Like it or not, our lives are inevitably shaped and defined by the choices we make when opportunities present themselves. Sometimes, opportunity comes disguised as a shortfall; Henry Ford once said that failure is simply “the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Other times it visits us dressed as a temporary stepping stool, offering to lift us in an entirely new direction. Most of us march routinely past that stool, fearing the unknown of its higher ground, while others have a knack for spotting opportunities quickly, swinging immediately into action. It is often said that successful people are always striving to find opportunities to help others, which would certainly explain how George Lang seems to have converted such a high percentage of the opportunities he has come across throughout his 82 years.
Mr. Lang’s life and career, like the Mendelssohn violin concerto that he loved to play, is composed of moments of innocence and genius, great despair and interminable hope. Like his youth in Hungary, the first movement of that concerto, “Allegro Molto Appassionato”, begins sublimely and innocently before taking several lively and dangerous turns. The young man had a gift for the violin, and although his Jewish family was far from wealthy, neither were they constrained by financial difficulty. They were able to send their son to the Franz Liszt Music Academy, and during those years he seemed destined to be a musical performer. But when he was 19, an important developmental age in the life of any prospective violin prodigy, an already anti-Semitic Hungary began to fall apart at the seams. For Lang, the profound desire for survival became a stronger motivator than his musical ambitions, and in the coming months and years, his choices became not ones that would make him successful, but ones that would save his life.
Most restaurateurs will tell you that in order to flourish in business, one skill they must master is a natural ability of finding ways to get out of troublesome situations. Whether that means replacing a missing employee or a lost delivery just before a busy evening rush, or dispensing charm to customers who may not necessarily deserve it, their survival instinct is often what separates one restaurant from going dark, and another from staying in business. In the winter of 1944, George Lang hid his prized violin at a friend’s farm in a silo, where he hoped it would be safe while he was sent to a Jewish labor camp. It was the first of many decisions he made that would ensure his survival.
The Hungarian government entered World War in 1941 allied with Germany, and before the end of that war, half a million Hungarian Jews will have been sent to their deaths. Drawing on his survival instinct, and drawn by the love of a female pianist who was in danger, Lang began making plans to escape from the labor camp and travel to Budapest. He befriended one of his captors (“my own personal Schindler”), who helped him forge papers to facilitate his escape from the camp, where he would have surely perished had he remained there.
What he found in Budapest was a bloody mess. The city had been taken over by a political group called the Arrow Cross Party, which was essentially Hungary’s homegrown version of Germany’s Gestapo - only worse. Meanwhile, the Russian army was slowly closing in around the city’s borders. When Lang arrived, he witnessed thousands of local Jewish residents being rounded up and killed in broad daylight, and their bodies being thrown into the Danube River. Lang instantly made a courageous decision; he decided to join the Arrow Cross party in order to keep himself alive in a city seemingly gone mad. He recalls how, on his way to the recruitment center, he went over every detail in his mind so he would not get caught; a skill that would serve him well later in life in business.
“My mind was completely, totally, entirely saturated with what the hell I have to do and have to say, and cannot do or cannot say. Because if I do the slightest thing wrong and they get that I’m Jewish, within two minutes I am dead - unless they torture me first. So the inspiration is there; but most of the time, it goes under analysis. Which sometimes I only have five minutes, and sometimes I have years.” In that situation, he only had minutes, and he improvised facts about their situation that most people would never have thought of. It worked, and during the several weeks that he wore the Arrow Cross uniform, he helped as many of his Jewish friends in hiding as he possibly could. Finally, his good deeds were noticed by the wrong people. Arrow Cross members arrested him and brought him to a basement prison, where day after day he witnessed the death of one prison mate after another while he waited for his turn. Again, using his ingenuity and a bit of luck, he managed to stay alive until the Russian army broke through the border and took control of the city.
Once the Russians took control at the conclusion of the war, Lang was thought to be a true member of the Arrow Cross movement. He was imprisoned in Budapest and tortured along with the real Arrow Cross members. He spent months waiting for his trial, and was nearly prosecuted by a Russian court thirsty for convictions. That is, until one by one, all those people whose lives he had saved by bringing them food and medicine came forward to plead their cases to the court. After Lang was exonerated, he recovered his valuable violin from the silo at his friend’s farm, still amazingly intact. However, he soon discovered that his parents had perished at Auschwitz, and with the onset of the Communist party taking control there, he came to the conclusion that his homeland was no longer a place where he could live permanently and peacefully. But leaving Hungary meant he would have to find a way to escape, so he used his improvisational skills once again and hid inside a coffin leading up to the Hungarian border. He then practically tip-toed across a dangerous mine field into Austria. Lang was beginning to realize that he was capable of just about anything he set his mind to.
“This kind of a feeling that the end is not necessarily the end if you’re smart enough, clever enough, and you don’t believe it’s unlikely it cannot be done. It’s a very important part of my professional life as well, where I was facing the kind of problems that nobody would touch. I wouldn’t say to you that every time I would solve it, but most of the time, I did. And I’m very proud of that.”
Lang soon saved enough money to emigrate to the U.S. from Vienna, arriving in New York Harbor about a year later. Still longing to make his mark as a violinist, he found odd jobs to keep meals on his table, and found a well-known local violin instructor, whose first meeting with Lang was at – of all places – Café Des Artiste. Lang soon worked in orchestras such as Tanglewood and the Dallas Symphony. But after watching violin maestro Jascha Heifetz, a performer who had always been his hero, perform in concert at a theatre in Washington Heights, he came to the painful realization that he would never become the best if he remained a professional musician. “I used to say to my friends that there was never one like this, and never will be. Unfortunately, I was right. Even though there are some fabulous fiddlers, Heifetz had something which is beyond explanation, description, or analysis.” So Lang packed away his instrument and headed down to the Bowery to begin the next movement of his life.
The Andante movement of the Mendelssohn piece is elegant and dignified, its pace smooth and composed and endlessly patient. It is a movement that you could say perfectly describes George Lang’s entrance into the world of restaurants. Although he began modestly, as a cook cleaning vegetables, his primary motivation was that he “was worried about how to do it faster and better than anybody in the kitchen.” He worked hard enough to become saucier at the Plaza Hotel, which was “the high point of my life in the kitchen.” He stayed there for one year, until a job opening at a modest wedding banquet facility called Chateau Gardens on the Lower East Side took him out of the kitchen forever, and into the world of hospitality management. There, he realized that he had found his calling - he found his answer to Heifetz.
“The owners bought a Greek Orthodox Church on the Lower East Side, East Houston Street. I remember the place, the ballroom became the grand ballroom, and I had five smaller rooms. I used quite a few techniques to compete with the dozens, scores, hundreds of similar places right around there, or anywhere in New York City. And the competition was tough, brutal, unbelievable.”
As is still the case over 50 years later, word of his talent spread quickly within the hospitality industry, even if he was just “arranging for the weddings of the daughters of the Mafiosi.” The rumor was that this young Hungarian had a knack for selling the most banquets out of anyone in the city, and this fact soon attracted the attention of Claude Philippe, the general manager of the Waldorf=Astoria banquets and events. In 1956, Philippe called Lang in for an interview as assistant banquet manager. He was hired, and only 12 years after he was sent to a Hungarian labor camp, he was now helping to organize parties for movie stars and some of the world’s most powerful people. “That was really like a miracle,” Lang remembers, “because, you know, everybody wanted to work there.”
After 5 years at the Waldorf, Lang was invited to a job interview by Joe Baum at Restaurant Associates in 1960, in what Lang referred to as “getting a call from the Big Leagues.” RA has just opened two exciting new restaurants, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars and The Four Seasons, and the company was looking to hire some fresh talent to help them open some of their exciting new “concept” restaurants. Lang started with a bang, first opening the successful Tower Suite in the Time-Life Building, then working on several New York World’s Fair projects in 1964. Several years later, he was made director of the Four Seasons, which would become one of New York’s most successful restaurants of the last half-century.
In 1971, after eleven years of ground-breaking success with RA, George Lang stepped down from his position there to create one of the first fine-dining restaurant consulting businesses. The George Lang Corporation got off to a quick start, winning business from both the Marriott Hotel chain and Bob Tisch of Loews Hotels, in its first few weeks of business alone. Lang’s consulting style combined charm, honesty, and intense background research that won over many clients - even if sometimes his clients didn’t always listen to his bad news. “If I realized that it’s not going to work, I told them. And the way I told it to them was that their success will depend on how many years it will take for them to get back the money that they had invested.” Explaining to the occasional client that their idea was wonderful but they’d probably never get their money back was an ingenious way to say that their idea stunk without having to utter such callous words to his paying clients.
The Allegretto non Troppo is the last and most fulfilling of the Mendelssohn Concerto, taking all the themes from the two earlier movements and blending them into a beautiful conclusion. For George Lang, the most fulfilling moves of his career occurred when he decided to own a restaurant of his own. Although none of us will live forever, there are a handful of restaurants that just might, and Café Des Artistes and Gundel in Budapest are two such places.
In 1975, four years into running his own consulting business, Lang received a call from David Garth, a friend and neighbor who sat on the board of Hotel Des Artistes, saying that they would like Lang to consider purchasing the restaurant on the ground floor. Lang said yes, of course, and when I asked him why he agreed to this one request when he surely would have had hundreds of other similar offers during this period of time, he said, “that’s an incredibly complex question, and I can give you a simple answer, which happens to be true. Because we live on the same block, and our offices were on the same block, which made it easy, almost like an extension of our home.” Perhaps it was also the murals of the 36 beautiful women painted by Howard Christy in 1934, or the fact that Mr. Lang had his first real fine-dining meal here soon after he first arrived in New York on July 15, 1946. Although Café Des Artistes had indeed been in existence since 1917, Lang’s wife Jenifer, the restaurant’s managing director since 1990, explains that he “turned it into a restaurant that seemed like it had been that way forever, like it had been the same place since the beginning of time.”
Once Lang had turned Café Des Artistes into a big success, one might think that this restaurant consulting genius would start building a mini-empire of successful restaurants. Although he was offered many tempting options, including an outpost in Las Vegas, Lang said that he “thought about it many times, and heaven knows I had chances; but it wasn’t my thing. Mind you, I admire people like Drew Nieporent and Danny Meyer, I think they’re admirable, wonderful people, both as human beings and as craftsmen. But they have a different form of fever than me.”
“George always felt that there was some emerald quality to the Café,” Jenifer explained, “and it would be ruined it if we changed it too much. And so it was something you couldn’t put your finger on, but he was afraid of messing with it like that.” Mr. Lang, in searching for another way to describe it, laughs and says “It’s like the difference between having one wife you love, or fifteen wives you love. There’s no way that the fifteen can get the kind of interest, love, care and so forth, like the one can.”
In spite of the oppression he had experienced in his homeland during his youth, 45 years after leaving he would return to the country he grew up in with a mission. Now a successful entrepreneur and restaurateur, he purchased the historic Budapest restaurant Gundel in 1991 with fellow Hungarian Ron Lauder (son of cosmetic founder Estee Lauder). The Gundel had fallen into disrepair after many years of Communist management, and had become a shadow of its former grand self.
“I always felt that bringing back something which was great is in many ways more difficult and complex than creating new elements, where you can control anything you want to. Here was an amazing entity, which was for 100 years was an extraordinary place to entertain; to do everything.”
Once again it was his burning desire to make something better, combined with his heart’s desire to return home, that made the Gundel project a reality. It was completely refurbished, and after a year of staff training and fine tuning, it opened in 1992.
“I had great difficulty, because the Communist soul remained in many of the top people, and I had to undo it, and redo it. They asked me once in a newspaper, “What’s the most difficult thing there?” And I said, “The most difficult thing is that the Hungarians have to become non-Russian and non-Communist.”
It’s not that often we’re lucky enough to make the acquaintance of someone who has lived their life to the fullest and accomplished great things. I couldn’t help but be awed by the fact that Lang seems to have lived many lives all compressed into one. In his youth he overcame both German and Russian oppression in his native Hungary before escaping to Austria and eventually to America. In his 20’s he was a professional violin player, in his 30’s he was a chef and a successful banquet manager for the Waldorf Astoria. In his 40’s and 50’s, he was a prolific international restaurant consultant, and in his 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, the owner of Café De Artistes and Gundel in Budapest. While on the surface these separate stages of his life may appear arbitrary or accidental, each path he took was a logical progression, an instructive exercise in making the best of one’s situation and surroundings, all for a singular purpose. “Everything in my life, I tried to make better. I tried to make it more interesting, more useable; more beautiful,” Lang says, and it’s obvious he means it.
When Bill Clinton came to Café Des Artistes during his presidency in 1995, he told Lang that “although in New York, the only thing permanent is change, the people who keep saying that have never been to Café Des Artistes.” Although it was a complimentary remark, the restaurant has actually changed often in its 30 years – perhaps not in its décor but in other aspects. Jenifer Lang explained that “every decade, it filled a different need for different people. At the beginning, it was filled with people from Lincoln Center, which was then only ten years old. In the ‘80s, it gave people this café kind of experience, and it was one of the few places on the Upper West Side where you could have a really nice meal. In the ‘90s, we were discovered by Hollywood and the young, although it’s always had a lot of celebrities in it. But there were decades when we were considered expensive, decades where we were considered inexpensive; it depended on what was going on in the rest of the New York restaurant scene.”
The menu has obviously changed with the time, and today, the quality of their food is what has kept its loyal clientele flocking back to the 90-year old establishment. Chef Joseph Paulino, a Long Island native and Jean-Georges alum, came on board a year and a half ago and has helped to revitalize the menu, while keeping its heritage intact. He was invited to an interview where he prepared a tasting of 20 dishes in 15 minutes, and Lang hired him on the spot. But even with a talented chef in the kitchen, Lang recognizes the importance of a good ending. “Of course, desserts are terribly important, because it’s like life: the real meaning is the very last few years you have, and the dessert is the end. It’s supposed to put the glory on the rest of the meal, and the evening, and the people.”
Even though the dessert is supposed to signal the end, instead we’ll conclude by raising our glasses and toasting a man whose towering achievements will most likely never be equaled.