George Lang, a colorful, dapper and eccentric character with an oversized ego, mastery of self-promotion and story telling, died July 5 at the age of 86.
Lang’s personality was only eclipsed by his discerning eye for detail in creating one of Manhattan’s most distinguished and popular jewels of fine dining—the late and memorable Café Des Artistes.
The restaurateur wrote a number of culinary books, a sobering but often amusing autobiography called Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen, and was the Encyclopedia Britannica’s go-to person for restaurant and gastronomy definitions. He succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s, his widow, Jennifer, told the New York Times.
He was a complex man who loved the spoken word—or at least his use of it—as much as he hated to be criticized or second-guessed. He began his visit to the restaurant each day sharing with his kitchen crew some wizened bromide or life lesson he had just seen walking to work, but had his fair share of critics who disdained his bombast and ego.
Born in Budapest, Hungary, Lang had the talent, training and desire to become a concert violinist. But World War II came along and he ended up in a concentration camp, never to see his 19-membered family again. Escaping from the camp as the Russians vanquished the Nazis, Lang was tortured by his “liberators” for joining organizations that tried to help Jews in hiding.
He emigrated to the U.S. in 1946 and abandoned his violin dreams when he heard a master violinist of the time perform a flawless Mendelssohn concerto.
Lang was among the last of a dwindling breed of legendary New York restaurateurs that included such contemporaries and competitors as Joe Baum, Henri Soulé, Jerry Brody, André Soltner, Nick Valenti, Jean-Jacques Rachou, Claude Philippe and others.
In fact, Lang worked for Baum as a concept developer at Restaurant Associates, the great grandfather of today’s multi-unit dinnerhouse operations like Myriad Restaurant Group, Union Square Hospitality Group, Lettuce Entertain You and B.R. Guest.
Lang told this reporter years ago that when he worked at Restaurant Associates, he invented the industry custom of servers identifying themselves by name before taking orders. He also said he invented the use of table turns or covers (table cloths, actually), and not counting nightly receipts, as a more useful accounting tool for measuring shift productivity.
Around 1991, he staged a remarkable Hungarian homecoming when the billionaire cosmetics magnate and philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder—whose grandparents were also Hungarian immigrants—financially backed Lang. The financing led to a multimillion-dollar facelift of, and the running of, Gundel, a grandiose restaurant that had fallen on sad times under Communism in Budapest.
In addition to garnering virtually every high honor the restaurant industry is capable of dispensing, Lang’s 50th anniversary of his immigration to the U.S. was celebrated in grand style when former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and President Bill Clinton hosted “George Lang Day” in New York.
Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Lang told this reporter: “I want people to say I ate the soup of life with a ladle, not an espresso spoon.”
By Milford Prewitt