The reason of Hungary’s victory

Behind the triumph at the Bocuse d'Or there are state funds and a sound system. Something missing in Italy

27-05-2016

Budapest, 12th May: after two days of intense competition, chef Tamás Széll of restaurant Onyx (second to the left) celebrates the victory in the European finals of the prestigious Bocuse d'Or together with his team. 11 European teams will compete in the world finals in Lyon, on 24-25th January 2017, but not Italy

It is a known fact that Italy has never excelled at the Bocuse d’Or. Yet this year the expectations were high for Marco Acquaroli’s participation in the European finals in Budapest. Unfortunately, even this time Italy didn’t qualify for the finals (which means we didn’t even get to the top 11) and the competition was won by Hungarian chef Tamás Széll.

For sure, behind this success there’s the talent and creativity of a great chef, yet this is first of all the victory of a team, a system. This is the victory of someone who desired it at all costs and planned the process in detail. The Hungarians dedicated remarkable resources, huge energies and significant funds to the preparation of the team. They took the occasion very seriously, they got the involvement of important resources and people. Doing well at the Bocuse d’Or had become a public matter.

TAMÁS SZÉLL. Born in 1982, he’s the sous-chef at restaurant Onyx, in a historic building in one of the most beautiful squares in Budapest. Széll had already won his first competition in 2008. The event was called “Tradition and Evolution” and was organised in Hungary following the same format as the Bocuse d’Or. The objective was to create a fertile soil, to favour the growth of a new generation of chefs and scout new talents that could become competitive on an international scale. Honestly, given the state of the Hungarian restaurant industry at the time (it’s only 8 years ago but it seems a century has passed since then), it looked like a mirage, rather than a goal. 

2nd February 2016: Marco Acquaroli from Bergamo wins the Italian finals of the Bocuse d'Or. Yet in Budapest he doesn’t get qualified for the world finals

2nd February 2016: Marco Acquaroli from Bergamo wins the Italian finals of the Bocuse d'Or. Yet in Budapest he doesn’t get qualified for the world finals

In 2010, for the first time the official request to choose and train a Hungarian participant for the Bocuse d’Or arrived from France. The chosen chef was indeed Tamás Széll, who started to train for the competition at the same time when Onyx was assigned the first Michelin star. It’s the second restaurant to get a Michelin star in Hungary: of course the fact they were no longer able to count on such an important figure in the kitchen, at one of the most delicate times and with the greatest media exposure was a huge sacrifice for Onyx (which also appeared on the Identità Golose guide for the first time that same year). A sacrifice which the restaurant faced nonetheless, with determination and enthusiasm, even more so as by then it was clear that on top of being an excellent chef, Széll is also an excellent contestant.

Ready and capable of trying and perfecting every single preparation for months, he stands monotonous repetition and confrontation well. He’s always focused and committed to do his best even under stress, in front of a large audience, with very little time. The Bocuse d’Or format intentionally recreates the work conditions of a restaurant: time is scarce, the ingredients are pre-determined, every preparation and technique follows precise rules. During the competition tasks must be completed quickly, precisely: a single mistake can compromise the outcome. Not all good chefs can work well under these conditions.

The entire Hungarian restaurant industry was by Széll’s side. Patrons, chefs, journalists, experts all united their efforts and got as many people involved to help his preparation. The costs, dozens of thousands of euros, were partly funded by private people, partly by Onyx.

Tamás Széll, born in 1982, souc-chef at Onyx, which got the first Michelin star in 2010 (photo www.budapesttelegraph.com)

Tamás Széll, born in 1982, souc-chef at Onyx, which got the first Michelin star in 2010 (photo www.budapesttelegraph.com)

The ninth place in the European finals in 2012 was considered an extraordinary success, the entire restaurant industry celebrated him and at that time the government started to show interest. The Hungarian prime minister personally visited the team while it was training and gave special funds, something like 90K euros for the preparation of the team in the following phase. He then arrived 10th in the finals in Lyon. There was lots of joy but Széll immediately declared he would not participate the following year. The competition shattered him physically and mentally.

WHAT’S BEHIND THE SUCCESS. Since the first participation of the Hungarians in the Bocuse d’Or in 2012, politics and most of all the government got lively interested in the world of cuisine. The daughter of the prime minister developed strong relations with the managers of the Hungarian Academy of the Bocuse d’Or and was very committed internationally. It’s no coincidence then that on the occasion of the finals in Lyon, in 2015, the ex president of the Republic of Hungary, Pal Schmitt announced that the following European finals were to take place in Budapest.

A few weeks later a boat load of money arrived, and even the most sceptical found faith in the project. The financial law included funds for over 2 million euros from the state for the contest and the preparation of the national team. Later, the Hungarian government gave further funds and today the state funds for the event have exceeded 5 million euros. Such an amount of money would be remarkable even in Italy, a country with much greater culinary history and economic resources.

After such premises, it wasn’t that hard to convince Tamás Széll to compete again. The national selection was little more than a formality, Széll won quite easily. His training is coordinated mostly by one of the chefs who won the Bocuse d’Or most times, Danish Rasmus Kofoed who went as many as five times to Budapest to work beside him. Serge Vieira, winner of the 2005 edition, and Swedish Tommy Myllymaki, silver medal in 2011, also participated in the training.

The podium of the latest world finals in 2015: Norway is first, then the US and then Sweden
 

The podium of the latest world finals in 2015: Norway is first, then the US and then Sweden
 

The Hungarian team could count on an international technical and professional support but the help of local colleagues was also essential. One just has to mention that in the finals it was Ákos Sárközi, chef at Borkonyha (the other Michelin star, a stone’s throw away from Onyx) who assisted and motivated his competitor and friend. The main sponsor even this time was Onyx, where Széll works, if not all, because they were ready not to make use of their sous-chef for such a long time. Indeed this year he still hasn’t set foot in the restaurant since for over four months he only focused on the training.

Despite all the premises and the almost irrational extent of funds that Hungary invested in this contest, winning the first place exceeds even the rosiest expectations. The Bocuse d’Or has always been dominated by Norway, Sweden and Hungary, countries that this year in the European finals had to make do with, respectively, the second, third and fourth place behind Hungary. Never in the history of the event had an almost debutant country won. This could mark an important change: tradition and experience, if they are not sided by organisation, logistic and economic support, could no longer suffice in the future. You’ve got to adapt, unless you want to be left at the starting point.


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