George Lang, at 83, seems to have lived several lives—many happy, and some incredibly difficult. Over the course of an hour or so, Lang talked about being a child violin prodigy and eventually playing with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. As a teenager, he was a 100-meter running champion. Later he escaped Hungary, where his entire family perished in the concentration camps. At 21, Lang came to New York and rented a bed in Hell’s Kitchen while working as a dishwasher, then later as a saucier at the Plaza and a manager at an Italian wedding factory on the Lower East Side. He is an impressive calligrapher, a former Fulbright Scholar in Italy, and a writer at Travel and Leisure; he ran the Four Seasons; and, of course, he revived the Cafe des Artistes and became the first international restaurant consultant. Oh, and last Christmas, he hung out with the pope. What did you do?
When I got to Lang’s office, where he sits surrounded by about 3,000 cookbooks, he had already jotted down ideas about his last meal. “I prepare everything,” he said. “If I do it. Otherwise, I don’t do it.” His last-meal desires were largely inspired by a lifetime of travel. “I certainly could have as my last meal some of the great dinners I had in the past. For instance, one of them had crisp chunks of sweet bread scented with a light vinaigrette sauce, served with truffled potatoes.”
From China, he included “huge Pacific oysters dipped in a Chinese version of barbecue sauce and then threaded on a skewer and cooked until they are almost crisp outside—miraculously, the oysters retained their saline taste and tender texture,” as well as a hot pot with “blushing raw beef” to dip into a vinegar-spiked broth and wrap in lettuce. “Of course,” he added, “we must follow each bite with a swallow of good Belgian beer.”
Lang described his mother as a wonderful cook—”not vertically, but horizontally,” he said, meaning that she knew how to make everything and also the best place to find any ingredient. “Not just another store,” he explained, “but another village!” He said the food he grew up eating wasn’t just extremely good but consistently good, which he sees as the key to success in the restaurant business, along with knowing your diners.
Some of Lang’s mother’s dishes would have to be included in his last meal: fisherman’s soup, stuffed goose neck, sour cherry soup, layered cabbage, stuffed peppers, plum dumplings, pancakes with apple meringue, and whipped-cream strudel. “And then I will have what it takes to get to another world,” he said.