Johann Adam Michael Gundel, the founder of the dynasty that later became the most famous Hungarian hotel and restaurant dynasty, was born in Ansbach, Bavaria, in 1844. János Gundel arrived in Hungary at the age of 13 to try his luck as a potboy working for his stepfather's brother-in-law. In 1857, he was already a waiter at the Téli Sörház in Pest, and by 1858, he worked at the famous Arany Sas (Golden Eagle) Inn.
Fortune smiled on him when he bought the Bécsi Sörház (Vienna Beer House) in Király Street from his wife's dowry, and in two years’ time, he could buy the Virágbokor Blumenstöckl (Flower Bouquet) tavern as well, where celebrities such as Károly Lotz, Ferenc Liszt and Kálmán Mikszáth were regular guests. However, János Gundel's imagination was not limited to catering establishments: in 1875, he bought the Erzsébet Királyné (Queen Elisabeth) Hotel and immediately let it out, but it is said that he kept an eye on it even after that. However, the owner of a thriving restaurant business - and father of five children - not only became a respected figure in the Hungarian hospitality industry, but also received state recognition as a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Order of Franz Joseph. The void left after his death was filled by his son Charles, who continued the tradition established by his father.
Big turnover, little profit
The predecessor of the well-known Gundel restaurant in the City Park had been operating since the late 1860s, when it was still the restaurant of János Klemens, who rented this gable ornate building, which resembled a classicist rural mansion, from the Zoo. The big change came when Ferenc Wampetics bought it in 1889. The popularity of the restaurant may have been due to the fact that the Liget (City Park) became increasingly popular with citizens during this period. A few decades earlier, thanks to the afforestation by Mayor János Boráros, the 'Liget' had already been a pleasant place to relax, and later it became part of the bloodstream of the city when an omnibus started to run here. The hit song 'At Night on the Omnibus', from Béla Zerkovitz's operetta 'Csókos Asszony', commemorated this.
The restaurant had separate literary, political and artists' table groups. It is said that Wampetics often accepted paintings in lieu of payment, and the artistic community was very grateful to the well-meaning innkeeper. Celebrities such as István Csók, Zsigmond Kisfaludi Stróbl and György Zala were among the guests.
It was not easy for 27-year-old Károly Gundel when he took over the Wampetics restaurant in the City Park in 1910. Born in 1883, Károly Gundel had already been an apprentice at his father’s hotel István Főherceg (Archduke Stephen) before graduating in commerce. After that, he worked in Switzerland, Germany and France.
After returning home, he met József Marchal, who had taken over the Palace Hotel in the Tatra Mountains at the time. Gundel became the secretary of the prestigious hotel, where he met his future wife, Margit Blasutig, who was Marchal's sister-in-law. They moved to Budapest in 1910, and it was then that he bought the restaurant in the City Park.
Gundel's triumph is linked to his name, but not only to his work, as his children, family members and employees also worked hard for the successes of the restaurant. Under his leadership, the place became an ideal, and in its heyday, around 100 employees ensured its smooth running in addition to family members. The menu featured the masterpieces of Hungarian and French cuisine.
He was regarded as a leading figure in the Hungarian catering industry for his culinary writing activity and his professional secret, according to his son Imre Gundel, lay in the quality of the food, the excellent staff, the constant control, the abundance of choice and his insistence on the principle of "high turnover - small profit".
Although the Gundel became the host of elegant, large events from the 1920s onwards, the public at the Zoo and the Angolpark (City Park) also enjoyed coming here, as "it was chic to go to the Gundel".
Its reputation also made it worthy to serve the banquet during the visit of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy in 1937. Two years later, young Károly Gundel had the honour of being the official host of the Hungarian pavilion at the New York World's Fair, and Hungarian cuisine finally found its rightful place on the world gastronomic map.
We owe the following dishes to the Gundel dynasty: the Újházi chicken soup inspired by actor Ede Újházi, the Jókai bean soup inspired by our famous writer, the Munkácsy-style egg, or the Feszty beefsteak, not to miss out the painters. Their most famous creations were undoubtedly the desserts, including Gundel pancakes, Somló dumplings and Rákóczi cheesecake. The king of desserts, the Gundel pancake can still be found on the menu of most restaurants today. It is interesting to note, however, that for a long time the Gundel pancake was known as Márai pancake, because Sándor Márai's wife, Ilona Matzner, or Lola, served these chocolate pancakes filled with walnuts, raisin and candied orange peel. Later, this recipe was adapted by Ferenc and Imre Gundel, published in 1986 in the Little Hungarian Cookbook by Corvina Publishing House.
Károly Gundel also laid the foundations of modern catering, not only as a business innovation, but also as a conscious use of the advantages of coordinating logistics, raw materials, staff and recipes resulting from running several restaurants at the same time. It was he, who innovated the dishes that are now part of Hungarian gastronomic culture. Strangely enough, he was also aware that, even if a dish were delicious, it would be interesting to the public only if there was a story behind it. He always paid special attention to the celebrities who came to his restaurants, preparing the dishes according to their tastes and preferences, and then adding them to the menu dedicated to them personally.
From 1910 until nationalisation in 1949, the family ran the restaurant, although they never owned the building as it was leased from the capital. The popularity of the restaurant remained unchanged, not coincidentally, as the chef was still Elek Réhberger. The Gundel building was first rebuilt in 1957 to the design of Hugó Gregersen, then closed again in 1972 and the restaurant was attached to the Gellért Hotel in order to renovate and modernise the Gundel as part of the reconstruction of the Zoo.
The name Gundel is still a standard today, and once stood for both the most talented restaurateur of the era and the restaurant. The Gundel restaurant has remained an iconic Budapest venue. The recently deceased Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Bill Clinton, Pavarotti, Angelina Jolie and Arnold Schwarzenegger visited it as well. Imre Gundel, who became the family's chronicler, worked as chief curator at the Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism; his books are still fascinating to read for those interested in hospitality history. His daughter Katalin Gundel was the mother of famous actors Zoltán Latinovits and István Bujtor (b. István Frenreisz) and famous musician Károly Frenreisz. The Gundel dynasty is still connected to the restaurant by a thousand links. Nothing proves this better than the fact that this year, after a break of 3 years, the dynasty of seventy family members had a meeting again. The event was hosted by Gábor Gundel Takács, great-grandson of Károly Gundel.
Translated by Zita Aknai
Gundel Imre, Harmath Judit: A Vendéglátás emlékei, Közgazdasági és Jogi Könyvkiadó, Budapest, 1982.