At the 2023 Gourmet Festival in Debrecen, we met Zsófia Mautner, a gastro blogger, cookbook writer, and author of the ‘Chili és Vanília’ gastro blog. We immersed ourselves in the love of gastronomy, talked about the ease of cooking and its learnability, and learned what Zsófi tells a beginner cooker.
Photo: private archive
You also have relatives from the Alföld, and as far as I know, Debrecen is also close to your heart. Do you visit us often?
My ancestors lived in Kunmadaras, where I go quite often, but I also come to Debrecen many times for work and as a private person. I love this city because it is very diverse, truly multicultural. I like it a lot, together with the many foreign university students and various restaurants.
In one of the interviews with you, I heard that you were referred to as a “cooking woman”. Did you choose this title for yourself, or did someone else name it that way?
When I had to write a word under my name during an interview, TV or radio appearance that described who I was, gastro blogger was the starting title. But for the past twenty years, I have been professionally involved in culinary arts, and it covers a lot of things. It all started with the ‘Chili és Vanília’ gastro blog, but I wanted to invent a word that covers all kinds of activities. That’s why I invented the cook. I really like using it, on the one hand, because in addition to preparing the food, it also includes the process of chopping, slicing and washing up. Anyone who cooks knows that everything consists not only of the beautiful moment of setting the table, where everyone’s mouths are open – there are also several hours of physical work. On the other hand, I also like to use the adjective because it radiates the care typical of women, the “feeding full of love”.
I see that people lack the feeling of success, they don’t have the sufficient impetus that would make them want to do it. But if it happens, the fantastic thing will be that – thanks to the development of gastronomy and the diversity of ingredients – it is now so easy to create good dishes quickly. I always say that every housewife should have five basic recipes in her hand that she can make with confidence. Let’s say a vegetable cream soup, a salad dressing, fried chicken, fried vegetables and a flourless chocolate cake. All of these are things that are already part of today’s everyday kitchens. Tableware has changed a lot in recent decades, both in big cities and in the countryside. A meal prepared in a short time with a little work creates a huge feeling of success. Cooking has become a big trend not only among men but also among young people. Cooking programs are available on TV and YouTube, and we can access recipes from anywhere in the world.
Is the feeling of success when I like what I cooked or when others praise it?
Both are. I like to cook for everyone as if I were cooking for my own family. Even if it’s an event, reception, or just a flashy dinner. Made with care and love, the way we would like it.
We know a lot of cooks and chefs from TV and the Internet. What makes someone credible in this profession?
In the genre of cooking and recipe sharing, someone can have any kind of lovely style, charming personality and sense of humor, the most important thing is whether their recipe works. Because it is written in such a way that it can be followed, it is really delicious after cooking, in short, it works. As with everything, this also has its protocol, its craft, because whoever starts preparing food, sooner or later will find that person close to him whose recipes he considers authentic.
You have already traveled around Hungary, the world, and got to know a lot of gastronomic cultures. Is there a kitchen closer to you that you like?
I lived abroad for a total of thirteen years. As a child in Prague, as a university student in Germany, in my younger years in New York and as a diplomat in Brussels. Travel, respect for many cultures and their culinary diversity are very important to me in my kitchen and in my personality. Even the variety of dishes prepared based on Pál Kövi’s Transylvanian feast presented at the Gourmet Festival. But I also cook Asian, Turkish and Hungarian dishes. When I am in Kunmadarason, I arrive in the spirit that greets me on my grandmother’s veranda. I use his decades-old tools, which still work the same way now, and I take out the food in his old plates because it’s somehow different to eat them. I don’t want hummus or wok noodles there, because preparing traditional dishes is part of the veranda spirit there. This is not always the village kitchen of the Great Plains, which was typical in the time of our grandparents, because they were invented to be filling. After all, when they worked in the fields, that bacon and potato pasta served the purpose of being filling in terms of calories. We now use those dishes as a reference, and we don’t even prepare them that way. I cook simple things and I don’t use many exotic ingredients. However, I take out the technologies that I brought home from the world. All this with such taste that it will stand out on that veranda.
Are you used to receiving recipes so that you absolutely have to prepare that dish?
They send me a lot, and they also comment on my posts with interesting things that you can learn from. But it also happens that I ask for recipes. The old ladies living in the villages still have the old knowledge that can be learned. And on Kunmadaras, they brought the old checkered and handwritten notebooks, on which the owner’s name, birth and death year were written. In the village, these are passed down from family to family, so they are held in much higher esteem. Today, we no longer recreate them literally, we only refer to them as a reference, updated but keeping the heritage.
People also send you ingredients to you?
I get a lot of them from everywhere, but I also actively seek them out. Last time I was at the Káli basin, where I learned about the cultivation of Hungarian almonds. Many people do not even know that it is available here, and they are not aware of why it is better to buy domestic ones. But I think that’s because most people don’t even take the time and research to find it. Because the almonds we buy in the supermarket are so cheap because they were produced in a large factory where the roots of the trees were treated with chemicals. The domestically grown ones, on the other hand, were treated without chemicals. But there are a lot of small factories, even here in the Great Plain, that people don’t even know about. Sometimes it’s worth getting informed about them.
In the nearly twenty years since you appeared as a “cooking woman”, has health awareness changed? Are we eating healthier?
On paper, yes. I see it as a generational issue. My parents’ age group no longer changes their eating habits, in terms of cooking, nutrition and health. And my generation, which has already traveled and grew up in different circumstances, is much more open and has a different approach to things in the kitchen. He follows a flexitarian diet, which consists of a lot of greens, little meat, and emphasizes good quality. Because they have an attitude. However, the mainstream prefers Hungarian and standard cuisine. The next generation is the current twenty-somethings, who have already been socialized in this media environment, and healthy nutrition is getting much more attention than them. Not to mention the climate crisis and vegan eating. They read product labels, make conscious purchases, and make nutritional decisions. And in my own profession, I consider it my responsibility and my mission to show a normal balance and path between healthy eating, environmentally conscious cooking, our own cultural identity and enjoyment. I can show you the smart and realistic balance of these four aspects. Because let’s not forget that gastronomy and life should be enjoyed.
When you go to a guest house, does it happen that the host gets scared that Zsófi Mautner will visit them?
Those who don’t know me don’t even dare to invite me, and those who do know that I won’t be there as a critic or a professional. I really appreciate whoever made the food and I’m the best guest because I love everything that other people make. I don’t analyze how it turned out, I just enjoy the time spent with friends and the food.
What was the most extreme location you cooked in?
A couple of years ago, I published an English-language cookbook about Hungarian cuisine, and I presented it on a media tour in Taiwan. The difficulty was that you couldn’t get chicken legs, and they don’t eat dairy. So it was more difficult to cook a chicken stew so that they could eat it with chopsticks, and to put together a Hungarian dessert without cottage cheese and sour cream. In such cases, there are challenges, but I think that everything can be solved.
What would you say to someone who wants to learn the art of cooking now, why should they start?
Choose a recipe and read it. Start with a soup, roasted vegetables, and slow-roasted meat, because you can’t go wrong with these. Not like a cake that needs more attention. Then when you have a sense of success, you will see and experience how easy it is to cook healthily and at home. It will feel much better to eat what you made yourself, just try it.
Translated from Judyt Rontó’s article on the Debreceni Nap page.