The Hungarian chef who let the Asians cook
He has grown Hungarian peppers in Thailand, petted dragons in Komodo and swam with David Beckham in Singapore. He was planning to incorporate elements of European cooking into Asian cuisine, but in the end he combined Asian with Hungarian. In addition to his high level of technical knowledge, experience and creativity, Chef Dániel Varga's aim is to surprise, a goal he undertakes with honesty and courage. Maybe that's why he is loved throughout Hungary.
The Hungarian chef who let the Asians cook
Culture and Innovation

The Hungarian chef who let the Asians cook

Photo: Róbert Hegedüs
Tamás Velkei 27/11/2023 08:00

He has grown Hungarian peppers in Thailand, petted dragons in Komodo and swam with David Beckham in Singapore. He was planning to incorporate elements of European cooking into Asian cuisine, but in the end he combined Asian with Hungarian. In addition to his high level of technical knowledge, experience and creativity, Chef Dániel Varga's aim is to surprise, a goal he undertakes with honesty and courage. Maybe that's why he is loved throughout Hungary.

How did your career start?

– As I was interested in the world of cuisine, my mother enrolled me in the Taverna Vocational School of Hospitality and Tourism. There, I was able to experience the French teaching method, with two weeks of practice and two weeks of teaching in rotation. Unfortunately, I dropped out of school on account of my many absences, and worked first as an assistant to a bricklayer and then in restaurants. I even spent summers in the kitchen. I ended up finishing my studies at another school while working throughout.

Where did you learn the most from chefs? 

– I learnt the basic dishes from my grandmother as a child. When I deepened my understanding of the profession, I learned a lot from Zoltan Feke (now owner of Petrus – ed.) at the Király restaurant in Buda Castle. Later there was an Italian restaurant, Rustico, in Váci utca, run by two Italian chefs who also taught me a lot. We quickly became friends and they took me under their wing. I worked under them for a long time. Most of the time I went home extremely tired, but the pasta recipe I learned from Luca Mottarlini I still use to this day. The knowledge they gave me is priceless, invaluable.

So you don't just like Asian food?

- This misconception has somehow stuck with me, even though it’s not true. I like Italian cuisine as much as I like Thai. I lived in Thailand for five years, so maybe that's the reason for the stigma.

I suppose you don't mind so much; it's essentially become your trademark. How did you end up in Asia?

– Luca often cooked as a private chef at the Uhu Villa. On one occasion, he couldn't make it and asked me if I could step in. I was happy to comply, and in the end they kept calling for me specifically. The hotel’s manager once asked me to advise him on a kitchen technology matter. It turned out he was opening a restaurant in Thailand, on the island of Koh Samui, and he’d chosen me to run it. 

Everyone would say yes to such a request without hesitation.

– I procrastinated for a long time, not knowing exactly what to expect, but after much thought I said yes.

What was your job there?

– I had to create the image and identity of a restaurant in a five-star hotel. I was given everything I needed, and we built the kitchen together from the ground up. We couldn't even open for a year, we didn't have the flow. It took half a year just to find a croissant recipe of suitable quality. However, a year after opening, the hotel is already in the top twenty, which is no small feat given that there are thousands of hotels in Thailand. 

Photo: Róbert Hegedüs

What has made your life most difficult?

– At first the climate was a problem, but after a few months my body adapted to the increased humidity, the salty climate and the heat. I often experienced reflux because most Thai food is spicy. But in six months I got used to everything.

Did you miss the ingredients you got used to in Hungary?

– There were times when I attempted to grow Hungarian peppers. I brought seeds from home, the first crop was good, even the second one. I then used the seeds from the second crop, but the pepper planted from that didn't make it, it couldn't take the climate and the soil.

What was your goal with the pepper?

– I wanted to bring a European flavour to the recipes I was using there, but after six months I realised I had to let go of that plan. There is no point in using European rosemary if they have spices locally.

– Speaking of rosemary, what scents have you encountered?

– That’s something I had to get used to, that's a fact. What is natural for a local might be unpleasant for a European. Households there use some ingredients that we might not because of the smell.

– Can you give an example?

– For instance, fermented crab guts are used to achieve the umami flavour. There is a market on the island, which we Hungarians called the stinky market because you could smell the fish from miles away. These conditions, which may seem unpleasant at first, we got used to over time. I loved the textures, they prepare everything fresh there, vegetables, fruit, fish. What they buy, they use the same day. The colours of the foods are wonderful, and almost every meal is accompanied by some greens, such as Thai basil – one of the reasons why Thai people’s teeth are so beautiful. They eat a lot of vegetables and fish – maybe that's why, but you hardly ever see people with glasses.

– To what extent is religion and tradition present in Thai food culture?

– Extremely present. The country has several Buddha Days a year, on which no alcohol is consumed. They also feed the spirits: the so-called spirit houses have small windows where food is placed for the spirits. Family is important to them, and they have restaurants where they collect phones before meals so that everyone in the family can focus on each other.

Are feasts a typical event?

– Not really, instead they eat little but frequently. This custom is served by the many vendors preparing food on the street, with one selling peeled pineapples, another grilled squid, another chicken. Essentially, you can eat something every hundred metres, relatively cheaply.

Were there any customs that surprised you when it comes to Thai cuisine?

– Managing leftovers. For example, the soup from the previous day is often reused the next day if they don't feel like dealing with it at the end of the day. But it was this strange habit that led to my conscious recycling of what I call the master or primordial soup. Another custom that may seem strange is that when locals eat a fruit, they throw the peel back into the wild. When I asked them why they were taking the leftovers to the jungle, they said: what they throw away, they find again. And indeed, compost and seeds both turned out to be very useful – we had our own papaya tree, for example, as well as melons. I also admired the way they see through situations and terrain that seem chaotic to us. The sky train – a state-of-the-art piece of technology – is truly special, as is the world of tuk-tuks and vendors below. I was amazed by the honesty of the people, lying is practically an unknown concept to them. We should learn this from them.

Have you only been to Thailand?

– I agreed with the owners that I would go away every three months for 10 days to relax. I used this opportunity to travel all over Southeast Asia, from Papua New Guinea to Indonesia. If we were in a big city, I would try the high-end hotels. For example, in Singapore I swam on the rooftop of the Marina Bay Hotel, even when David Beckham was being photographed in the hotel pool. It was 400,000 forints a night, but I was like, who knows if I'll ever make it back here. We had a tour where 9 out of 10 days we were flying.

How did you cope?

– The experience overcame all fatigue. On the island of Komodo, I wanted to take pictures with Komodo dragons. That’s something I was never going to miss out on. 

How much weight did having the chance to experience different cuisines on these trips carry?

– That was the dominant factor, I planned this in advance for every place I visited. In Singapore, we visited a local market where there was a one-man Michelin-starred kiosk. 

With all this knowledge, was it always clear that you would offer a similar cuisine in Hungary?

– For me, that was never in question. From Indonesia to Malaysia, everywhere I went I asked to visit the kitchen of a restaurant to experience something, to learn something. Not to mention the fact that I have worked with colleagues from Laos, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, in addition to the Thais. I let them prevail, I asked my colleagues not to “rethink” any food, to prepare it as they had seen it from their grandparents or parents.

How have you managed to translate the Thai way of seeing order in chaos into the Hungarian kitchen?

– People are hungry for a surprise. After a while, we developed a significant regular clientele at the Aum in Óbuda (the restaurant closed due to the coronavirus pandemic – ed.). Let me tell you a story: a pregnant woman wrote to the restaurant saying that she had lost her baby while pregnant, so she was very sad for a long time. The first activity she was able to go to with her husband in a long while was a dinner at our establishment. They spent an unforgettable evening at the restaurant, she wrote, and they associate the conception of their new, healthy baby girl with this evening.

Please give an example of how you transformed a Thai dish into Hungarian.

- Massaman nua is a beef curry with pineapple and peanuts. It is deceptively similar to Hungarian stew. I thought I'd adapt it to the local environment, and thus it became a massaman goulash. When I serve a soup, each spoonful gives a different taste and texture. Why? Because it contains 16 elements, meaning the plate may initially seem chaotic, but it has a system, and each element has its specific role.

Did the Hungarians understand?

– It was very popular with both the guests and the industry: on Mondays, which is usually a day off in other restaurants, 30 per cent of our bookings came from the industry.

How much is your creativity needed in this chaos?

– I bring the ideas, I put my personality into the business, but the merit is always shared with the team. What gastronomy has given me in my life is a gift, and it keeps on giving. Three years ago, my business partner Csaba Harmath and I opened Füge in Tihany, which was included in the Michelin Guide, and then my twins were born. That's how it all became complete.

The author is a journalist and historian

Photo: Róbert Hegedüs
Red curry duck soup


1 broiler duck

4 carrots

2 root vegetables

1 Chinese cabbage

1 small celery root

3 red onions

5 shallots

1 pack spring onions

1 small garlic bulb

1 winter radish

1 bunch of parsley

100 g coriander

2 stalks celery

5 king oyster mushrooms (can be substituted with button mushrooms)

20 g dried wood ear mushrooms (or 200 g fresh oyster mushrooms)

30 g shimeji mushrooms

1 l coconut milk

40 cl soy sauce

10 cl rice vinegar

a little sesame oil 

30 g (or to taste) red curry

40 g cane sugar

whole black pepper to taste

sea salt to taste

50 g wunzen noodles

Place the whole and cleaned duck into a preheated oven at 200 degrees for 10 minutes. Put enough water (about 5 litres) in a pot of sufficient capacity to allow the duck and vegetables to cook.

Peel the vegetables (carrots, root vegetables, winter radish, celery root). Remove the outer leaves of the Chinese cabbage and cut in half. Wash the onions well, cut in half and sauté – with the peel intact – in a pan without oil.

Wash the garlic and cut in half. When the water comes to a pre-boil, add the pre-baked whole duck and the peeled soup vegetables. Season with salt and whole black pepper. Add the washed parsley, red onion and garlic. Cook over a low heat for about 3 hours. Do not let the soup foam. Make sure it does not boil.

Prepare the mushrooms. Wash the king oyster mushrooms (or button mushrooms) well and pat dry. Cut larger pieces into halves or quarters. Soak the dried wood ear mushrooms in lukewarm water until absorbed. If you are working with fresh oyster mushrooms, wash well, cut off the stem and slice into strips. Use scissors to cut the shimeji mushrooms, leaving a slightly longer stem.

Sauté the mushrooms (not all at once) in a hot pan without oil. Place the sautéed mushrooms in a bowl and pour a tablespoon of sesame oil and the soy sauce over them. Leave to stand.

Prepare the pickled shallots by making the pickling juice: boil half a litre of water, salt, 10 cl of rice vinegar and 30 g of cane sugar for 2 minutes. Leave to cool. Season if necessary. Peel the shallots and add to the pickling juice.

Then, soak the wunzen noodles in lukewarm water (they will double in volume).

Refresh your soup with the celery stalk, coriander and spring onions. Cut the ends off the celery stalk and remove the strings. Mix the chopped celery stalk, coriander and spring onion in a bowl.

Strain the soup when ready. Set the vegetables aside. Leave the duck to cool. Heat sesame oil in a saucepan of sufficient capacity. Add the red curry and fry. Be careful not to burn it. Add the coconut milk and soy sauce, and then the strained broth.

Bring to a boil and add more seasoning if necessary. Remove the meat from the cooked duck. Cut the cooked vegetables into slices. Place soaked wunzen noodles, duck meat and some mushroom mix in a deep dish. Pour the hot soup over this. Sprinkle garnish over the top. Separately, add pickled shallots, cut into slices. Enjoy your meal!

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