From young program coordinating producer on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in Los Angeles to owning and running the iconic, 101 year old Déryné Bistro and Grill in Budapest, is not an average career path. Nor is 41 year old Kristóf Kovács an average sort of tv producer or indeed restaurateur.
Kovács and his 2 year old dog, Sári, occupy the executive offices above the famous corner cafe, bistro, bar and restaurant and the recently opened adjacent Déryné Grill. His casual dress should not be mistaken for a casual attitude to business. He loves it, but he is in it to make a profit.
On the morning of our interview, he had been up at 5am with a mission: to scour three different markets to track down 15 varieties of tomatoes that would be served in salads by lunchtime. "I bought out the lot," he says as part of his explanation for what makes him tick as a businessman. "I always want to win."
Yet Kovács is a business conservative, his business strategy being to develop a business from within, giving it depth and longevity. "I model it on those European hospitality business that are run by families over a long time. I don’t believe in expanding and spreading for the sake of it."
Having invested EUR 3 million in the Déryné business eight years ago, he is quick to point out that its not just a restaurant but an institution. "Anyone can hire a Michelin chef and maintain a restaurant with a Michelin star for a few years. I see things another way. I love to build an institution rather than a business. One that provides benefits to its neighbourhood, indispensable on the market, educates its clientele ... and remain true to itself for 20 or 30 years ... just as Déryné did in its day."
He sees nothing special in being a restaurateur at the same time as a tv producer. "All humans are capable of doing different things. You can be good at two things, or even more. And the magic of showbiz is not too dissimilar to the magic of the restaurant, both are highly energized trades, a backstage or kitchen, and a stage or dining room, front of house, with lighting, design, lots of magic ... and you sort of need the same determination and charisma to run either one..."
But as Kovács points out, his television business (Primetime Entertainment, since 1997) is much simpler than the restaurant. With a core team of five, he would produce a low cost pilot of a new idea, which he pitches to a tv station. If they buy the concept, as much on his reputation as the pilot, they pay for the production and the rights, and a team is hired to make the project. There is no risk capital involved.
It wasn't his work on American tv shows that built his reputation but Hungarian projects, notably the most successful show of its type (late night talk show), Esti Showder with Sándor Fábry, which ran unbeaten for an unrivalled 15 years in Hungary. That explains why the poster of Sándor dominates the office.
Kovács boasts, with some justification, that for a decade Primetime used to be the only tv production company to have produced shows for both RTL Klub and TV2.
Both his roles as producer and as restaurateur require him “to motivate my teams, to keep the creative fire going ... from the big ideas to the little details, I take responsibility for it all.”
The very reason why Kovács came back to Hungary nearly 20 years ago after collage is the same reason he gives for recommending others – from US or Europe - to start a business in Hungary: in short, it’s a country of opportunity. “In Hungary there is a different dynamic between employer and employees … Here, unlike in the US for example, people will find ways around rules. They always think they can do things better and quicker; in the US they don’t even think that. If you understand this and you don’t expect Hungarians to be like Americans or Germans, you will make it. You can be strict, but draw on any good ideas that might come up. You can really get ahead of the game here, there are lots of opportunities, notably in restaurants."
“You would be surprised to look at the books of award winning and notable Budapest restaurants. Maybe a handful turns a profit. Most owners are just in it for the social status. It’s a long term business and you'd better know what you are doing before you get in. With Déryné, I trust we are on the right track, almost 10 years in a row in its 101 years of history.”