In the Corinthia Hotel recently for breakfast, I was struck by the timeless elegance of this grand institution. One of the Maltese-owned stable of hotels in the Corinthia Group, it’s a city landmark. My colleague, a regular visitor, struck up a conversation with a waiter, an older man whose manner and bearing embodied the style and elegance of the setting. It was as if someone had pressed a button and I was back in a time when hotels were more than rooms with beds and their guests more than passing trade. I wanted an introduction.
Sometime later, I sat down with Ernő Varga and his friend and colleague Tibor Meskál to have what I hope will be the first of many conversations.
Both men, now in their seventies, have spent a lifetime in the hospitality business. They’ve seen the changes brought by the turn of the century and speak wistfully of a time when waiting was a trained profession rather than something young people did to get them through college.
Both started as apprentices in the Corinthia when it re-opened back in 1961 as the Grand Hotel Royal. Varga spoke of a time when they had teachers, experts who trained them to recognise class and behave appropriately. How they stood, moved, spoke – it was a little like being in the military, he said, with a smile. Back then, as a waiter, he could afford handmade shoes and tailored suits. His profession was one that was valued.
Up till the late 1980s, hotels in Budapest were run by a government-owned company that moved staff around according to need. There was a hierarchy back then, with the Grand Hotel topping the list. It always had salmon and caviar and olives and exotic fruit while, say, the Gellert and the Astoria would only get these treats on special occasions. Varga received an all-round training and is, as Meskál put it, home and host in all areas. For 10 years, he ran Fekete Holló, a restaurant in the Castle District, on a profit-sharing scheme with the government, but was outbid when it was auctioned in the privatisation of 1993. In 2004, he returned to the Grand Hotel Royal (now the Corinthia), where he works mornings and covers breakfast.
As much an institution as the hotel itself, this quietly spoken man (who, as district champion, regularly beats 20-year-olds at ping pong) oozes style. He shares his wealth of knowledge and experience with new waiters, schooling them in the skills they need to perform well on the restaurant stage. It is a delight to watch him at work, to see his attentiveness to detail and the pleasure he takes in doing what he does and doing it well.
The path Meskál took was slightly different. This debonair septuagenarian is now Senior Duty Manager at the Corinthia and judging by the number of times his phone rang, he’s in demand. He, too, apprenticed in the Grand Hotel Royal from 1961, later moving to Gundel, where he won a waiter competition in 1963. And he, too, knows his trade.
Meskál left Hungary in 1966, following the path of not-so-true love which took him to Australia via a refugee camp in Italy and cafés in Rome. In Australia, he met a Hungarian woman who would eventually bring him back home.
He spoke of the history of the grand hotels in Budapest, of the climate of 1896 that left its mark on these institutions. Szabadság híd, then Franz Joseph bridge, was opened. Work on Parliament had finished. Metro 1 was in operation. The Grand Hotel Royal was the first hotel to be built around a Turkish bath, one of many in the city. It held afternoon tea dances in the Palm Courtyard which attracted milliners and shop assistants, accountants and tailors, factory workers and lawyers, everyone turned out in their best attire. Class divisions were parked at the door as classiness and style won out inside.
Back in the 1960s, hotels in London, Paris, and Zurich were seen as the pinnacle of service, with professional waiters who revelled in their trade. Today, he says, waiters are prostituted by restaurant owners, paid little for poor work, and dependent on tips to pay their rent. A far cry from Varga’s handmade shoes and tailored suits of the 1960s. Hotels take people off the street, many of whom can’t set a table. They may have the look but they lack the style. Things, he said, are spiralling downwards.
But in Australia, in the New World, the opposite is happening. Back in the late 1960s when Meskál first arrived, the country didn’t have a School of Gastronomy. Waiting was not a recognised profession. But when European emigrants like himself came ashore and went to work in the country’s finest hotels, they brought their style with them. The Sydney Opera House opened its doors in 1973, the same year that the School of Gastronomy opened, too. The spokes of the hospitality wheel were finally recognised as skilled trades.
Meskál, who himself has twice served the Queen of England, was one of the first professionals in the country to take apprentices under his wing. Those first six, who started at the Sydney Hilton, still visit him today. Three have their own restaurants, two manage hotels, and one left the fold to become a landscape gardener.
When he came back to Budapest in 1996, Meskál went to work in the Intercontinental, a hotel in which the Vatican once held shares. Sought after for his international experience and his innate understanding of the psyche of the Hungarian waiter, he began a new chapter. He himself had once learned from the masters. Now it was time to return the favour.
Today he’s involved in training, lecturing at the Schnitta Sámuel Association for Hungarian Restaurant Culture. There’s a book in the offing and an instructional film for those who want to learn the art of waiting. And it is an art. Or rather, it was. Both he and Varga are on a mission to save the waiting world and to reawaken the style and class they both embody.
Gentlemen, it was a pleasure chatting with you.
First published in the Budapest Times 13 October 2017