirereck in Austria, and to the sophisticated, urban cuisine of a private club in London. In 2015, Eszter took over Costes, the first Hungarian restaurant to receive a Michelin star, and which also boasts three Gault Millau toques. Serious Hungarian gourmets are now impatiently waiting for a second Michelin star to be awarded, and one which this cook has deserved for some time.
What I most like about Eszter Palágyi’s work is her playful spirit. Anyone familiar with Hungarian cuisine immediately recognizes references to flavours and forms of childhood in almost every one of its dishes. Hungarian fish soup traditionally contains noodles known as ‘matches’, and in Eszter’s version they really do look like matches.
Her tomato soup is served with alphabet spaghetti, exactly like those of our school dinners. She uses high-quality, truly Hungarian ingredients in surprising flavour and texture combinations. When I want to treat my foreign journalist colleagues to the wonderful flavours of Mangalica pork, trout, winter truffles, Balaton Lake’s pike perch, wild pigeon, or venison, I always take them to Eszter’s restaurant.
Women are playing a big role at Madrid Fusión this year. In Hungary we are proud that a first Michelin star has been awarded to another woman, Szabina Szulló; the same pride we feel for our other renowned female chef, Eszter Palágyi.
Needless to say, Eszter, as well as being a chef, is the boss, and a tough one at that. When I had the chance to visit the kitchen at Costes, I saw the respect the staff have for her, the way she knows how to maintain order and discipline, and how to run a well-oiled hierarchy. This chef speaks English to her staff, and there is absolutely no doubt about who is the boss. Surprising boldness in such a petite, elegant person.
By Orsolya Madary
Editor of the magazine Magyar Konyha