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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Akos Sarkozi has delighted throngs of guests with his no-frills style, stripping down heavy Hungarian dishes to their defining flavors. But there is one person he has never dared cook for: his mother-in-law, whose mastery is a key source of inspiration.
The 37-year-old Michelin-starred chef likes to think outside the box, describing his cuisine as free and rich in flavor, infusing traditional Hungarian meals with touches of influence from around the world, such as France, Italy or the Far East.
"By freedom, I mean that I do not like being pigeon-holed into certain categories, be it Hungarian, Austrian or French cuisine," Sarkozi said, seated at an elegantly set table at Borkonyha (Wine Kitchen) in central Budapest.
The stylish bistro, opened nearly four years ago, serves about 150 diners per night and could barely keep up with a surge in demand since receiving the posh award in March, the third restaurant to be recognized with a Michelin star in Budapest.
The humble Sarkozi, who welcomed Reuters for an interview before opening hours, serving up glasses of water himself, says he has taken inspiration from previous bosses, including a ruthless perfectionist he jokingly described as a "genuine terrorist".
But for him, like most others in his trade, it all goes back to his mother's cooking, which he says is the foundation for all successful chefs that they can build upon in later years.
When on the job, Sarkozi whips up dishes like pressed leg of hare with a duck liver cake in mere minutes, but, not being shy about it, every now and then he also ventures into fast-food chains for a taste of the other end of the culinary spectrum.
His all-time favorite dish, though, remains peppers stuffed with spicy ground meat in a tomato sauce. "Some may regard it as heresy, but that is the way I like it: dusting it with sugar and eating it with a spoon."
Q: Did you always want to be a chef?
A: I have always wanted to do creative things. I wanted to become a photographer, that was my hobby and my father has worked in this field all his life. But when I was at school I could not find an internship. That was when the family started thinking and we realized that cooks will always be in demand. I would also be warm in winter and have something to eat. That is where it all began.
Q: What is the ethos of your cuisine?
A: I am in Hungary, I am Hungarian so Hungarian cuisine is my strength, that is what I prefer and to incorporate flavors from France, the Far East or Italy into it. For example, like the French, I use lots of butter, or innards. Or like in Italy, there are seven or eight types of oil in my kitchen and I cook lentils like a risotto, for example. I like to blend these things and that is how this whole story comes full circle.
Q: What did the Michelin star mean to you?
A: At first, I did not believe it. It was definitely a great honor, one that all chefs secretly strive for. This is like something of a goal for a sportsman, like working years for an Olympic gold. I have worked 15-20 years to get here. The restaurant has run fully booked for nearly three years. The change this has brought about was that we had such an onslaught of guests that we had to transform the entire structure of the restaurant because we just could not keep up.
Q: How big an influence has your mother's cooking been?
A: For every chef, the meals eaten at home always come first. That is the foundation for everything else. There are dishes I just cannot make any different than my mother. Then I got married and my mother-in-law's cooking became another defining part of my life. She is another woman who can cook so well you can hardly believe it. I dare not give her any advice. I have never cooked for her, exactly for this reason, because I have such an inferiority complex that I just cannot do it. For example, I have never liked stuffed cabbage, but hers I can stomach. She also inspired a dish on my first menu. It was a soup called "tailor's collar", a plain vegetable soup with some home made noodles filled with semolina fried with some onions. This was nearly four years ago and some guests keep asking me when we will put this back on the menu.
Q: What is Hungarian cuisine about?
A: I would describe it the same way as mine, rich in flavor. We like spices, we like flavors, that is what describes us best. It is very important, and maybe the key to our success, that if a foreign guest comes here looking for a taste of Hungarian cuisine, we do not start by assaulting them with goulash soup and a stew. They will not want to eat anything else after two days for being stuffed with fat. We need to preserve a cuisine rich in flavor, but also remove every frill, the cholesterol or the fat, or anything else they would probably not prefer.
Leg of hare with a duck liver cake and watercress
5 legs of hare
300 ml cream
200 g chicken breast
200 g smoked ham
1 pack of baby spinach
500 g yellow carrots
200 g cold butter
1 duck liver
salt, pepper, rosemary
Remove the bones from the legs of hare and trim them. Make a cream sauce by mixing the trimmings, the chicken breast and the cream in a blender. Season with salt and pepper.
Gently beat the trimmed legs into a level thickness and put them into a tray lined with foil.
Alternate one layer of legs, one layer of cream and so on. When halfway through the ingredients, include a layer of fresh spinach leaves, then continue with the layers of legs and cream. The result should be a layered leg of hare.
Wrap in foil and steam at 85 degrees Celsius for an hour and a half. Remove and refrigerate with the hare legs pressed.
For the garnish, cook the carrots in a salty, sugary liquid, then mix in a blender, gradually adding in the cold butter.
For the duck liver cake, roast the liver and blend it, then press it through a fine sieve. Season and pour it onto a sponge cake or shortcake base.
Chill in the fridge and slice up before serving.
Wrap the beet in aluminium foil with some salt and cook in a 180 C oven until soft.
Once chilled, peel the beet and carve pellets from it using a scoop. Run them through some melted butter before serving.
Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Michael Roddy