– Has your career been a meticulously planned progression, or did just one thing lead to another?
– The more you learn, the more you realise how little you really know - and that’s definitely been true with me. I started my career in Hungary in the 1990s, working at Fausto's Italian Restaurant and Chez Daniel. At the time it would have been beyond crazy to even dream about having a Michelin-star restaurant in Hungary. If you wanted to get really good in this trade you had no choice but to go abroad. My first trip took me to Spain – it was planned as a quick one‑month stint at three Michelin‑star restaurants in Martin Berasategui near San Sebastián, which then turned into three months... then six months... and then the dam broke. I got more and more curious, I wanted to learn, and I felt that if I had seen Spain, I had to see Japan, Paris and so on.
– Has your mindset changed? Your outlook on life?– Of course. I think when you live in so many places, each place, each world, each culture adds something to you as an individual. I always tried to pick up the good things everywhere and filter them through myself. When I was young, I lived in District 1 of Budapest, and also in Zala county. Later I got to live in metropolises around the world: London, Tokyo, Paris, Barcelona, Dubai... Every city has its own atmosphere: London is a bustling and multicultural megacity, Paris has a stronger national character, while Barcelona is friendly and incredibly inclusive.
– Is there a characteristic difference between Europe and Asia in terms of cuisine in the high‑end restaurants of these big cities?
– In metropolitan restaurants, there is a difference regarding discipline and precision. In Tokyo, the approach to gastronomy that I have experienced would be a ten out of ten, followed by Paris – the French have perfected work organisation. In a French kitchen, everything has its place and its time, for example by starting with the work processes that require a long preparation time, and building up the phases in a thoughtful and logical way. The main focus is on precision, discipline and the quality of the raw materials. In the kitchens of three-star French restaurants, you have to chase your breath before you can catch it – but if you can handle the incredible tempo, you can pick up a wealth of knowledge and experience.
– And what about everyday gastronomy? Is there a difference in approach between Asia and Europe?– The difference is certainly more obvious in this respect. The kind of street food that many Western tourists may shy away from is still an integral part of Asian culture. In Saigon, for example, there are countless places where they slaughter the pig in the morning, and then transform it into food and it gets sold in no time. Of course, the Western influence is apparent with backyard livestock farming more and more complemented by large-scale chicken farms, the proliferation of supermarkets and big fast food chains... but in Saigon, a city of ten million people, only one or two fast food chains have managed to survive. In Asia, it is still a tradition for local communities, even the extended family, to eat together from a centrally placed multi‑course dishes. Eating has always been an important occasion for them. This kind of combined eating has disappeared from Europe in the last few centuries, mainly thanks to the French food culture, which introduced the practice of separate plates as well as the knife and fork. Somewhere deep down, these customs tell stories about different cultures, about the cohesion of communities, large and small.
– Let’s play a little game: name the masters who have shaped the way you think about food throughout your career. Who would you pick? Why?
– The first one has to be my father, Tamás B. Molnár, the founder of the Hungarian Gastronomic Association. I have memories of seeing people cooking from my early childhood – like going out in my pyjamas at night to our big kitchen and seeing a dozen people bustling around, bustling about, roasting goose or serving up goulash in a pot. My mother's favourite story from these years is when one time they were given a basket of snails. She and my father prepared them for cooking. Then they had things to do somewhere and when they got home, the snails were crawling all over the kitchen, even on the ceiling! Then my father lived in Germany for a while, I spent many a summer there as a teenager. We walked to Munich's Viktualienmarkt, where we got the best ingredients, and cooked together, made curry paste in a stone mortar for Thai food, and kneaded the pasta dough for lasagne. I also have another indelible memory from the 90s: a TV show called "A tour of the French countryside”. The scenes were shot at Roger Vergé's and of course in Paris, at Le Doyen. This last one really stuck with me, it became a dream that I would go there one day. Then, ten years later, I was invited to be a creative chef at the three Michelin-star Pavillon de Le Doyen, which I accepted.
– El Bulli, where you had the opportunity to work under Ferran Adriá, has been voted the best restaurant in the world several times. – Could you tell us about your experiences there?– El Bulli was different in every way from the other restaurants. Creativity was in the air there, buzzing and electric 24/7 – there was never a moment's pause. The restaurant had their own special schedule: they would be open for six months, and the other half of the year they would be experimenting, developing and refining the menu for the next season. Almost every day there was some new raw material to work with, think about, experiment with... in fact, we were often given “homework” to do at home. What I experienced there was being able to step outside and think outside of your prototypical gastronomic “box”. Ferran Adriá is an open‑minded man, in the best sense of the word: he questioned everything, and this led to his best, most revolutionary ideas.
– In January this year you took over the kitchen at Costes Downtown. What brought you home?
– Moving from Saigon back to Budapest a year ago came out of the blue somewhat. You see, Saigon was basically locked up and sealed off due to the Covid outbreak at the time, with a curfew in place for months. We had the longest weeks without actually working, which of course had a good side: our days were not about rushing around every second, I could spend quality time with my family. But then I started to miss restaurant work more and more. So for the first time in twenty years I thought about doing it Hungary. In hindsight, I guess I was also thinking that it would be nice to get back into the European scene. I've seen and experienced so much in Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese gastronomy, I've “amassed” so much value and so many ideas I can incorporate into my current work. Somehow the last third of my career has always been about Asian cuisine – I did contemporary Japanese cuisine in Zuma in London, for example.
– What does the concept of Asian‑European fusion cuisine mean to you?
– Let’s not confuse fusion with confusion. For me, cooking is both the restaurants I have worked in and the worlds I have lived in, the markets, the local ingredients, the local flavours of everyday life. When my wife and I cook at home, it's a kind of fusion cuisine: she's from the Philippines, we lived in Saigon, Miami and Dubai together, so my tastes have been shaped by Arabic, Latin, Chinese, Filipino and Hungarian flavours, while at the same time I use olive oil, a typical element of Spanish cuisine, a lot. In short, fusion cuisine builds a lot on authentic bases, but this does not mean simply mixing flavours and ingredients from different cuisines. It's a building process: with a dish I think of a technique, such as Japanese tataki, that brings out the flavours of the dish in a different way, and then something else is added to it, which also adds something extra to the end result.
– And what about flavours?– It's a very large, blank canvas: in Hungarian cuisine there's the spiciness, the undeniable taste of garlic. This is also true of Sichuan cuisine for example – so that gives us a common starting point. For me, Asian‑Hungarian fusion means the flavours of Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and of course Hungarian raw ingredients. At Costes Downtown, for example, we have a dish made with venison from Nógrád county, which is reminiscent of Hungarian stew, but with Malaysian inspiration. In other words, two cultures that are geographically worlds apart together produce a whole new quality. But I also think it's important to think about the world through food, because there is more to what we cook and how we cook it than meets the eye.
coriander seeds (4 teaspoons)
true cardamom seeds (24 seeds)
cumin seeds (3 teaspoons)
nutmeg flowers (2 flowers)
star anise (2)
pink peppercorn (3 teaspoons)
granulated sugar (3 tablespoons)
olive oil (3 tablespoons)
galangal (300 g)
turmeric (180 g)
ginger (180 g)
lemon grass (3)
shallots (1 kg)
garlic (21 cloves)
red chilli paste (2 tablespoons)
fish sauce (6 tablespoons)
water (5,000 ml)
venison shank (5 kg)
Heat and crush the herbs in a mortar. Warm up the sugar in oil; mix in the spices before it starts turning to caramel. Sear for a few seconds. Add the vegetables (finely chopped) and herbs. Then add the red chili paste, a little oil and sear. Add the water and the fish sauce; allow to slowly reduce until about two thirds of the sauce remains. Surface-roast the slightly salted venison shank over charcoal. Put the venison shank in vacuum bags; pour the stock unfiltered into the bags, so each bag has roughly the same amount of stock: Steam at 72 °C for 15 hours and then at 80 °C for another 6 hours. When ready and cooled down put the meat to one side; filter the stock and add coconut milk, tamarind plum, salt and sugar (to taste) to balance the sauce; boil to thicken. When the desired taste strength is achieved improve the consistency by adding a little xanthan.To serve: top the dish with a blend of green tea and cranberries with mint, fresh papaya, roasted and salted coconut, seared pickled white pearl onions and coriander oil. Sprinkle ruby paprika oil, mezcal chocolate sauce, arbequina olive oil and fresh kaffir lime peel around the edge.