I just learned about the recent death of George Detsios. During the mid- to late-90s when I worked at Twentieth Century Investments at 46th and Main, a few co-workers and I would visit George’s Cheese and Sausage located down the street. My first visit led to many returns. I should have known then, based on those experiences, that my destiny as a writer was to focus on the intersection of food, people and hospitality.
George was kind, full of mirth, a man that liked to jest. He also liked to take care of customers that stepped inside his quiet, often dusty shop. It looked like it was imported in whole from a side street of a village in Europe. I didn’t come for the decor. I came for the Hungarian food made from his mother’s recipes. And, of course, I came to listen to George’s jokes, observations and tales of his extraordinary life. He was a Fulbright scholar, a man who knew Benny Hill before many in the U.S. knew who that was. George was a touchstone to another time and place, a sweet tour guide of life for busy people in mutual funds that really didn’t know it all about the world around us. He was pleased as a doting grandmother when you came in to eat.
He had a soft, lilting voice, musical in a way, sprinkled with a touch of mischief. He would say things like “stop fiddle-farting around.” I couldn’t help but smile, laugh, obey and sit in a rickety chair at a wooden table and forget the world outside.
As a newcomer, if George liked you, and sometimes if he hadn’t decided, he would guide you into the open kitchen. That was magic to me, this place that felt like home but was also a restaurant. George would grab a towel, pull a lid off a bubbling pot, and encourage you to look and take a whiff. Again, sheer magic that made me hungry.
Once seated, I ordered one of a few regular dishes on the menu. Almost always, it was a plate of chicken Hungarian, beef Hungarian or goulash. He used cinnamon liberally to season the chicken and broth, served over noodles or rice. It was rich, often fatty, always delicious. Shame on anyone for not finishing the plate with overly generous servings. George would admonish, but he’d let the ladies slide. Never was there room for dessert.
Eventually, George closed his shop. He turned up at Grinder’s to cook on Hungarian Nights With George, thanks to the benevolence of Stretch. Even more people discovered George, his personality and cooking.
Before I left the mutual fund industry, before I worked as a cook under French Chef Philippe Lechevin and, later, Chef Mano Rafael at Le Fou Frog, I met George. He pulled back the curtain and gave me a glimpse of the subtle power of hospitality and food. A couple of years afterward, I left Twentieth Century to explore a culinary career and eventually found my way as a writer.
Two decades have flickered past. I now remember these vivid moments from that time in my life. What a loss on this earth to have George leave us. I’d love to eat a plate of that chicken Hungarian again one last time.