Chef • Gastronomic Consultant

Victor Segal worked abroad for many years in elegant hotels and Michelin-star restaurants, from Israel to France, sometimes managing a staff of 120. The internationally acclaimed chef chose Raoul Dufy's painting for this interview.

The original interview: Pesti Műsor 

When I look at this painting, I feel like seeing a stage scene, there are even a pair of curtains creating a border.

V.S.: Perhaps one of the reasons we feel like this is that the part which is not usually shown or perhaps only appears in the background is depicted here. Dufy used to paint stage scenes, the association is no accident. There is life in the restaurant.

But there is no tension, the waiters are calm, noone is rushing about.

V.S.: Dufy has managed to depict this calm and graceful atmosphere remarkably well. This place is characterized by cool elegance. In preparation for this interview I looked up a few Parisian restaurants. One of them had some beautiful, old photos of the place from the 1950's, and they say Picasso, Dufy & other celebrities of the times used to frequent the place. The same family still runs the establishment. Dufy started with the French fauves, he used beautiful blues & purples in his seaside paintings which radiate the energy of life. I also love the way he draws, with finesse, precision and ease.

What kind of story do you imagine when you're looking at this picture?

V.S.: As I work in restaurants, I see many stories behind the scenes. Entire lives may be drawn from small movements and gestures. The waiters always gossip about customers, so I was searching for the image of two whispering waiters in the picture. This is the case everywhere, for example, in France where I worked at a Michelin-star restaurant. They are smart and respectful with the guests , they appear to think their behaviour is fitting while behind the scene they make comments such as "those at table two don't even know what crab is"," I have to explain to left two what the handbowl of water is for", and "that other one must be cheating on his wife, he's constantly looking at the woman at the next table".

So then is it theatre for the waiters, too, just as it appeared to be to me when looking at the picture?

V.S.: Yes, it's as if we were watching theatre scenes. They are at times amusing, at other times shocking. The waiters really do play a role. As do the guests, of course, only those who work there actually do this as part of their job. And they're not necessarily enjoying it at the time.

It isn't necessarily the case that the guest are feeling comfortable and having a good time at such a place.

V.S.: There are guests who are playing roles. But their roles are still different from that of the waiters' who would probably be quite happy to swap places with the guests. They can only see the surface, the watches of rich people, the expensive clothes, the trimmings. The objects that they themselves desire. That's why many people like working at classy restaurants like this one in the picture, as this way they can at least be in the proximity of the glamour they aspire to. It's a different issue that this is only the surface. That's exactly why this remainds us of the theatre. I've worked with waiters like this both at home and abroad at exclusive restaurants. They feel that by gaining some insight into the world of the rich and famous, they somehow also become a part of it. People of higher social status are communicating with them. Actually this is a rather sad situation, an air of illusion surrounds the whole thing.

And what happens when you have a guest who doesn't want to look better or more than what he really is?

V.S.: This can be seen immediately, even from the smallest gestures. An English journalist travelled overseas and then wrote how strange he found that everyone wanted to be different from what they were in America. The waiter would like to take the place of the guest, who would rather swap places with the famous actor or star sitting at the next table...Why isn't it possible that he wouldn't wish to be anybody else? Especially if someone is a good waiter, why would he want to be anything else? But somehow this is the very thing that makes America work. My main problem in Hungary is that many people do not simply want to be someone else but they just want to appear to be different from what they are. Many people feel really offended when I say this. It is OK to aspire to be something more. Have ambitions and do something to achieve them! But don't just want to appear to be different. Social hiearchy is apparent in this picture, for example, yet it does not occur to me for a moment that these people don't belong here or that they have just put on fancy clothes for a single appearance.


Why isn't the serving table absolutely laden with food?

V.S.: The portions are small specialities as well.But this is not what's interesting in thispicture,but the queue of people who are not here to lean on a table. This is one of Dufy's late pictures, he managed to paint pitures even during the war which put a smile on my face.

Where did you first come across his work? 

V.S.: I saw one of  his characteristic seaside paintings at a museum in Tel Aviv. It was a samll picture placed among work of fantastic impressionist painters but it grabbed me immediately. I looked for more of his work and later I was given a Dufy album by my wife which allowed me to take a deeper interest. In his later years his use of colours is not so vivid, but I still find those shades of blue, purple and pink magical. Once I visited the house of a rich American where there were amazing paintings hung on the walls. In the bedroom there was a Monet picture. My host asked me which painting I liked best. I replied that there was a small sketch of an old woman at the bottom of  the staircase, that's the one I liked the most. He didn't say a word but half an hour later he told me that that was a picture Picasso drew of his mother and he had stopped completing the sketch at a point when he had thought he could only take away from it. That's what touched me.

Would you like a place of your own like the one in the picture? 

V.S.: No, not at all. It was great to work as a chef at different places,to manage the work of as many as 120 staff, but what I would like to have now is the direct opposite of all that. Some may only see the glamour, for example that President Clinton congratulated me. But he hadn't actually eaten any of my food as there are strict security protocols at such events. It was suggested that a photo of us together is taken but I politely refused, not only because I don't like to have my photo taken with politicians but also because I couldn't see the point. Should I put it on display somewhere? I'm happy to be photographed with a writer,for example,if a personal relationship develops between us, or with Aunt Julie, if she liked the food I cooked for her. She may come back. But Clinton? He'll never return. His name will not make me feel more successful or happier.

So you would like a small place where you can have a personal relationship with your guests?

V.S.: This is a selfish thing, but yes, that is what I would likenow where I can serve my guests the meals I created for them. But it's impossible to do this from the start. In order for the guests to say that they had never eaten such lovely mashed potatoes, you have to cook an awful lot of other things. If you only ever make mashed potatoes,you'll never realise what makes good mashed potatoes. It's similar to when I refused a job as achef abroad not because I was frightened but because I didn't feel it was the right time yet. It's good to earn money,of course, but I workedfor ten years without ever askinghow much the pay was. I went where I wanted to, where I could learn. I left Hungary in 1989 with two suitcases. I didn't leave because I could afford to but because this was what I wanted and I only carried on doing anything until it excited me. I feel close to Dufy's picture because not only can you feel that he spent a lot of time in that restaurant but you can also feel that he enjoyed being there, he felt at home in that environment. He also painted oil and water colours, his use of colours amazes me.

There is some kind of duality in his colours: cold colours which aren't cold after all. I would like to be there and not be there at the same time, but just to look, I think, from the outside.

V.S.: He had to be very much an insider to be able to paint this world with such excellence. He must have talked to waiters while he stayed on the outside. This inside and outside stance is beautiful.






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