Chef Krisztian Karkus creates perfect pairing of food and soul
Chef Krisztian Karkus makes magic happen in the kitchen of Meritage Siena.
Last weekend, I found myself in the kitchen of Chef Krisztian Karkus. Krisztian is an Executive Chef at The Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley, California. Chef Karkus oversees all hotel food and beverage operations, including the signature Siena Restaurant, Crush Ultra Lounge, The Commons, Blend Café, and all special events. Having tasted his dishes at the “Masters and Makers” food and wine extravaganza at the Meritage in February, I was eager to spend time with him. His food was not only delicious and thoughtful but somehow…soulful. I was intrigued why that was the case. Having been treated to the tasty morsels of some of this country’s most sought-after chefs for several days at Pebble Beach Food and Wine leading up to my meeting with Krisztian, I wondered what our close encounter would be like.
Magic did happen in the Meritage Siena restaurant’s kitchen. I got a powerful reminder of why the world of food and wine represents a virtually irresistible and thoroughly authentic force, and I have the Chef to thank.
Karkus is a gentle giant with a bright twinkle in his eye and a kind disposition, who is equally generous with his staff and guests. A self-described old-fashioned fellow who was raised to be a consummate gentleman, he believes in “stepping up,” personal accountability, honor and dignified behavior. We spoke wistfully about transformation of the modern male by our popular culture and reminisced nostalgically of the time and place when a handshake deal meant more than a legal contract and women wanted their doors opened for them.
Karkus was born in Hungary, in the heart of the majestic Tokay wine country. He spent his childhood summers frolicking in the bountiful wheat and corn fields of the Hungarian countryside. During the long summer holiday, Krisztian went to work at a remote and picturesque Danube River Valley Hotel, frequented by hunters. Following doing odd jobs for the first couple of summers, the hotel’s chef offered Karkus an apprenticeship. After finishing school he decided to pursue a career in the culinary arts.
Krisztian credits his mom, an exceptionally talented self-taught cook, with igniting his cooking passion. He credits his dad, who was a professional painter, with his love of beauty, structure, artistry and composition. His food is both perfectly executed and precisely plated, so the influence of both parents is evident.
At twenty-one, and a rising star in the European culinary scene, Karkus was offered an opportunity to study at the ultra exclusive Les Club des Chefs des Chefs, which is widely regarded as the most elite establishment on the planet. The school’s graduates often go on to become personal Chefs to the Heads of State. Krisztian became the only non-French member, and subsequently was offered an internship with the legendary Paul Bocuse, a three star Michelin award winner for the past 40 years.
Karkus is quite humble about his talent and corresponding meteoric rise. The road to his culinary stardom was paved with hard work and dogged dedication. His work ethic is unparalleled, he often worked 15 hour days, going months without days off or holidays. He always tried harder, partly because being Eastern European meant he had a lot more to prove and partly because of his own high standards.
His advice for young, aspiring Chefs is not to be seduced by the limelight, glamor, and fame that today’s food celebrity delivers. Krisztian’s definition of success is not a number, whether it represents a bank account or a number of toys you own. To him it’s about personal fulfillment, creating a nurturing environment, and enjoying a gracious lifestyle in the company of loving family and friends. Do what you love and success will follow.
As his career blossomed, he enjoyed opportunities to work at luxury properties in exotic locals such as Jamaica, Hawaii, and Hong Kong. Eventually, he ended up owning a Hungarian restaurant in Tokyo, Japan for several years. Krisztian longed for a stint in the US and ultimately, an opportunity came along to work at The Balboa Bay Resort in Newport Beach, Calif. After running three restaurants, banquets, room service, special events, and designing/executing glamorous affairs, such as Les Amis des Escoffier legendary gatherings he was ready to move to Northern California wine country, his ultimate desired destination. Country living is in his blood and the glitz and glamour of Newport Beach didn’t quite do it.
His menu at Siena is inspired by Tuscan flavors, however he is not rigidly bound by them and aspires to celebrate the Napa wine country by using local, seasonal ingredients. He also incorporates inspirations from his native Hungary. Europeans cook seasonally. Karkus’ Hungarian roots motivate him to reach out for the freshest, finest ingredients.
He loves to cook at home and whip things up on the fly. The dish that impressed me the most at a dinner in Trinitas Cellars’ Cave was inspired by his wife who he teasingly describes as “angry hungry.” She abhors waiting for her food when she is starving so Krisztian performs some serious speed-cooking in his own kitchen with the unpredictable contents from his pantry. The result? An arctic char with sweet potato, sautéed collard greens, tomato caper vinaigrette; one the most sublime fish dishes that I’ve ever had.
His love for food is complete, palpable and consuming. A meal can be thrilling, enticing and simply healing. The finest, most sophisticated series of courses served in the most upscale setting can’t substitute the art of love for life. Karkus deeply believes in the power of a heartfelt meal made with care and goodwill.
Karkus is also a believer in team spirit, it’s one of his core values. He unequivocally states that a dishwasher is as important as the Head Chef, they just perform different duties. He never places himself above the others and always credits his colleagues for consistently outstanding results. Laughter is a must ingredient in Chef Karkus’ kitchen. An open mind, a positive attitude, and a heart full of love are his hallmarks. He aspires to facilitate interpersonal connections through weaving a fabric of food, beverage and camaraderie.
A large part of his culinary philosophy is in “less is more.” Some choose to refine and re-engineer food. An example of this is the molecular gastronomy trend, which appeared seemingly out of nowhere and took hold in some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country. By contrast, Karkus’ desk is graced with a 1967 tome of Escoffier, which he consults regularly, often to refresh his knowledge of basic techniques and “mother” sauces. His faith lies in the fresh, somewhat rustic, homey food. Comfort does not imply heaviness to him. He defines greatness by asking “How can a Chef create a dish that you have eaten a thousand times and execute it in a way that blows your mind?” Same ingredients, dramatically different results. His food brims with familiar comfort and clear, yet subtle, sophistication. No detail is left a chance. From his hearty freshly baked bread and beautiful robust olive oil (made especially for him) to the perfectly season heirloom lettuce wedges and bright, flavorful risotto cooked perfectly al dente, to rich, deeply flavored captivating lamb shoulder with wild mushrooms. Every dish leaving Karkus’ kitchen speaks volumes of his creativity and dedication to his craft, but most of all, captures his generous heart.
Chef’s favorite meal at home?
Fresh roasted chicken with seasonal sides, asparagus being a perennial favorite.
His ultimate restaurant dishes to pair with wine?
Salmon and Morels with Buena Vista Pinot Noir or Lobster and Sweetbreads paired with Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon.
His daily ritual?
Talking about his day over a great glass of wine with the love of his life, his wife.
If you are looking for a perfect pairing of old world soul with contemporary spirit, if you crave the kind of food that stealthily balances on the tightrope of classic and modern sensibilities, if you desire the seamless integration of both old and new worlds, Chef Karkus cuisine is for you.
The Michelin Star is the highest honor achievable in the restaurant world. Krisztian Karkus not only is a deserving contender for his marvelous food, he is a three star winner for his life’s philosophy. Bon Appetit!