People 4 minutes 31 August 2023

Meet Hungary's Top Female Chefs

We asked some of Hungary’s best female chefs about their influences, experiences and plans for the future

Chef Interview Hungary 2022 Female Chef Editor's Pick

Hungary's dining scene has been going from strength to strength, with the release of the latest edition of The MICHELIN Guide Hungary confirming two new 2 Michelin Star restaurants, four Michelin Green Stars for sustainable gastronomy and a host exciting additions to an already thriving restaurant landscape. In recent years, the number of female chefs running these restaurants has grown, with talented women at the forefront of some of Hungary's top establishments. As they continue to break down barriers and strive for a fairer industry, we caught up with some of them to discover their inspirations, journeys and hopes for the future.

Erika Árkosi – 84 Bisztró, Kapolcs

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"When I was a child, I spent my summers at my grandmother’s farm and I learnt the basics of cooking from her. In the beginning, I only cooked Hungarian dishes. When I turned 31, I spent two years in New York, and it was there that I was exposed to world gastronomy. From 2000-2008 I gained a lot of inspiration in Italy and from 2008-2012 I lived in Spain, where I ran a bar’s kitchen. In the beginning, I only ever cooked for family and friends, but it was during my time in Spain that I realised I wanted to become a chef. I moved back to Hungary in 2012 and in 2014 my husband and I opened our own restaurant. I’ve been the chef of 84 Bisztró since 2020.

The restaurant scene has definitely changed over the years, and there are more women in the kitchen nowadays. I feel lucky because I’ve never had a problem being accepted as a female chef. In my family, it’s always been natural for women to cook.

Many chefs inspire my cooking, including István Pesti, Ana Roš and Massimo Bottura. I also admire the work of Hungarian chefs Szabina Szulló and Eszter Palágyi.

My short-term plans include expanding 84 Bisztró's circle of returning guests and to continue to provide them with consistently high-quality dishes. In the long term, I would like to hold dinner nights for smaller groups of guests in an idyllic setting, where the dinner guests get to sleep over afterwards."

Szabina Szulló – Stand, Budapest

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I started my career at a very young age and worked my way up from the bottom, step by step. The first place I worked at was the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus in the '90s. At the time, it was the best restaurant in Hungary and it was where I met Zoltán Hamvas and Tamás Széll, who I’ve been working with since. Together, we created the concept of a fine dining restaurant in Budapest. It later gained a Michelin Star and marked the first time a Hungarian chef had been awarded a Star in Hungary.

In 2017 we opened our first bistro, Stand25, at Budapest’s gourmet market, and in 2019 we moved the concept to Buda. Meanwhile, in the summer of 2018, we opened our first fine dining restaurant in the heart of Budapest, Stand, which gained its first Michelin Star in less than a year, and a second in 2022.

Family tradition was a big part of me becoming a chef – my mother is also a chef. When I was a child, she would sometimes take me with her to her work; I was amazed by the kitchen, and I always wanted to be a cook. Traditional Hungarian food is a key influence for me, just as my mother’s and my grandma’s dishes from my childhood are.

As well as my family, I’m inspired by many wonderful female chefs around the world who motivate new generations to choose this profession. Some great chefs from the international scene who I admire include Ana Roš, Dominique Crenn, Clare Smyth and Anne-Sophie Pic.

I really love creating simple dishes with pure flavours, without overthinking them. I love local and seasonal ingredients too; it’s always a joy to showcase the beauty and uniqueness of traditional Hungarian produce.

Krisztina Katkó – Alkimista Kulináris Műhely, Szeged

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"I don't have a classic career path. I came into this profession at the age of nearly 40, from a background in press and journalism. My switch fortuitously coincided with the expansion of the 'gastronomy revolution' in Hungary around 2010. There were many great chefs eager to cook good food, and there was an enthusiastic, open atmosphere in the industry and among guests.

Growing up, everyone at home was a great cook. They always worked with pleasure, whether it was skinning or picking mushrooms, and it was natural. As a chef-owner, I make great use of what I learned earlier in life. Food is complex, and the kitchen cannot be an end in itself; many things must come together in the restaurant at the same time to make it an experience.

Everything from snail shells to opera, chamomile fields to contemporary art inspires my cooking – I'm a cultural omnivore. We focus on regional and seasonal cuisine at Alkimista Kulináris Műhely with a bi-weekly changing menu, seasonal ingredient mixes, and mostly non-intervention wines.

The dishes I enjoy preparing the most are those I can strongly associate with an emotion or story. The thrill you get from experiencing just a few fresh ingredients is amazing; I'm moved these days by the fact that you don't really have much to add to an egg or caviar, a walnut or a freshly picked apple, since they are completely perfect on their own.

Kitchen work is a life sport, done in an apron, 16 hours a day. Women who make working in restaurants their profession are extremely tenacious, well-organised and very valuable players in the field, and they reward support with long-term loyalty. Women need to be supported, at an organisational level – not because they are weak, but because they face very difficult decisions, and often alone. I speak from experience – I have three children. Work is not our life, but a very important part of it, and women can do it very well.

I still read a lot about international business, go to restaurants, travel when I can and study – partly because I didn't get a traditional education, and partly because I'm interested in everything. I hope my culinary story can inspire others who want make a move to gastronomy but are too afraid to make the change."

Gabriella Szikra – A Konyhám Stúdió 365, Fonyód

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"I first realised I wanted to be a chef around the age of 14. It was during a very memorable visit to a restaurant, and I decided then and there that I would choose this profession. I started working in hospitality at a very young age and tried almost every aspect of the industry, including graduating from cooking school, interning in several famous Hungarian restaurants, cooking in a Spanish restaurant, working in Germany and spending a year in Vienna in a French bistro. After returning home from Austria, my partner and I opened our own small beach bistro on Lake Balaton, which operated seasonally. I had a great desire to create a restaurant open all year round, which we did in 2021. Since then, we’ve devoted almost all of our time to work – I think that everyone should try to discover what they like doing the most.

Many things inspire my cooking, including quality local and seasonal ingredients, reinterpreting forgotten-about Hungarian dishes, the seasons and our guests. I really enjoy preparing vegan and vegetarian dishes – I find them to be a great challenge, and I like challenges! I also like unexpected situations, and to improvise and fulfil special requests where possible.

There are slightly more women working in kitchens these days, but this profession is still very male-dominated. There were a lot of male chefs who left the kitchen during the pandemic, and I’m hoping that following this the role of women in gastronomy will continue to increase.

In the future, I’d like to expand my culinary knowledge further and to visit other top restaurants, potentially abroad, to gain more experience. I would also like to include more ingredients from local producers on the menu, and further improve our sustainability measures."

Hero image: 84 Bisztró
Szabina Szulló image credit: Tamás Kaunitz

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