Chef Louis Szathmary – a Tribute to the Master

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CHEF LOUIS SZATHMARY – A TRIBUTE TO THE MASTER

The following was sent to me recently via an email:

CHICAGO TRIBUNE
NEWS
1996

Louis Szathmary, a larger-than-life chef, teacher, writer and philanthropist who operated The Bakery restaurant here from 1963 to 1989, died Friday at Illinois Masonic Hospital after a brief illness. He was 77.

After selling his restaurant, he became chef laureate at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., considered the world’s largest food-service educator. His 400,000-item culinary arts collection of memorabilia and books, valued in excess of $2 million, is housed at the university.

In recent years, Chef Szathmary divided his time between Providence and Chicago, where his food-service consulting firm was located. At the time of his death, he was working on two books and was active on the editorial advisory board of Biblio magazine.

Other donations he made from a personal library that totaled 45,000 books included a Franz Liszt collection to Boston University, cookbooks to the University of Iowa and a Hungarian collection to the University of Chicago.

A native of Hungary with a doctorate in psychology from the University of Budapest, Louis Szathmary immigrated to the United States in 1951. After cooking in restaurants and corporate dining rooms, he went into food-service research. He came to Chicago in 1959 as manager of new product development for Armour and Co. and opened his restaurant four years later.

The Bakery, at 2218 N. Lincoln Ave., brought continental flair to the local restaurant scene. Its signature dish, an individual beef Wellington, became one of the city’s claims to gastronomic fame. The restaurant’s success also made its owner a celebrity–a forerunner of the outspoken New American chefs who came to prominence in the 1970s and ’80s.

Of considerable girth with silver hair and a sweeping white mustache, Chef Szathmary was the center of attention in his restaurant dining room. He was described as indefatigable, witty, unique, blustery, egotistical and sensual by various writers.

As a book author, newspaper columnist, radio broadcaster and lecturer, the chef spoke out on subjects as diverse as convenience foods and restaurant critics. (Unlike most classically trained chefs, he was for convenience foods and helped develop frozen and dehydrated food products for companies such as Stouffer and Armour and for NASA. As for critics, “They can’t tell shiitake from Shinola,” he liked to say.)

Chef Szathmary also was active in a campaign in the mid-1970s to persuade the U.S. Department of Labor to elevate chefs from the category of “domestic” laborers.

His books were “The Chef’s Secret Cook Book,” “Sears Gourmet Cooking Forum,” “American Gastronomy,” “The Chef’s New Secret Cook Book,” and “The Bakery Restaurant Cookbook.” He also was editor of the 15-volume “Cookery America” and “Antique American Cookbooks.”

He was honored as a “living legend” by Food Arts Magazine, the Illinois Restaurant Association and the James Beard Foundation. He was scheduled to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Penn State University Hotel Society in April 1997. One of his favorite tributes came in 1990 when the alley behind The Bakery was renamed Szathmary Lane by the Chicago City Council.

Survivors include his wife, Sada; a daughter, Magda; and a brother.

A private funeral will be held in Chicago on Oct. 12. A public memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 24 in Bond Chapel of the University of Chicago, 1025 E. 58th St. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be sent to the Museum Acquisition Fund of the Culinary Archives & Museum at Johnson & Wales University.
***
I first became curious about Chef Louis Szathmary when I was writing articles for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange in the 1990s. At the time, there was not much I knew about him other than what appeared on dust jackets of his books. I started out initially with the idea of writing capsule biographies about some of the most prominent chefs.

Finding chefs to write about was no problem—there are so many, especially nowadays, when hundreds, if not thousands, of four-star restaurants throughout the USA all boasting of their own super-chefs, who in turn frequently write cookbooks. I must have several dozen chef-authored cookbooks on my bookshelves. Other famous chefs appear on television and cable cooking shows; many of them have become familiar household names and faces. Who isn’t familiar with Rachel Ray and Paula Dean, Bobbie Flay and dozens of other TV chefs?

Many of the old-time chefs and cooking teachers of the 1800s – women such as Fannie Farmer, Miss Leslie, Mrs. Lincoln and others have been written about in depth by other writers.

I wanted tell you about some other super-chefs, starting with one you may not know much about.

My favorite Chef is Louis Szathmary! (Pronounced ZATH-ma-ree). Szathmary had an incredibly fascinating life.

Louis Szathmary, described by one writer as “a heavyset man with a generous face and large bushy mustache “(a description that matches the face on the cover of “The Chef’s Secret Cook Book”) was, surprisingly, a Hungarian who had a doctorate in psychology from the University of Budapest and a master’s degree in journalism. Szathmary was born in Hungary on June 2, 1919, reportedly on a freight train while his family fled invading Soviet troops. He learned to cook in the Hungarian army. After service in the Hungarian army during World War II, Szathmary spent time in a succession of German and Soviet prison camps and thereafter was a displaced person confined to the American occupation zone in Austria. He lived in Austria and other Western European countries before coming to the USA in 1951.

A few clues to Szathmary’s background appear in the preface to “AMERICA EATS”, by Nelson Algren. “AMERICA EATS” was published in 1992 as part of the Iowa Szathmary Arts Series. Szathmary, who knew Algren personally—and purchased the manuscript from him–wrote the introduction to “AMERICA EATS”. (Nelson Algren was a fiction writer and the author of “THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM” which won the first National Book Award. In addition to writing fiction and poetry, Algren also wrote two travel books. “AMERICA EATS” was his only cookbook).

What cookbook collector hasn’t heard of the Iowa Szathmary Culinary Arts Series? But, in case you haven’t, briefly, Louis Szathmary, in addition to being a chef and the owner of the famed Bakery Restaurant in Chicago for many years, was a cookbook collector. Actually, Szathmary didn’t just collect cookbooks—he amassed an enormous collection of rare cookbooks, scarce pamphlets and unique manuscripts spanning five centuries of culinary art. He had a collection of twelve thousand books devoted to what he called “Hungarology” – books about his native country – which were eventually donated to the University of Chicago Joseph Regenstein Library. Ten thousand books of Hungarian literature were donated to Indiana University while a small collection of composer Franz Liszt’s letters was given to Boston University.

Johnson & Wales University, the world’s largest school devoted to the food and service industry, was the recipient of over 200,000 assorted items, described as a treasure trove of historical artifacts, which filled sixteen trailer trucks used to make the transfer to the school. There were antique kitchen implements, cheese graters, meat grinders, nut crackers, raisin seeders, chocolate molds, books and even menus.

Included in the gift to Johnson & Wales was “a collection within the collection”, a presidential autograph archive that included documents dealing in one way or another with food, drink, or entertainment, written or signed by every American chief executive. In George Washington’s handwriting is a list of table china he inherited from a relative. A handwritten letter from Mary Todd Lincoln invites a friend from Baltimore to the White House for an evening of relaxation. In a penciled note to his wife, Julia, Ulysses S. Grant asks that two bottles of champagne be sent to the oval office for a reception with congressional leaders. (Szathmary referred to this collection “from George to George”, meaning from George Washington to George Bush). His gift to Johnson & Wales has been attracting thousands of visitors since opening to the public—I believe it! I would love to go to Rhode Island just to see the collection!

The autograph collection includes items written by other historic figures, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Charles Dickens, as well as a note from the fourth earl of Sandwich, inventor of the most frequently ordered food item in the world.

If all of this were not mind-boggling enough, in addition, Szathmary donated over 20,000 cookbooks to the University of Iowa Libraries, creating the Szathmary Collection of Culinary Arts. Almost overnight, according to David Schoonover, the library’s rare book curator, the institution became a “major research center in the culinary arts”.
The University of Iowa Press, in conjunction with the University of Iowa Libraries, publishes reprints, new editions, and translations of important cookbooks from the collection of Chef Szathmary. It must have given Chef Szathmary great satisfaction to witness the birth of the Szathmary Culinary Arts Series. Each title presents an unusually interesting rarity from the collection he donated to the institution. One of these published books was “AMERICA EATS”, which I have in my own collection.

“In my native Hungary,” Szathmary wrote for “AMERICA EATS”, “I was raised in a bookish family. From my great-grandfather on my father’s side, my forebears were all book collectors, and when I had to leave just hours before the Soviet army arrived in the Transylvania city where I resided and worked in the fall of 1944, I had already inherited and amassed a sizable number of books, mainly on Hungarian literature and other Hungarian subjects…”

However, Szathmary arrived, in his own words, “virtually penniless” in New York in 1951, with only fourteen books in his small wooden trunk. He appeared to have been fond of telling the story of arriving on our shores with $1.10 in his pocket, one change of underwear, two pairs of socks, one Sunday suit – and fourteen books. (It is worth noting that the 14 books Szathmary treasured most were not donated to any of the universities. The books he carried with him to America included a Bible he received as a child, three books on Mozart and several volumes of Hungarian poetry).

Upon his arrival in America, Szathmary began to collect books. Writes Szathmary, “My first purchase was a book by Ludwig Bemelmans at the Marlboro outlet store at 42nd Street and Broadway, where in 1952 all the remainder books were sold for nineteen cents each.” Szathmary confessed that he worked two jobs in the beginning, one during the day and another at night—and spent all the money he made on books. Of his early days in America, Szathmary said that he would spend hours in the Salvation Army basement searching for books, which he purchased for as little as five cents each. He said, “I rummaged through books in bins, on tables outside the door, and amid the garbage the accumulates in the back of used bookshops. I found treasures—valuable items—because I had the time.” Later, as time and money improved, he often worked at one job during the day and another in the evening. On the seventh day, he recalled, “I spent all the money I made on books.” (A man after my own heart!)

He continued to collect books while at the same time, as his interest in culinary arts and food management grew, he began to collect books in these fields as well.

Szathmary and his wife Sadako Tanino, owned and operated The Bakery Restaurant in Chicago for 26 years. It grossed more than $1 million a year for much of the time he was in business—and this was a restaurant that served only five dinners a week, no lunch, no bar and no “early birds”.

Szathmary authored several cookbooks of his own, including “THE CHEF’S SECRET COOK BOOK”, “THE CHEF’S NEW SECRET COOK BOOK”, “THE BAKERY RESTAURANT COOK BOOK” and “AMERICAN GASTRONOMY”. He was advisory editor for a series of 27 cookbooks, in 15 volumes, titled “COOKERY AMERICANA”, for which he also provided introductions. (I only have three of the volumes from the series at this time, “MIDWESTERN HOME COOKERY” and “MRS. PORTER’S NEW SOUTHERN COOKERY BOOK”, and “COOL, CHILL, AND FREEZE”. These are facsimile editions of earlier cookbooks. Szathmary seems to have been utterly dedicated to American cookery and cookbooks.

Szathmary was a prolific writer, and in addition to cookbooks, also wrote poetry. Additionally, he wrote a food column for the Chicago Daily News, and then in the Sun-Times every week for twelve years! Maybe he felt he didn’t have enough to do, for after closing the restaurant, he continued to operate Szathmary Associates, a food system design and management consulting business, and he devoted a great deal of time to what he described as “the matter of the books”. He also continued to lecture and worked continuously on new projects.

What is particularly intriguing about Szathmary as a chef is, I think, his wide range of expertise. So many of the super chefs today focus on one type of cooking. Szathmary, who could have devoted himself to solely to Hungarian cuisine, seems to have adopted the American potpourri of cookery, which embraces many nationalities. He was famous for his Continental cuisine, in particular his Beef Wellington.

What you also may not know about Szathmary is that he developed the first frozen dinners for Stouffer Food Corp. He worked as product development manager for Armour Food, coming up with new foods and ways to prepare them. Szathmary also designed a kitchen for military field hospitals that could be dropped by parachute and assembled quickly in combat zones.

At The Bakery, Szathmary’s restaurant in Chicago, he dominated the dining room with his commanding presence. He’d walk around in rolled up sleeves, wearing an apron, often telling diners in his booming voice, what to order – or to ask them why something was left on a plate. His customers at The Bakery appear to have provided the inspiration for “THE CHEF’S SECRET COOK BOOK”. In the introduction, Szathmary said he gave recipes to ladies who visited his restaurant. Apparently, they often accused him of leaving something out!

Szathmary wrote, “When I tell the ladies that I am able to give them everything except my long years of experience, they still look suspicious. So once again I launch into my best explanation, an old record played over and over again, which goes something like this: If you go to a concert and listen to Arthur Rubinstein playing the MEPHISTO WALTZ of Franz Liszt, and if you go and see him backstage after the performance and ask him for the piano notes, and if through some miracle he gives them to you, and you take them home and sit down at your piano (untouched for years), open up the notes and play the Mephisto Waltz and your husband says ‘Darling, it doesn’t sound like Arthur Rubenstein—“ what do you tell him?

Probably this: Oh, what a selfish artist! He left out something from the notes, I’m sure. Because when I play it, it doesn’t sound like when he plays it.

Well, dear ladies,” concluded the great chef, “Do you really think Rubenstein left out some of the notes? Or do you think his talent had something to do with it—and his daily practice for years and years and years?

You see, my dear ladies, cooking is just like playing the piano—it needs talent, training and practice.”

Szathmary concluded, “The best-kept secret of the good chef is his long training and daily performance. It’s not enough to make a dish once and when it’s not up to standard, to declare, ‘the recipe is no good.’” A specialty of “The Chef’s New Secret Cookbook”—if you manage to obtain a copy—is that each recipe is followed by a “chef’s secret” – Szathmary, throughout his life, was enormously generous – sharing his recipes, his collections, everything in his life. It saddens me that I never met him—but curiously, I sometimes feel, as I am typing, that he is looking over my shoulder and nodding his approval.
**
Szathmary spearheaded culinary education in Chicago by fostering work study programs with restaurants at vocational and high schools. Students and dining enthusiasts were invited to use the library on the second floor of The Bakery. He shared a passion for travel by assisting first time travelers with their plans to visit Europe and Asia.

Szathmary chose, on his own, to donate the bulk of his collections to various universities and institutions. Aside from Szathmary’s incredible generosity, what a wise move to make! Can you think of any better way to make sure the things you love most will be treasured by future generations, people who are certain to love your books as much as you do?

Szathmary explained that he had always bought books for various reasons. ‘When you bet on the horse race,” he said, “You bet for win, for place, for show. When you buy books, you buy some to read, some to own, and some for reference. You want to possess the books, you want to own them, you want to hold them. Perhaps you even hope that you will read them….’ (As a book collector myself, I completely understand this philosophy—it’s never been enough just to read my books – I have to own them too). 

And after having donated hundreds of thousands of books and documents to these different universities, Szathmary confessed “I am still buying books. It’s like getting pregnant after the menopause; it’s not supposed to happen.”

My all-time favorite Szathmary story is written in an article about obsessed amateurs. Writer Basbanes met Szathmary as the transfer of some 200,000 articles to the warehouses at Johnson & Wales was taking place. Szathmary was overseeing the transfer of his collection. Where, Basbanes asked the great chef, had he stored all this material?

With a twinkle in his hazel-brown eyes, Szathmary said, “My restaurant was very small, just one hundred and seventeen chairs downstairs for the customers to sit. But I owned the whole building, you see, and upstairs there were thirty-one rooms in seventeen apartments. That’s where I kept all the books”.

For many of us, we recognize in Louis Szathmary a kindred spirit. How to explain to non-collecting people the love of searching, finding, owning treasured books? One can only hope there are lots of books in Heaven. Meanwhile, here on earth, Louis Szathmary has left us with a wondrous legacy.

“SEARS GOURMET COOKING” was published in 1969.

“THE CHEF’S SECRET COOK BOOK” was published in 1972 by Quadrangle Books and is packed with mouth-watering recipes and lots of “Chef’s secrets” – tips provided by the master himself. “The Chef’s Secret Cook Book” was on the New York Times bestseller list for several years.

“AMERICAN GASTRONOMY” was published in 1974.

“THE CHEF’S NEW SECRET COOKBOOK” was published in 1976 and

“THE BAKERY RESTAURANT COOKBOOK” was published in 1981.

Szathmary also edited a fifteen volume collection of historic American cookbooks. One of the volumes in this series is “Cool, Chill and Freeze/A new Approach to Cookery” which I purchased from Alibris.com. This is a reproduction, with introduction and suggested recipes from Louis Szathmary, of recipes from “FLORIDA SALADS” by Frances Barber Harris, originally published in 1926, and Alice Bradley’s ‘ELECTRIC REFRIGERATOR MENUS AND RECIPES”, first published in 1928 (oddly enough, I have both of the originals).

Included in the Iowa Szathmary Culinary Arts Series are “THE CINCINNATI COOKBOOK”, “RECEIPTS OF PASTRY AND COOKERY FOR THE USE OF HIS SCHOLARS”, “THE KHWAN NIAMUT OR NAWAB’S DOMESTIC COOKERY” (originally published in 1839 in Calcutta for European colonials living in India), “P.E.O. COOK BOOK” and the previously mentioned “AMERICA EATS” by Nelson Algren.

Since embarking on the life of Louis Szathmary, I have purchased three of his cookbooks from Alibris.Com on the Internet – they have a great listing! The most recent to arrive is a copy of “The Bakery Restaurant Cookbook” which I was delighted to discover is autographed by the great chef—who was something of an artist, too! (Why am I not surprised?).

His ‘autograph’ is the face of a chef, wearing a white chef’s hat.

Louis Szathmary was a member of the United States Academy of Chefs, the Chef de Cuisine Association of Chicago, and the Executive Chefs’ Association of Illinois. In 1974, he was awarded the coveted titled of Outstanding Culinarian by the Culinary Institute of America, and in 1977, he was elected Man of the Year by the Penn State Hotel and Restaurant Society. He was considered by many to be the “homemakers best friend”, a master chef who willingly shared his secrets of culinary expertise with the world. His cookbooks read in a friendly, chatty way, making me wish with all my heart I could have known….this super chef! You would be wise to make an effort to add his books—if you don’t already own them—to your cookbook collection. Louis Szathmary was, above all, an excellent chef.

Nicholas Basbanes, in his article about Chef Louis for Biblio, described his first meeting with “this delightful, compassionate, brilliant man with the big white mustache”, relating “when I asked how it feels to give away books that were such an indelible part of his generous soul, Chef Szathmary responded, “The books I give away now, they stay in my heart, just like all the others. I don’t have to see them to love them.”
***
After writing about Louis Szathmary for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, I wrote about him again, on my blog, Sandychatter, which began in March, 2009. I wrote my updated article about Szathmary in 2011. To date, the post has received 131 messages—and THAT is what has inspired me to write about my favorite chef again.

In January, 2011 someone named Nancy wrote: “Sandy – I had the pleasure of working as one of Chef Louis’ personal assistants from 1985-1986. He certainly was a fascinating character and very aware of his own importance in cooking history. In addition to his extensive cookbook collection which included favorite church and community cookbooks (a personal favorite) Chef Louis also had an extensive post card collection. Seeing your blog about him brought back wonderful memories”.

In February, 2011, someone named Sue wrote: “Thank you so much for writing about Mr. Szathmary! I only ate at The Bakery twice, as I lived several hours away, but both times he came into the restaurant and greeted each table – such a new thing for a Midwesterner in the 70s & 80s. I have eaten in many famous restaurants since then but this first experience with great food and an interesting chef, in a unique setting, will always remain the most memorable and the best! I have all of his cookbooks and have slowly tried to collect the Americana series though some have been impossible to find.”

In March, 2011 a man named Dennis wrote: “Hi, Sandy-My wife and I had a ‘colorful’ experience working with/for Chef Louis, similar, it seems, to Grant Aschatz’s time with Charlie Trotter. Our first night in the city, the Chef bid us dine at the Bakery at his expense…but tip well! — it was great. Coincidentally, we sat at a table next to Mike and Sue Petrich; he was a wine representative for Mirassou wines. After dinner, the Petrichs and we went upstairs to our modest 3rd floor apartment rented to us by the Chef and his delightful wife, Sada. We survived four months and had a colorful story resulting from each day with the Chef. Barbara Kuch was there and incredibly helpful. The staff was wonderful. Our “larger than life” Chef brought old-world training values to his new world – such a challenge…for all. He was unbelievably generous and painfully demanding — beyond professional. Sadly, I had to witness the Chef physically threatening a very young apprentice for “f—ing up the chocolate moose.” Conversely, when my wife’s father was dying of cancer, the Chef said, “Shhh – don’t tell Sada – here is $250 for your flight home to see your dad.” I know Beethoven has an emotional breadth unequalled by all others musically; similar was Chef Szathmary in the realms of cuisine and people. Sandy – thanks for sharing; thanks for listening…there’s so much more. Thanks for the opportunity. Sincerely – d’crabb”

As you can imagine, pieces of a puzzle – the puzzle about the enigmatic Louis Szathmary – began to fall into place, through the Internet, through readers finding my article about him and wanting to share their experiences with the one and only Chef Louis.

In April, 2011, I received the following message from Helen “Hi Sandy, I must add my story. When I was about 35 years old I was married to a Hungarian. My name then was Muranyi. I was working in Chicago selling radio advertising. Unwittingly I made an in person sales call on Louis. He roared at the thought that he might need advertising. He explained that reservations were filled weeks in advance. However, he was such a sweetheart he invited me to his library to see his 14th century Hungarian cookbook and his test kitchen. Needless to say at his invitation my husband and I did dine there as often as possible and it was the “special” restaurant for occasions for the children. The two younger never got to go as they were too young and grudgingly bring it up still as adults that were cheated. Always when we did dine there we received a special appetizer (usually a baked white fish in white sauce) that we noticed other diners were not served. Could it have been that the reservation was made in the name Muranyi? Usually we had a tableside visit from Louis and sometimes his cute little Japanese wife. Actually I am searching for some information on her artwork that she had on the walls made from the wine corks. If you could be helpful in any way I would be grateful for any information or help. Those were special memories for my family. **

In July, 2011, someone named Juan wrote the following message: “Sandy, did you know that Chef Louis was responsible for the lobbying initiative that changed the US government’s classification of food service workers from ‘domestics’ to ‘professionals’. Chef Louis did, indeed, have a temper . . . . I worked there throughout my adolescence -Saturdays, school breaks, summer vacations- and I managed to get myself on the receiving end of it from time to time. Miss Lenegan (as Barbara Kuck often affectionately addressed Nancy) can attest to that! It took me a while, but I eventually realized that much of Chef Louis’ temper came from the fact that he cared deeply for and had high expectations of every single member of his “family” at The Bakery.

There were three different collage themes at The Bakery. Matchbooks, corks and obsolete currency. All of them were made by Louis and his wife Sadako (affectionately known as Sada or Auntie Sada) nee Tanino. The matchbook collages decorated the front room; the cork collages decorated “The Cork Room” (the main dining room); and the currency collages decorated “The Money Room” (the front room of the southernmost of the three storefronts used for private parties, banquets and the many cultural/social events that Louis hosted for the Hungarian community. could go on and on…….”

And in December, 2011, someone named Gabriele wrote the following: “How strange to come upon this blog today — I just happened to be wondering whether Sada was still alive and ran a Google search on her, and in the process came across your blog (which is quite lovely, by the way!).
I, too, worked with Chef Louis, but not in the kitchen. I was a part-time secretary who took dictation and typed up correspondence, articles, and whatever Chef needed. This was in 1993 and continued off and on for several years. My very young daughter came with me and stayed in her playpen except for lunchtime. She thought Chef Louis was Santa Claus!
He was working on a cookbook introduction and would ask me how to word things because he wanted to keep his Hungarian style while using proper English. It could be quite a challenge at times, and was always interesting. His wife, lovely Sada, was the epitome of grace, kindness and hospitality.

Chef Louis and I had some very interesting conversations about the Austro-Hungarian Empire as I had spent a college year in Baden bei Wien, Austria. He and lovely Sada will stay in my memories until I die. Thank you for such a wonderful post..”

Near the end of 2011, someone named Joan wrote the following message: “This is great!! I lived in Chicago until recently and LOVED Chef Szathmary and the restaurant. He was always generous and helpful and gave me perfect information re: products etc. Which brings me to why I was surfing his name. He had recommended a meat thermometer which I bought and which a guest recently broke, and I’ve been unable to find on line. It’s a La Pine (made in Switzerland). I see in his early correspondence that he’d provided a “form” to order it but I didn’t keep a copy. Do you by any chance have info regarding where I could look to order another??? Thank you so much!!!

Tributes to Chef Louis Szathmary continued to come throughout 2012:

In January, someone named Sue wrote: “…thanks for the write up on the Chef! I have his cookbook he signed for me with his legendary signature (he’d use 2 or 3 colored markers) where he made the L in Louis into a caricature of himself…the mustache, the chef hat were all drawn into the capital script L. I helped him with food prep for a tv show he was taping in Cleveland, Ohio in the early 70′s…I was only 12 or 13… he used my mom’s kitchen/stove to cook the turkey in the brown paper bag that he was going to pull from the oven on the show. Even though I was so young, he left a HUGE impression! I have used that cookbook so much that the pages are falling apart and I know it’s a treasure. Thanks for writing about him. I think part of the reason I love to try recipes, cook, etc… because of him. He was a very interesting man and larger than life… I am very privileged to have had the opportunity to have met him..”.

In March 2012, Kathy wrote “A wonderful treat to read all the comments….and stroll down the Hungarian lane….what a loss that there are not as many Hungarian restaurants to enjoy all the blessings of food, people, and their talents…one in Michigan called ‘Rhapsody’ was wonderful!! Thanks to all for sharing your stories….I will be looking for the Chef Szathmary cookbooks!!”

I have deliberately omitted all my response to messages but I thought this one was pertinent. I wrote the following back to Kathy: “thanks for writing! Thought I’d add a line – a few years ago I was visiting friends who live around central Oregon and they took me to a wonderful Hungarian restaurant for lunch. It was, for me, like stepping back in time. After lunch I spoke with the owner and told him my Hungarian connection, friends we’d had back in the 1960s – and he actually knew some of those Hungarian men – they had been Freedom fighters in the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Many escaped to the USA to avoid prosecution. I love Hungarian food, and also love the individual stories…”

In April, 2012, someone named Mike wrote: “ Hi Sandy, Thanks for posting the article about Chef Louis. He was my great-uncle. I only met him in person once but what a day! His library was massive and that was after he had given away many books. The food he cooked for us was exceedingly rich but very tasty. It’s easy to see why he shut down The Bakery, that style of food is long out of favor. I’m thinking it was easily a 2,000 calorie meal. But it was sublime food. Sada is an amazing woman and a lot of fun to be around..”

The next message I am copying (after leaving out many short messages from blog readers), is important because it comes from an employee of the University of Iowa. In November, 2012, I received the following from Colleen Theisen: Thank you for your wonderful article. If you want to see some of Chef Szathmáry’s collection we have digitized the handwritten cookbooks and put them online to be transcribed. You can find them here on our crowd sourcing page:

diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu.
Colleen Theisen
Outreach & Instruction Librarian
Special Collections & University Archives
University of Iowa

Then, in December, 2012 came a message from someone else who worked for the Chef. I received the following from someone named Andrew: “I met Chef Louis in the summer of 1953 when I was a school boy trying to be a kitchen help at the Jesuit Manresa Inst. in So. Norwalk, Connecticut where he was the Head Chef cooking three meals seven days a week for 250 or so Jesuits. To my good fortune I was able to keep up the relationship right up to the time he died in 1996. My two sons spent one summer each at his The Bakery Restaurant also as kitchen help. I was fortunate to have eaten at the Chef’s restaurant twice the last being when he had his 70th birthday bash at The Bakery. Chef Louis was kind to invite my wife and I to several events at the Johnson and Wales Culinary Museum and a private dinner at Dartmouth. If there ever was a “Most Unforgettable Character” he was it, while being a genuine Renaissance Man. May he rest in peace..”
Still in December, 2012, came this email from a man named Charles, a boyhood classmate of Chef Louis: “Upon reading your history of Louis Szathmary and The Bakery Restaurant, I felt it appropriate to send this letter detailing several reminiscences of my time with Louis. He was a good friend since our school days in Hungary, and I am hoping you enjoy these stories as you share them with others.

It is proper that I introduce myself. My name is Károly (Kahroy, Anglicized later to Charles) Bartha (the h is silent), third grade student (14 years old) at the Reformed high-school in Sp, in the Northeastern part of Hungary.
It is September of 1937. The pupils were excited to hear the news that two students were transferring: brothers, one in the first grade, the other in the fifth. (There were eight grades then). Géza (Gayzaw), the younger was in my brother’s class and lived with us in the same dormitory. The older, Lajos, immediately acquired the nickname, Poci (Potzi, one with a pouch) because of his large size around the waist.

For the Pentecost holiday next year, we received a four-day vacation. Because the brothers lived too far and the train fares were too costly, they decided to remain in Sarospatak. I asked them if they would like to spend the vacation with us. They accepted gladly. We arrived in Viss (Vish), my birthplace of about 1100 residents, unannounced. My father was the school-master for the Protestant (mostly Reformed), Jewish, and Gypsy (now Romany) pupils there.

My motherly grandparents lived with us and three more brothers in the same household. Although my parents were surprised, they welcomed the boys warmly.

There was not much to do in a hamlet with unpaved roads and without electricity. Our guests fit in fine immediately. Luckily, Lajos took along his set of pastel chalks and proceeded to make an excellent portrait of my grandpa. (Louis had a copy of it in Chicago.) Next day, he painted a picture of the mountain of Tokaj (Tokawy) and another of a manually operated ferry-boat on the bend of the nearby river, Bodrog.

Géza visited our vineyard and helped with the tedious job of red currant picking.

They went to church with us, where my father was the organist. I think they had a good time with us.

During his second year in Sarospatak, Lajos became the president of the school’s Literary and Debating Society. His talent for writing surfaced shortly and was greatly appreciated by the students and the teaching staff. After Lajos’ graduation in 1940, our paths parted. Would they ever cross again? The war was looming on the horizon.

Lajos served in the Hungarian Army, so did I. He cooked somewhere, I attended the Hungarian Royal Military Academy. He was taken POW by the Americans, I surrendered to them. I emigrated to Detroit in 1949, he followed two years later, eventually to Chicago. Around the end of 1960, I learned through emigrant papers that a fellow Hungarian named Louis Szathmary opened a restaurant in Chicago.

We dropped in unannounced for a Saturday lunch in The Bakery with our kids. We were seated, and shortly after, greeted by the Chef himself. After mutual introduction, Louis remembered me when I uttered the word, Viss. I remembered him immediately, hugging each-other.

Finishing our lunch, Louis didn’t let me pay for it.

Although he asked us to come back repeatedly, we did not for a while, fearing that he’ll repeat the hustle over the pay.
A few years later Louis invited us to a Hungarian gathering, for some cultural event. We accepted, and went back several times afterwards. Approaching my retirement, Louis asked me if I would help him in his library. Having nothing else to do, I gladly accepted his invitation.

A few years later, I began to work for him.

Arriving at The Bakery around noon, Louis introduced me to his “crew”. I knew Sada from earlier meetings, a pleasant, gracious lady indeed. Next came Barbara, the chief-steward carrying a huge string of keys, who later behaved as if she owned the place; then Laci (Lawtzi), Louis’ personal driver and general factotum, fixer of everything; Pista (Pishtaw), the creator of tortes and other sweets, and preparer of the wondrous Beef of Wellington. Sadly, I cannot recall the names of those who were present at that long table.
Later, Sada told me that she spent an entire summer in Sarospatak where her husband attended high-school, with teenagers from all over the globe to learn Hungarian. To my surprise, her Hungarian was adequate for an everyday conversation.

Four-five (maybe ten) years ago, I read an article about Barbara in a magazine. I thought her last name was Koch (with guttural ch), I might be wrong. She was referred to in the article as the daughter of Louis Szathmary. (Hence her chip on the shoulder attitude?) Indeed, Louis created a position to her as curator—with plenty of stipend—to the Culinary Museum of the Johnson & Wales University. [Sandy's note: Barbara was not Szathmary's daughter; she was an employee. He did have a daughter named Magda-sls].

My first night at The Bakery was uneventful, sort of. I was assigned temporarily to the living quarters of Louis’ departed mother. Before going to sleep, I looked around for something to read. There was a long shelf above the bed, holding about twenty large books of the same size. To my surprise, all of them dealt with cannibalism, a definitely different and—luckily—a dying-out way of food preparation and consumption. Who collected them and for what reason, I never asked. It was, in my opinion, a minuscule part of Louis’ collection of cook-books, numbering a few thousand. Somehow, I didn’t read much that evening. Everyone to his taste.

After a sumptuous lunch, Louis showed me his cook-book collection. I found it immense, rather unorganized, noticing several duplicate copies. Louis told me that I’ll have nothing to do with these. His working area, the den of a genius, was a “mess”—a rather mild description— which nobody was allowed to touch. My real job was to weed out duplicate copies, called “duplum”, in the literature part of his library and to arrange the books for dissemination.

Louis asked me to leave alone his Transylvanian collection, housed in a separate room, and his private collection in his living quarters.

For the next few weeks (year and a half, to be exact), I spent 5 to 6 hours a day on ladders, from noon on Tuesdays to noon on Fridays. If I ran across books with interesting illustrations, such as wood- or linoleum-cuts, I put them aside. After the early evening meal, Louis looked them over, creating several piles to be given to his friends. Around eight o’clock, I had a call from Louis occasionally. If there were few guests that evening, he would ask me to join him while he ate his dinner. (I normally declined to eat again.) Looking around, he would get up to greet the guests, returning to finish up his meal with a cordial.

It is difficult, if not impossible to break a habit—such as collecting books—especially if the “store” rolls up to your doorsteps. Although Louis slowed down near the end of his life, he loved to visit an adventurous Hungarian refugee’s truck, loaded with anything Hungarian, including recently released books. Sausages in one hand and 4-5 books under his arm, I encountered Louis at the back door. Asking him what he purchased, he sheepishly confessed the sausages, but not the books, of which he already had several examples. I returned the books, telling the fellow to sell Louis only newly acquired printed material.

And, finally, I feel I owe Louis the following: Besides dividing and donating his library to several universities in the USA, Louis also remembered his alma mater in Sarospatak. He sent his Kossuth collection there, not only books and letters, but also memorabilia. (Louis Kossuth (Koshut, o as in or, h being silent) Regent-President in 1848-49, belonged to the Hungarian lower nobility, so did Louis. Kossuth attended the High-school in Sarospatak for a while, so did Louis. Both were fierce Habsburg foes and pro-democracy fighters, and both were Protestants. Hence the affinity, in my opinion, between the two patriots.) Louis asked me to assure that his collection arrived safely on my next trip to Hungary. Naturally, I complied, taking numerous pictures of an as-yet unorganized collection. Louis also sent huge pallets of émigré newspapers and several hundred books to join his Kossuth collection. This was the time I left The Bakery.

One of my brothers told me recently, that Louis’ presents were neatly arranged in a separate room, in a building adjacent to the main library. At the main entrance to the high-school, there is a marble memorial plaque for the school’s famous professors and pupils. Louis’ name is on it, as the last entry (for the time being). The grateful citizens of Sarospatak also arranged a special room commemorating Louis and his deeds, in a manor-house near to their 14th century famous fortress.

May you rest in peace, Lajoskám!

Respectfully,
Charles Bartha

May l add the correct Hungarian pronunciation of Chef Louis’ name:
Sz az in s(ee),
a as in (m)a(ll),
th t is the same, the h being silent,
m same,
á as in a(re),
r same, somewhat rolled,
y as in i(n).
The accent is on the words first syllable, as you noted correctly.

His given name was Lajos, pronounced approximately: Lawyosh.
His former full name is, with Hungarian hyphenation: Szath-má-ry La-jos. Yes, family name first, with no comma between the two names.
I called him often by his affectionate name: Lajoskám, my “little” Lajos”. **

Isn’t this a wonderful email? It provides us with so many little details to Chef Szathmary’s life! This is what I wrote back to Charles: “I am in your debt and enormously delighted that you took the time to share all of this information about Chev Szathmary with me and my readers. Some of them, you may have noticed, either worked for him or had been acquainted with him in one way or another. My only claim to kinship is that one of my books of his is authographed and I wrote about him because I was so fascinated with his life. That, and a bit of Hungarian ancestry – my paternal grandfather was from Hungary. I am going to print a copy of your message to put with one of my cookbooks written by him. You can’t imagine how much I envy your being able to work with his collection. I “only” have about 8 or 10 thousand cookbooks–I stopped counting years ago and I understand how out of hand a cookbook collection can become. I’m thrilled that you wrote and provide so much insight to the man who became the quite famous Chef Szathmary. Please feel free to write to me again, anytime! Thank you so very much for writing this. – Sandy@sandychatter

The next memorable email about Chef Szathmary came from a woman named Fredricka, and was dated March 12, 2013. Fredricka wrote: “While attending a mathematics education conference in Chicago around 1972, I gathered several colleagues from Syracuse University including my Ph.D. committee chair and the University of Georgia where I was on faculty and my 17 year-old gourmet cook daughter and cabbed it from the Conrad Hilton to The Bakery. Chef Szathmary personally guided our menu decisions and autographed The Chef’s Secret Cookbook to my daughter: “To Lisa with my best wishes” followed by his unique signature embedded in his drawing of a chef’s hat. Lisa and the chef somehow got talking about his special meat thermometer (to not leave in during cooking was unheard of) and she was thrilled with her new culinary acquisition. The next year Lisa and I had occasion to return to the Bakery and the Chef remembered us. Lisa and I often remembered our lovely experiences at The Bakery as recently as a few months before I lost her this past June after a 10-year courageous battle with cancer. She ended up following her dream of having her own art gallery and creative website (lisart.com) which her clients referred to as a jewel in Philadelphia. I am using the Chef’s rib roast and Chef’s Salt recipes this Saturday for Lisa’s elder son’s 31st birthday dinner…” **

In August of this year, (2013) someone using the initials MPJ wrote the following: “I happened upon your blog and it brought back delicious memories! When I was about eight years old Chef Louie, his wife, and their friend James Swan held a program showing slides from their trip to Easter Island. Mr. Swan was a friend of my mother’s and she brought me to the program. Afterwards Chef Louie had a buffet including, as I recall, turnips or something he’d carved to look like Easter Island figures. What I remember most though was the pâté. I tried it, I loved it. He sold it for take away at the Bakery and we were fortunate to live nearby. We had it for every birthday and holiday. My mother even brought it to me in college. I miss that pâté…”

There have been numerous other messages but I’ve restricted myself to copying those that shed light on Chef Szathmary’s personality and his most incredible life.

Last, but not least, I received another email in August of this year (2013). Marie wrote: “ I ran across this site while doing some research on Chef Louis Szathmary. My husband and I buy estates, foreclosure cleanouts, auctions etc. and recently made a purchase of over 300 boxes. I was floored to learn that this is the partial estate of Chef Louis and am in awe at the contents. So much so that I have begun to research him and his professional life. Which is something I have NEVER been intrigued enough to do with any estate purchase we have made. I’m not sure what I will do with all his belongings, but learning about him will help me decide.”

I’ve exchanged many emails with Marie, who has been indexing and making up lists of the various books, menus and other culinary objects that she has determined were, apparently, at one time in the possession of Barbara Koch, the woman mentioned in some of the email messages. I bought some cookie cutters and a 2-quart Anchor Hocking measuring cup from Marie, to have something personal of Chef Szathmary.

The following is from one of Marie’s email messages:

“Yes, he certainly was an amazing character! I feel like I know him by just going through all of his belongings. We finished sorting and organizing his estate last week and today we had a rare book collector of specifically food and drink related items fly in from Maine. He spent 10 hours selecting the items he was interested in and his finds consisted of TWENTY ONE (21) boxes of items. Even with his purchase that barely skimmed the surface of what we have. If you would like to tell me what types of things you are interested in I could give you a nice selection of choices. Aside from books and cookbooks, there are many items like:

*Artwork – the Chef was quite the artist in pen and ink drawings too!

*Culinary Kitchen Tools/Gadgets – Simply hundreds, 99% of them are vintage pieces

*Photos – pictures of him cooking at different events, being silly at “the Bakery”,family pics etc.

*Liquor Collection – he collected liquor bottles, some full, some not. Some bottles date back to 1913!

*Memorabilia – Awards he received, pins, uniform patches from “The Bakery”, some of his chef hats and jackets etc.

*Paper Archives – Lot and lots of rough drafts of his cook books, doodles he drew, catering menus, personal and professional letters he received and sent, his teaching outlines and notes etc.

I’m sure I am forgetting things, but off the top of my head that is an overview of what we have. If anyone has any interest, email me with a more narrow request on what you would like to have please: icyalookn777@comcast.net

Sandy – I JUST found out today HOW these things ended up in a storage facility. His second wife put them there, and apparently she has fallen on hard economic times and couldn’t afford to satisfy the monthly storage costs…..Mystery solved!”

—Sandra Lee Smith
October 11, 2013

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3 responses to “Chef Louis Szathmary – a Tribute to the Master

  1. How delightful, Sandy, to read all the information and memories of Chef Louis Szathmary. I have especially fond recollections as his restaurant, The Bakery, at 2218 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago was a little north of where I lived years ago at 2145 Lincoln.

    I thought I would share a little more information on the Antique American Cookbooks library. There were 8 volumes containing eleven facsimile cookbooks that Oxmoor House of Birmingham, Alabama, published in 1984 and 1985. Each volume is beautifully bound with a ribbon marker, introductory essays with color images, and contemporary versions of a handful of recipes from the books. Chef Szathmary was on the 5 member advisory board that selected the books and some of the facsimiles are identified as being from books in his collection. The original publication dates ranged from 1824 to 1911 with the author of the earliest book being Mrs. Mary Randolph and the latest, Fannie Merritt Farmer.

  2. Hello, Susan–how could I not know about facsimile cookbooks? Thank you for writing. I know that my readers will want to find these books as do I. I guess its just information that slipped through the cracks of my awareness. I do have some facsimile cookbooks but I don’t think they were published by Oxmoor House, a publisher I am well familiar with–and Chef Szathmary was involved with SO MANY projects. Can you send me a photo of just one of the books? I am excited to learn there are more books he was involved with than what I knew about–thank you! thank you! – Sandy..

  3. For those searching for these books, here’s are the titles, Sandy. I have to admit that I copied this list of the eight volumes from old notes and did not get up on a stool to reach my copies which are on display on top of a bookcase. The front of each book is a calico patterned surface, so the volumes are rather unusual and easy to identify in a bookstore once removed from a shelf. The spine, however, is a plain brown with gold lettering, so it doesn’t stand out.

    Neither from Firefox nor Internet Explorer can I figure out how to add a photo, so I will send that to your email address in hopes that you can add it for others.

    “The Virginia Housewife or Methodical Cook” by Mrs. Mary Randolph, 1828

    “The Southern Gardener and Receipt Book” by P. Thornton, 1845 printing of 1839 book

    “Home Cookery” by Mrs. J. Chadwick, 1853, and “Ladies’ Indispensable Companion and Housekeepers’ Guide”, 1854

    “Confederate Receipt Book”, 1863, and “Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book” by Mrs. A. P. Hill, 1870

    “Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery” by Marion Harland [pseudonym of Mary Virginia Hawes Terhune], 1871

    “Mme. Bégué and Her Recipes: Old Creole Cookery” by Elizabeth Kettenring Bégué, 1900, and “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book”, 1901

    “Mrs. Seely’s Cook-book” by Mrs. L. Seeley [Lida Seeley], 1902

    “Catering for Special Occasions with Menus and Recipes” by Fannie Merritt Farmer, 1911

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