It is quite unusual to mention modelling and culinary delights on the same page, but Nelli Tombor is one of the fortunate exceptions. Besides her modelling career, she is able to practise her childhood passion. She managed the gastro blog of the English website, dryby for a whole year. In 2015 she was even enrolled for the one-year chef training of the famous New York Institute of Culinary Education. For Nelli, the creating culinary delights is an act of caring and expressing love, and the outcome can only be a perfect experience if there is someone to share it with.
The original, Hungarian text of the interview can be read at Magyarkonyhaonline.hu.
Which one do you feel like is your real profession, modelling or chef craft?
It is hard to pinpoint. Modelling was a great opportunity and it was a really good decision that I jumped into at a young age. To always be on the go and to work with an unknown crew is a great challenge, but it teaches you how to adapt and accommodate to situations. On the other hand, blogging is a lonely job, from coming up with the recipe until photographing the finished dish, I am responsible for everything, it is stress-free, and I can manage my own time. In contrast to this, working in the kitchen is a team effort, you are constantly under pressure, and you have to perform your best on 6-7 days of the week.
What memories do you have from your childhood about the kitchen?
I vividly remember spending the summer at my grandparents, we were always gardening and cooking together. My dearest memories are about harvesting fruits, kneading the dough and spending the meals outside in the garden. I make pasta with potatoes the way my grandmother told me to.
Earlier we wrote about another Hungarian beauty who opened up her own shop and started making delicious chimney cakes. HERE is the article.
You are fortunate to be able to travel around the world and you visited many locations. You lived in Milano and now you are living in New York. What interesting things did you discover about the different customs of different countries concerning their meals? Do you have a favourite cuisine?
The family-centric attitude and the importance of shared meals of the Italians really touched me. Concerning the preparation of the meals, the Japanese delicateness and their philosophy of striving for perfectness have inspired me. The styles of the French are mirrored in their gastronomy as well. There is something compelling in every culture, but the Hungarian, Italian and Japanese cuisines are the closest to my heart.
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What are your favourite ingredients, flavours, and dishes?
My favourite ingredients are the quality Italian olive oil, the Thai chilli, the yuzu and the rice. We eat something with onions and potatoes every week and I love cholent, ratatouille with fresh bread and the strudel.
Would you please tell us a little about your experience during your year at the Institute of Culinary Education? What were your aims when you signed up?
I got into the school with a partial scholarship, which was a huge opportunity for me. It was a long desire of mine to learn about gastronomy in a professional environment from the best of the craft. I got a glimpse into the workings of a real kitchen, I understood how much work it really demands to be able to put a nice and flavourful meal on the plate of the customer. I learned a lot from Chris Gesualdi, who previously worked alongside Thomas Keller in Rakel and he was a chef in Le Bernardine later. He is my mentor, we still keep in touch to the very day. I was also volunteering, so I got in for training into the Nomad after an eventful year.
Is there a particular culinary procedure or technology you did not get introduced to during your studies, but you would like to master?
In my opinion, baking bread is one of the most wonderful artisanries there is, so I would definitely like to familiarise myself with it. I am planning on learning the tricks of smoking and pickling the next.
After finishing your studies, what do you think about the situation of the Hungarian kitchen, what could we be proud of?
Hungarian gastronomy went through a massive transformation during the last decade. I see this change mainly stem from the attitude of professionals, their use of ingredients and their approach towards their customers.
The Hungarian cuisine is fantastic: our soups and pickled dishes are exceptional. The Hungarian mangalitza, the goose liver and paprika are world-famous.
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Did your experience dissuade or confirm you about opening your own restaurant?
I do not have a definite answer to this question yet. The profit-oriented large-scale kitchen is not compelling to me. The closest to my heart would be a small, homelike restaurant with only a few tables.
What is it that makes creating culinary delights amusing for you?
I find it really fascinating that during chopping, heating and freezing, even the simplest ingredients go through such a wonderful transformation. The search for the perfect ingredient, the meticulous subtasks and the dishing really is just relaxing for me.
Are you consciously selecting your ingredients? Where do you do the shopping?
I go to several places to get my ingredients. I buy the pickled and dehydrated ingredients and seeds at Sahadi in Brooklyn. A Lebanese family runs it, and they can answer to any of my questions about the ingredients, and they even offer you to taste them to ensure you buy what you really need. Due to the negative effects of animal breeding, I minimise the number of meat products I buy, and I buy that from local bio-breeders mainly at Union Square. I am willing to search hours for the proper meat.
What trends are dominating and where do you think gastronomy is headed?
Vegan and vegetarian dishes are really fashionable recently – we could even see this trend during the Bocuse d’Or competition. I noticed that due to the high competition, restaurants are trying to deliver exceptional experiences rather than simple meals so that the time spent in the establishment is really memorable and the customer will return next time.
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As an educated and experienced chef, what do you think the most important when organising a dinner for your friends is? Do you have any proven tricks?
It is important that the guests have a selection to choose from. I always try to make a vegetarian, a sugar-free and a meat-involved dish. If you want to efficiently use your time you should select 1-2 dishes that are easy and fast to prepare so that you have time for some that might be more time-consuming. When inviting guests, I think the most important is that the guest should feel your care.
What places do you prefer to go out to, are there any favourite of yours?
The gastronomy at New York is really rich, you can find everything here from Ethiopian to Japanese food. My favourite restaurants are the Khe-Yo, the Uncle Boons, the Cocoron and the Nomad. In Hungary, I am in a special situation as our best friend is a restaurant-owner, so naturally, we go to his establishments, or we cook in his home. If I want to eat pasta or pizza I go to Tom George, for cholent I go to Kádár and the Első Pesti Strudel House is a must-go-to. Their sour cherry and plum strudels are amazing. If I want to have a coffee with my friends, I go to the bar of the Four Seasons, it is my favourite building in Budapest.
If you would like to taste another typical Hungarian dish, the ‘lángos’, but with a twist, read this article and find out more about the crazy creations of some geniuses in the kitchen HERE.
Featured image: Zoltán Tombor; www.facebook.com/drybylondon/