Szabina Szulló is the chef and co-owner of Stand25 bistro and Stand restaurant. For Chef Szabina, the Hungarian cuisine needs to be celebrated, at her restaurant she has built a community of producers, collectors and farmers to ensure consistent quality, working with an emphasis on sustainable development.
The Best Chef: How did your passion for cooking start?
Szabina Szulló: Actually, my story begins with my family. My mother was a cook, so it was always somewhere ‘in the air’, somehow it was already in my DNA. She kept on talking about her work and, on several occasions, I had the opportunity to enter her kitchen and see things “in the making”. When she would come back from work and talk about her day, I would ask her lots of questions; for example, about how to organise a bigger event. I could glimpse and comprehend the whole system.
Since my grandparents lived in the countryside, 200 km from Budapest in the northern part of Hungary, my sister and I were lucky enough to spend summers and holidays with them. They had a fantastic vegetable garden. A very large one. I still don’t know how my grandmother managed it on her own when my grandfather was working. It was my grandmother’s job to look after the household, including the garden. On top of that, they of course bred animals. They kept pigs, ducks – they bred and fed ducks along with geese and calves. So, I considered it perfectly natural that pig slaughtering was a part of the winter vacations. It was a source of information and advantages. I remember exactly the wonderful taste of the first bite after slaughtering the pig. This is when you eat roasted blood with onions and freshly baked bread. It meant a lot to me, even at the time: those aromas and flavours of childhood. Today, I also like to go back to those flavours, the ones I learned from my family.
The Best Chef: Is there a particular moment of course connected to taste and smells in that part of your life, that you still remember with pleasure today?
Szabina Szulló: My first experience with flavours was in a small town in eastern Hungary called Szerep. I remember entering a garden and tasting unwashed tomatoes. This is the flavour I’m looking for all the time; that delicious green taste of nature. I was lucky enough to sample these flavours at quite a young age. I was able to go out into the garden early in the morning and pick and taste dew-wet tomatoes, cucumbers, gooseberries and even delicious apricots. I feel really lucky to have grown up in their company.
As for my roots, today I make my jam in the same way my grandmother did, bringing back wonderful memories and flavours to share with others too. I would like to see this tradition alive and passed on from generation to generation.
The Best Chef: Tell us how the collaboration and the creation of your current project started? What was the path of these previous years that obviously will have marked the future choices?
Szabina Szulló: Actually In my opinion, every success needs a bit of luck. In my case – going back to the 1990s – I had the chance to get an internship at a great place, the Kempinski Hotel. There I met Zoltán Hamvas, Tamás Széll, with whom Ibolya Csahók and I founded our restaurants. We’re about to celebrate 20th or maybe even 30th anniversary of our friendship. It is a model to me. I am very proud that since then we have been able to work together, step by step, to develop and think together. Being so young – I got into a big kitchen at the age of 15, just like Tamás – we could learn together and became who we are today. We were motivated to move forward – these were big dreams, given that in the 1990s people didn’t change jobs overnight. We thought about testing ourselves in a different environment, expanding our boundaries.
And such opportunity came with the Gerbeaud. He welcomed us – Zoltán Hamvas as chef and us as his aides. Our task was to create a new system; that was the challenge we took on. It was in 2000 and we made this first step. That was the opening of a new chapter. 16 years of hard work, amazing moments and successes.
In 2008, we managed to open the Onyx restaurant, which was our shared dream and which earned us a Michelin star as the first Hungarian chefs. In the meantime, Tamás was training for the Bocuse d’Or competition, which further inspired our work and gave it extra momentum. I’ve learnt a lot in these 16 years. Above all about people, which is very important in this profession. The way you work with your colleagues. Cooking well and preparing tasty food is one thing, working with your team in the right way is another. That was invaluable.
The Best Chef: Today we are here at Stand restaurant. What does this place represent for you?
Szabina Szulló: In Stand restaurant we represent who we really are. I’ve always dreamed of a kitchen where – even from where it is – we can be 100% involved in the guests’ experience, their reactions to each dish and, last but not least, from where we can maintain good communication with the whole team. After our previous workplace – Gerbeaud – working in such a familiar, rather small facility was quite a change for us.
One of the things that played an important role for me was that for both Hungarian guests – who understand the flavours and can recall them from their childhood memories, which I think is very important to keep alive; and for international guests – who come to our place, Hungary – the flavours should be the ones they get to know through us. I would like them to learn about the Hungarian cuisine which we offer here. So that through this experience they understand us what real Hungarian cuisine is like. And also, the way we present it to them in a beautiful setting.
In Stand Restaurant we would like to present cuisine which is based on tradition, on traditional flavours, but in a new version. We don’t transform them, so I’ll never make a purée or foam from gulyás soup. But thanks to the technologies we use, we provide the kind of taste experience – our children’s – that visitor from abroad can tell: “Wow, this Gulyás soup is really one of the best soups in the world.”
The Best Chef: There is a very clear message that you give regarding the quality of your product. You are very strong on no compromises in terms of quality, celebrating local production and building a bond of work and direct trust with producers. Please tell us more about this fundamental aspect for your work.
Szabina Szulló: It is very important for us to use the best ingredients available. We try to use as many Hungarian ingredients as possible, so in most cases we use unique Hungarian products. We are also known for supporting Hungarian small producers and farmers. We start by thinking together, through what we think and believe in, to deliver products that meet our needs. Because we run a large restaurant, we can order larger quantities; this allows suppliers to plan ahead and for the long term; they can build their capacity and offer it accordingly – based on the feedback gathered – which can result in the future across the country.
We run two restaurants: Stand25, which is a casual bistro, and Stand restaurant, which is considered by many to be a fine dining restaurant, but in my opinion Stand25 bistro also falls into the fine dining category. For me fine dining means that we prepare a really good dish using particularly good products, and of course this should be combined with professional service and a pleasant environment. Our guests get it 100%. They go to Stand25 when they want it nice and casual. They visit Stand when they plan to spend a bit more time over their dinner.
When I have the chance to get a particularly wonderful wiener schnitzel, I can actually feel the care they have taken with the dish, they have prepared it with good quality meat, they have made sure it is properly breaded; they have prepared a potato salad based on really excellent quality potatoes, for me that can be fine dining too; just like dining here.
The Best Chef: Before you introduce us to your other restaurant, Stand25 bistro, how did this idea come about?
Szabina Szulló: Stand25 is the other place that we run. Its story began in a rather special way. Tamás took part in the Bocuse d’Or competition in 2016, for the second time. He won the European final and in January 2017, an incredibly amazing result, he succeeded in coming 4th in the world final. After a competition in January, we opened our business in the market hall in less than a month. We opened the Stand25 bistro in the Budapest Market Hall on Hold Street. People were surprised: what are we doing in the market when we come from a world of Michelin stars. Still people waited for months to get a table after we had opened. We had to keep on increasing our capacity, staff and kitchen to meet the expectations and interest of our guests.
I think Budapest, as well as the whole country and its surroundings, needs a lot of Stand25 and similar venues. The so-called Hungarian comfort food is in high demand. Our menu includes, for example, the following dishes: layered potatoes, real chicken or rooster stew, for which we also use the entrails, served with real pasta made on a wooden board. Cheese dumpling is also one of our flagship dishes which we cannot remove from our menu. Our guests are very insistent on certain dishes, such as Somlói galuska or somlóski biszkopt. We have a list of 5-6-7 emblematic dishes that make our guests always come back to us.
We have outgrown the original site of Stand25, on Market Hall Street. It was our wish to offer better conditions, more comfort, higher quality and better menu to our guests. In short – we wanted a better restaurant. There was an opportunity to move it close to the castle from the Buda side. Now I can say that we are ready to receive our guests in a bistro with a very pleasant atmosphere.
In the meantime, we were brainstorming about returning to the fine-dining world. Obviously, we planned opening of a restaurant. While Stand25 started off well, we absolutely wanted to set up our new restaurant.
The Best Chef: Hungarian traditions, how important are they to you? and how much do they affect your work?
Szabina Szulló: Among Hungarian traditions, pickles such as pickled plums play a key role. For example, at a Sunday family meal, wiener schnitzel can easily be combined with apple compote, pickled plums or pickled peppers, or even small melons. We uphold the tradition. We make thousands jars of pickles at the restaurant every year. We prepare syrups ourselves on the basis of raspberry, elderberry, cherry. We also pickle and marinate various vegetables. So, we are well-stocked. This way, during the winter period when we have a rather limited offer of vegetables, we have them available, also on our menu.
When spring arrives, we are very curious about what nature has to offer us. We start the year with wild garlic, which comes first, then continue until raspberry season and even plums, which may be the last to be preserved. We “close” the season with jams and preserves.
The Best Chef: After years of collaboration and working together, what is your working relationship with the other pillar of the kitchen, chef Tamás Széll, here in the “Stand family”?
Szabina Szulló: We used to work together when we had one restaurant. It had its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages prevailed. There are some difficult moments in the kitchen. A helping hand, a supportive partner can mean a lot then. Since we have two locations, we have had to reorganise our work. Tamás represents the bistro most of the time, while I myself hardly leave the place, the restaurant. We’re both maximalists. So naturally we had some conflicts, but always in favour of better performance, which allowed us to achieve even better results.
When it comes to a new menu or even just a new dish to introduce to our menu, when Tamás or I have an idea related to it or concerning an ingredient, we create the menu, always and 100% together. In both places. Take Sunday lunch, for example: sometimes it happens that we have the idea to prepare any dish, even just a vegetable dish, with some kind of side dish to go with it.
We may also include it in the menu at Stand25. This is how it works. Luckily, we both have our hobbies. I believe that once we are here, on the ground, in our profession, we need to be focused and give it 110% of our attention. When we have a passion, we can completely recharge our batteries and return to the kitchen with a fresh mind and in good shape.