Costes Downtown: Food without compromise (interview)


As a young man, Costes proprietor Károly Gerendai had very different aspirations. He and a partner launched the first ever Sziget Festival in 1993, which went on to become one of Europe’s biggest music festivals. The popularity of that event allowed him the luxury to travel and see and experience other cultures and more specifically other culinary traditions at a time when his home country suffered from a lack of noteworthy establishments. He dabbled in the restaurant trade but his true passion was for fine dining.

When Gerendai opened Costes in 2008 on a popular street in Budapest’s District IX (the Hungarian capital), the culinary revolution in Budapest was still in its infancy. Gerendai’s vision was to create something unique, where he and his staff could focus on the details but also on ways to stay one step ahead of the competition. His team’s uncompromising approach to quality helped Costes win a Michelin star in 2010, making it the first restaurant in Hungary to receive the honor.

The second location, Costes Downtown, opened in 2015 in the Prestige Hotel in Budapest and although the atmosphere is more relaxed than it’s predecessor, the focus remains on the quality of the food and all the intricacies of a well-rounded dining experience. 

Hotelier International: What was the concept when you opened the first Costes?

Károly Gerendai: From the beginning, I wanted to create the kind of establishment where there would be no compromises in a trade that is otherwise known for making compromises. Fortunately there are now enough restaurants to support the existence of producers that can supply quality ingredients. Quality and consistency has always been an issue for us.

HI: How has winning a Michelin star affected people’s expectations of their dining experience at Costes?

KG: We were the first restaurant in Hungary to receive a Michelin star and people believed that what we offered was on par with international standards. This is a big responsibility. What we needed to do was focus not on keeping this standard but on finding ways to improve. In that way we could ensure that wouldn’t slip in quality.

Michelin may only focuses on the food, but our guests focus on much more than what’s on their plate. From the moment they enter, they start to form an opinion about the place. Our job is to offer a level of service that satisfies them on every level. We always need to exceed expectations. And this challenge is increasingly difficult as people’s expectations are increasing given the number of quality establishments in Hungary that has also risen dramatically.

HI: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in running your restaurants?

KG: I never thought to be honest that it would be unsustainable for so long. It’s been eight years since we opened Ráday utca and we’re still not turning a profit, but we’re close. At the beginning, I never would have imagined it would be such a hopeless scenario.

Then we made the decision to open the downtown space because we figured that if it’s impossible to make a profit in a restaurant as small as the Ráday utca location then we should try to open a restaurant where we can draw in more customers and create a dining area and kitchen that resolves many of the issues we encountered at our first location.

HI: What can guests expect when they come to Costes?

KG: The Ráday utca Costes is a typical fine dining establishment while the Downtown location is somewhere between bistro and fine dining, in its relaxed atmosphere and interior design that incorporates a lot of natural elements.

Our strengths lie is the quality of our ingredients as well as in our team, which is made up of confectioners, chefs, servers and sommeliers that help produce the kind of complex experience that much of our competition cannot afford to offer.

We want to create an environment where not only the food is the focus but also the ambience and the service. To make this happen not only does the kitchen need to work from morning till night but the management and the rest of the staff also have an important role in the production. Running a successful restaurant is about planning all the details. The perfect symbiosis of these elements is really down to the restaurant manager who has the complex task of bringing it all together.

HI: How would you describe the style of cuisine at Costes?
Ráday utca represents an international approach that doesn’t necessarily fit into one particular style. It’s an amalgamation of what the chef brings to the table and the culinary trends that exist in Hungary.

Our chef is Portuguese and he didn’t grow up or receive his training in Hungary so he had to learn about ingredients commonly used in Hungarian cuisine from sour cream to mangalitsa pork and how to incorporate these into his creations.

HI: What sort of ingredients do you work with?

KG: Our goal at Costes Downtown is to work with more Hungarian ingredients many of which come from small, local producers. In the case of fish, we look at what we can acquire from the region, such as the Adriatic. We also look to use ingredients that are in harmony with nature. But it’s a process and a challenge to find ingredients of consistent quality in Hungary.

HI: Can you talk a bit about your team?

KG: A few months before we opened in 2008, we had already selected our chef Miguel Viera. We also brought over a couple of chef’s in training from Michelin star restaurants in France and had them help train the crew. Today Miguel acts as the executive chef for both locations and consults with our chef Eszter Palágyi, who worked under Miguel for two years. Our chefs Tiago Sabarigo and Petra Tischler work at the downtown location in rotation.

We try to work with the kind of people that are committed and have achieved something notable in their professional lives, but it’s also important that they be young and dynamic and willing to learn. We were able to attract a certain caliber of staff not only because we give them an opportunity to be innovative and develop their skills but also because we give them room to breathe and be individuals. Actually, many of our staff come back to Budapest after working abroad because they realize that they are able to live here just as well as they could in London or Dubai or anywhere else in world. Our sommelier, for example, has land and a winery in Burgenland but he now works in our Downtown restaurant.

HI: Costes is known for its presentation, can you speak a bit about that?

KG: Presentation is like an art form and it’s an important part of the culinary experience. To do it right, you need someone who is creative and talented. A plate needs to look like a work of art, from the colors, to the textures to the shapes. But it’s also important to maintain a balance between taste and presentation and for one not to overpower the other.

But the environment in which the dishes are presented is also important, right down to the flatware and the handmade bill holder made of American walnut or the hanging garden and other natural elements in the space. I think guests who dine here have come to expect this kind of harmony from us.