Legendary restaurateur, cookbook writer and food historian George Lang died on Tuesday at 86 in his Manhattan home. Somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades within the food industry, Lang had a long and successful career in the New York culinary and restaurant scene. One of Lang's most renowned and enduring accomplishments was his revival of the Cafe des Artistes, ground-floor restaurant of the beloved Hotel des Artistes that had not met success in recent years. Once dark and empty, Lang transformed the restaurant into a modern, elegant bistro that enjoyed celebrity patronage and popularized the ever-delicious flourless chocolate cake. Economic hardships forced him to close the Upper West Side landmark in August 2009, although the restaurant reopened this year, under the new name Leopard at des Artistes and new management. Lang's story started much before his arrival on Manhattan's culinary sphere. Born in Hungary in 1924, Lang's dreams of becoming a concert violinist were cut short during the approaching World War and the Holocaust. The ever-resourceful Lang escaped his Czech labor camp, Komarom, and fled to Budapest where he posed as a fascist militia fighter, saving groups of displaced Jews in the process.
After the war, Lang, penniless and unable to speak the language, finally made his way to New York where he held various odd jobs, including busing tables at Reuben's and performing with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Finally, in 1960, Lang became a restaurant consultant with Restaurant Associates, directing and overseeing dozens of restaurants, hotels and the 1964 New York World's Fair, before striking out and forming his own consulting firm. The culinary turnarounds and successes of Lang's various projects are numerous and inspiring, and include some great gastronomic standards, such as the Tower Suite on top of the Time-Life Building, Cafe des Artistes and Gundel, Budapest's Hungarian former hotspot that was in decline.
Lang embraced the Gundel project as a chance to reacquaint himself with his heritage, and he immersed himself in Hungarian culture and cooking, revitalizing Gundel and publishing two cookbooks on Hungarian cuisine. It is fitting that Lang's last great project brought him closer to his roots, both physically and gastronomically; he completed a full circle before he passed.
Lang is survived by his wife, Jennifer, and his three children, Georgina, Brian and Simon.