WASHINGTON -- Kalman Kalla has been in this country for just over two months and, except for a few words like "fried" and "chicken," his English is nonexistent.
But Washingtonians lucky enough to receive an invitation have found that the Hungarian chef has quickly made his country's embassy near Rock Creek Park one of the more unusual and interesting places to dine in this city.
With a kitchen that is turning out elegant and traditional Hungarian dishes, the embassy may soon rival the best Washington restaurants in its sophisticated fare: Carpathian-style oven-poached salmon with dill; little palacsinta (pronounced PAWL-ah-chin-tah), pancakes stuffed with minced paprika-meat stew or with sweetened cottage cheese; halaszle (HAW-lahs-lay), a robust, paprika-flavored fishermen's stew from Szeged, in southern Hungary; and boned roast duck stuffed with kaposzta kacsa (KAH-pos-taw KOTS-kah), salted cabbage noodles.
In capitals around the world diplomatic dinners are considered prime examples of the rubber-chicken school of haute cuisine, and Washington is no exception.
But Mr. Kalla is not your usual embassy staff cook. He arrived at his new position from the Forum Hotel in Budapest, where, as executive chef, he was considered one of Hungary's brightest culinary stars.
How he came to the embassy, at 3910 Shoemaker St. N.W., is a tale in itself, involving two other enthusiastic connoisseurs of food and wine: Peter Zwack, a longtime exile from Hungary who was recently named that country's ambassador to the United States, and his wife, Anne Marshall Zwack, a food and travel writer.
When Mr. Zwack, who returned to Hungary two years ago for the first time since his family left in 1947, was asked to become Hungary's envoy in Washington, he agreed on condition that he could bring with him one of Hungary's top chefs.
"Through food and wine you can do so much for your country," he said. "It's part of Hungary's new image, and one way to get it across is through the stomach."
Through an interpreter, the tall, mustachioed Mr. Kalla explained that he had dismissed the first suggestion that he take up the chef's job in Washington.
"I was lukewarm about the whole idea," he said. "I didn't see the fantasy in it. But I changed my mind when I discovered the ambassador would be Zwack Peter." (Hungarians, like Chinese,
put their family names first.)
Mr. Zwack's family has been prominent in Hungary since 1814 when his great-grandfather started a company to produce Unicum, a bitter after-dinner digestif for which Hungarians have a peculiar and -- to foreigners -- inexplicable attachment.
When the Zwacks moved to Budapest in 1988 from Florence, Italy, it was a welcome first sign to Hungarians that the changes in their country were regarded seriously and with respect by non-Communist entrepreneurs.
As a result, Mr. Zwack became a prominent commentator on the changes taking place.
As for Mr. Kalla, he had had it in the back of his mind for some time, he said, that someday he would like to exchange the onerous duties of running a large hotel food operation (in Budapest he commanded a staff of 70, plus 20 student apprentices) for a small exclusive restaurant, not more than 15 or 20 tables, and really perform.
And to his surprise, that's what he has found in Washington. "Here I have an opportunity to cater to a very special audience," he said, smiling broadly.
Most Americans have never had a chance to sample Hungarian food of the quality Mr. Kalla regularly turns out. Budapest was known as a capital of European gastronomy in the days when that meant Biedermeier-heavy infusions of butter and cream on copious portions of the richest cuts of meat. More rustic cooking styles simply repeated, on a less luxurious scale, the excesses of the capital.
Lard was the cooking fat of choice, and paprika, made from dried, pulverized red peppers, varying in spiciness from sweet to hot, was almost the only source of vitamin C in the meat-based diet, Mrs. Zwack said.
To this day, Hungarian food available in the United States tends to mimic, with varying results, this style.
Mr. Kalla, however, like many of his colleagues among fine European chefs, has been in the forefront of a movement to reform his country's traditional cuisine, lightening it by using vegetable oil instead of lard, and by adding vegetables and salads to meat-based Hungarian menus. (Any vegetable oil will do, he seems to think, but Mrs. Zwack has converted him to her own taste for fine Tuscan olive oil.) Cream is still an essential ingredient but a little goes a lot further than in the past.
Mr. Kalla makes similar adjustments to traditional dishes; with the chicken paprika with galuska dumplings, for instance, he reduces the size of the dumplings, offers fewer of them in a
serving and rounds out the plate with a variety of fresh vegetables.