When George Lang, a Hungarian refugee from Austria, stepped off the transport ship Marine Fletcher in New York Harbor on July 15, 1946, he admits he was so thin he looked like “nothing but a pair of eyes.” After landing a job turning pages for musicians at Carnegie Hall for $3 a concert, he would lunch at the nearby Horn & Hardart’s Automat: “I discovered that if I bought bread, there was free catsup, salt and pepper. I dined mixing oil and vinegar with them.”
In the next 35 years Lang lived out the American Dream. Today he owns Manhattan’s elegant uptown eatery Café des Artistes, which grosses $2.75 million yearly, in part by catering to such West Siders as Yoko Ono, Lauren Bacall and former Mayor John Lindsay. But he spends most of his time running the George Lang Corporation, a top restaurant consulting firm, where he commands a $3,000-a-day fee plus expenses. Not content with being just a gourmet guru, he has a smorgasbord of other talents: violinist, calligrapher, linguist (five languages), bibliophile, food author and magazine columnist.
At 58, Lang is a peripatetic dynamo who travels some 250,000 miles a year. Among his 16 current projects are a prototype restaurant in Kuwait for an Arab food chain and the assembling of 12 restaurants and 24 fast food outlets for Los Angeles’ Beverly Center.
Lang’s egoism (“If there were a contest in calligraphy, I would probably win”) has invited some bitchy Langpooning. “George is a self-promoter,” says Bob Tisch, the president of the Loews hotel chain, who has known him for 22 years. “That’s how he gets his business. But a lot of people who criticize him are jealous.” As a writer, Lang’s definitive book is The Cuisine of Hungary, which has recently been issued in paperback (Atheneum, $11.95). It took him 11 years of research and five trips to his mother country to create the amalgam of history, anecdotes and childhood remembrances. “Lang is doing for Hungarian cuisine what Zsa Zsa Gabor did for the beauty of the country’s women,” touted the Washington Post, while James Beard declared Lang’s recipes to be “utterly devastating to the salivary glands”—in a positive sense, of course.
Born the son of a tailor in Székesfehérvàr, 40 miles southwest of Budapest, Lang at 5 began studying violin. When the Russians invaded Hungary to oust the Germans in 1944, Lang’s talent saved him. The 18-year-old played Tchaikovsky for almost eight hours at gunpoint in a Budapest basement. “The Russians started crying,” Lang recalls. “One minute they wanted to kill me, the next they were kissing me.”
Once in the U.S., Lang found part-time work filling in with the Dallas and NBC symphonies. By 1950 Lang realized that a Heifetz he wasn’t. He took a $46-a-week job as a baker, and five years later he was made assistant banquet manager at the Waldorf-Astoria. “He was,” recalls newspaper columnist William Safire, “intense, hard-driving, hungry and creative.”
In 1960 Lang joined Restaurant Associates, helping to open Manhattan’s Tower Suite and eventually to run the Four Seasons. Three years later he founded his own corporation. Meanwhile his first marriage, to stage and TV actress Doe Lang (by whom he had two children: Andrea, now 29, a graphic artist, and Brian, 21, a Columbia sophomore), was foundering. A second marriage, to magazine executive Karen Zehring, also ended in divorce. Today he lives with food writer Jenifer Harvey, 30, who admits she at first “stayed clear of George because he had the reputation of being something of a Lothario.” Their togetherness includes a duplex with a large L-shaped bath for two and a small refrigerator nearby stocked with champagne and fruit. The tub sprouts mini plastic toys (frog, penguin, boat). “We like to race them,” George volunteers. “If there is a key to my existence, it is that I think life should be pleasure instead of looking for darkness.”