You worked for the Italian Michelin Guide as an inspector and then director, and have tested the best restaurants of more than a dozen countries for 36 years. Also you have been an advisor to the Dining Guide for years and since you started coming to Hungary have seen positive changes. Now retired, have you stayed close to gastronomy?
Today I am working as an advisor. In Italy and some other countries, I am working with restaurants. I am seeking to support a couple of chefs in their improvement; those who might get a Michelin Star one day. After I stopped working for Michelin – and since I was well-known as a professional in hospitality – they asked me to oversee some restaurants and help them improve.
In the world of gastronomy, they look at me with respect but also with some fear, of course, because we are making judgments about a kitchen or a chef, so they are always a little afraid to make a mistake, and of course they are nervous how our verdict will turn out to be. But this is part of our job.
How was it to work with Michelin Guide?
During my active life I was mostly working anonymously. Up until a couple of years before my retirement, nobody knew who I was. I didn’t wear any masks or anything but I stayed unknown. Because of this there was no tension on behalf of the chefs and the restaurant owners, unlike after I became well-known. Today we are communicating more and I am trying to help them. We are looking together at the mistakes that sometimes occur on the plates.
Working with the Michelin Stars is never a one-man job, we always work in teams. There are inspectors who are trying out restaurants, there are multiple try-outs, and then we evaluate the restaurants’ progress over time. During my active years many stars were awarded, mostly in my home country. Until I finished my active years with the Michelin Guide I visited over 10,000 restaurants. I was inspecting restaurants for over 40 years and my work is in each of the stars in the Italian Michelin Guide. I travelled around all of Italy three times as an inspector and then I got the job as director, because I had a lot of experience and of course the right abilities for it.
My 40 years of inspecting restaurants mean that I have a certain historical perspective of the kitchens. I was born into this job and it is like a drug to me; I cannot turn it off. I am still travelling to try out and evaluate restaurants.
What do you think is important in a restaurant?
Every restaurant has its own identity, in regards to ambience, service and kitchen. Every kitchen is interesting. The important thing is to prepare the plates properly and carefully, to use high-quality ingredients and to give the plate a beautiful appearance. Both the ingredients and the plate have to be wonderful. This is in every restaurant’s own interest.
What are the responsibilities of a restaurant inspector?
There are expectations of younger and not-so-young chefs who want to achieve their aspirations, a star for example or to rank higher in the regional guide. They make great sacrifices to achieve this and this must be considered. A high-level professional attitude is also important. You have to encourage the young to grow but you also have to be strict, because it is about their future and for them achieving a Michelin Star will be the main goal of their careers.
Testing restaurants is a great responsibility; we want hospitality and young chefs to advance, so one of my main ambitions is to encourage them to really improve.
In these 40 years, during my active years, I have seen great development in hospitality. In Italy we started with the simple, regional gastronomy to later achieve a truly internationally recognised kitchen.
How objective do you consider yourself?
After more than 40 years of testing restaurants, today when I am trying out a restaurant I am calm because I know I will make an honest, impartial judgment. I always make truly honest and professionally established decisions. Due to all my years spent in restaurants I possess all the necessary competencies.
I am very renowned and respected because I always have been straightforward and candid. Because one helps those who would like to progress even without having too much personal gain from it.
Four years ago I met the director of Dining Guide, who asked me to cooperate with them, to help the hospitality in Budapest to grow. And I was glad to join them.
Why did you take on this task?
When I was asked four years ago to visit restaurants in Budapest, I was curious about Hungarian hospitality. It was my pleasure to come.
I had great expectations, I wanted to get to know restaurants, which both have an international but also a typical Hungarian kitchen. When I came to Budapest I saw a wonderful city with interesting restaurants, where young chefs were working. I was hoping to find a good-quality kitchen here. So I came with many expectations and naturally, testing was a positive experience. I saw good opportunities.
What did you experience in the past four years?
I am seeing a glowing gastronomic life. There are many who want to achieve great things. It is important that not only the owners but also those who operate the restaurant, who are in charge of the kitchen: in short, everybody is doing everything for the success.
I try out restaurants that have been marked out by those working at Dining Guide. Applying the kind of methodology that is also used by Michelin, and by which I have been working all my life, I try to understand how these restaurants have progressed. There are four or five important factors in evaluating a restaurant or a kitchen: the quality of the ingredients, the serving, the quality of cooking and baking, price and value, and the right selection of the menu.
I don’t know Hungarian gastronomy because basically everything is concentrated in Budapest. I barely know what happens outside the city’s borders. I am experiencing a great sparkle in Budapest, there are restaurants which are part of the game, which means there is a great potential for progress in the local hospitality industry.
Hungary is on the same road Italy took a couple of years ago. It is transforming from a typical local hospitality into a more developing gastronomy. At the same time it opens up towards international kitchens, international influences.
There is one ground rule, which is nothing else but quality. So whatever kind of kitchen you might have, the important thing is that it should be good, meaning it is well prepared. And what is also important: you should put your soul on the plates. In these four years I have seen a certain development in Hungarian culinary. But in the following years I am expecting an even greater improvement in terms of quality gastronomy.
You have been giving multiple interviews in Hungary in the past couple of years. I am sure you cannot stay incognito here either.
When I arrived, of course, I was not a well-known person and I tried to keep up my anonymity as long as I could. Now my face is already known and maybe the chefs are also a little frightened by me here. I am coming to Hungary once every two months and I am trying out a couple of restaurants based on the requests of the director of Dining Guide.
Anonymity is important for the testers but it does not change the main thing. A chef puts the same thing on every guest’s plate. If someone is skilled, they are always skilled. There is only one positive side of anonymity, and that is that there is not so much pressure on the chef’s side. But those who are professional and who work well do not change because you or someone else is there.
Did you have any role deciding which Hungarian restaurants received the Michelin Star?
No, I did not have any role in the stars that were granted in Hungary. There is a different person responsible for every country, a person who directly oversees the visiting and evaluating, and also the awarding of the restaurants.
After so many restaurants, how can you still be amazed?
I still can get surprised. It is my curiosity that drives me. I am seeking to find restaurants that have something important to tell in time. I see young people who would like to improve, I see countries that would like to go forward, and that gives me great satisfaction.
When I go to try out a restaurant, I obviously have some expectations. Because people talk about these restaurants. I would like to see and understand what they offer, how they function.
How much space do you give to your feelings while you are evaluating? Can you imagine a situation that would be moving even for you?
There are great feelings involved, especially when one goes to a famous restaurant, to a French three-star restaurant or the restaurant of Paul Bocuse. These are the true cathedrals of gastronomy, starting points that help me improve. Through these I can better understand what high-level gastronomy actually means.
When I was trying out restaurants outside of my home country, then my colleagues from different countries invited me to try them out. A star in Italy is just as much worth as a star in France or Budapest. Nothing changes. The methodology of the evaluation always stays the same. You can always evaluate in a way that the quality offered by the restaurant will be the most important.
Fausto Arrighi and Zoltán Herczeg, the publisher of the Volkswagen-Dining Guide, sometimes spend entire nights talking about restaurants
If you look back at your career, what milestones would you highlight?
When I started at the Michelin Guide there were no three-star restaurants in Italy. So it was a time where improvement was needed. Gastronomy needed to progress. One of the most important moments of my active years was the birth of the first three-star restaurant, which was given to Gualtiero Marchesi, who was one of the founding members of international “nouvelle cuisine”. But even later, every single time a restaurant got three stars was a moment full of emotions because at these moments they have reached a goal, which was not our goal but theirs. They are the ones who got to this level. And this filled us with great content.
Naturally, during my active years I was present at the birth and awarding of every third star in Italy up until the very last one. Which was given to Enrico Crippa, whom we could see last year in Budapest at the presentation of the Dining Guide. His was the last third star where I was contributing to the awarding.
When you get older and you can see the progress in your country’s gastronomy, and you can see these young people who have achieved certain goals – that fills you with great satisfaction. I have given my life for this.
We have seen a couple of the chefs from these two- and three-star restaurants here in Budapest at the presentation of previous Dining Guides. They were invited to these events to tell about their experience and to award young chefs who are finding inspiration in them. Here we can mention the chef of Da Vittorio, Enrico Cerea, but we can also talk about Nicola Portaniro, Enrico Crippa or Giancarlo Perbellini. They are still young people who have already achieved certain goals and who should be an inspiration for the youth here in Budapest.
How long are you planning to stay an advisor for the Dining Guide?
Dining Guide has its own director, and inspectors, who try out the restaurants. My viewpoint is a little more international, and because of this while we are testing restaurants I have the opportunity to observe things from a different angle than the other inspectors who are testing.
I was driven by curiosity when I started working together with the Dining Guide. To me, as someone who has always worked with the same guide, it was important that their methodology, what they are following with their inspectors and director, is very similar to the one applied by Michelin. The director of the Dining Guide is listening to my advice. We spend a lot of time, whole nights talking about restaurants and kitchens. If one day he is not taking my opinion into account anymore, then he can be sure that I will leave Hungary and never come back.