Photo by Tommy Feisel

Generations: Dan Varga

Editor’s note: There is something magical about repeating the same kitchen motions as your mother, your grandmother, your great-grandfather. It could be stirring a darkening roux with the same wooden spoon mother’s loving hands used before you were old enough to see over the lip of the stove. It could be knowing that the smell of bread baking weaves throughout the house and wraps everyone in an invisible hug. It could be a recipe, one that tumbles back through time to the old country, that binds generations together.

On the following pages, we explore local food folk—from the chef whose tough appearance gives way to tender memories of his mother each time he maneuvers around a kitchen, to restaurant owners that keep it all in the family, to a baker who recasts family recipes with vegan players. Let’s take a moment to cook down memory lane.

Dan Varga is a badass.

Leather jacket, scars from kitchen battles, Bulleit at 2 p.m. on a Sunday. He wields a butcher knife like a natural extension of his Popeye arm. Varga is the kinda guy that when he wanted to start smoking meats himself, he jerry-rigged a cast-off refrigerator, securing it shut with multiple rings of bungee chords. Sure, it eventually went up in flames, taking out a tree in the process, but at least it showed dedication and innovation.

This is a dude with Teflon hands— I’ve seen him grab hot pans with his naked fingers and not even flinch.

Dan Varga is a badass, I mean, he’s a butcher, the Hungarian Butcher. Badassery turned up to 11.  … until starts talking about talking about his family. Until he starts talking about his mother and grandmother and the warm memories his has of running around the kitchen, of making the annual mountain of cabbage rolls, of his dad making fun of his mom’s kitchen acumen.

“My earliest memories, back when I was like three or four, were in the kitchen,” he said one cold Sunday afternoon. “That was the hub, that is where we all congregated… by then, my grandmother wasn’t cooking anymore… she, we called her ‘Anya,’ just sat at the table and directed everyone… ‘you need more of this, more of that.’”

Varga’s grandmother, with her leftover Hungarian accent, called him ‘Donny,’ instead of ‘Danny,’ and, in her honor, his son is named Donnie. “My grandparents came here in the ‘50s after the Hungarian Revolution,” he said, twirling his glass of bourbon. “They were refugees.” Varga’s family has a collection of her recipes written in Hungarian and he tries to honor his lineage through his own cooking. “Where you come from… the importance of family and the carrying on of traditions,” he mused. “That’s getting rare to see. We live in this fast-paced world and our lifestyles don’t let us take time to respect our cultures, to go back and cook the food of our ancestors.” Pork is central to Varga’s Hungarian perspective. “If you don’t start with fat back…” he laughed. These days, he not only cooks and eats the other white meat; he also works alongside Jamie Anderson at Anderson farms learning everything about the pork raising tradition. His father would tell him stories

of his great-grandmother slaughtering a pig each year for store. He smiles to himself, thinking of his great-grandmother, butcher knife in hand, breaking down a whole pig. “I want to get back to that, to re-channel that.” The cleaver Varga uses himself is over one hundred years old, made by his own grandfather’s hands.

“I found it in the garage when I was a teenager and I took it without asking, if he [my grandfather] noticed, her never said anything. When I was young, I didn’t really take care of it, but now I respect it, I take good care of it.” The spoon is the one his mother used in the family kitchen. Look closely, part of the bowl is worn away from so many trips around the bottom of a saucepan. “This spoon has been in every sauce,” he recalls. “She used this to make dumplings… no matter what kitchen I’m in, I make dumplings with a spoon, no mixer. With a mixer, you can’t tell if it ‘feels’ right.”

With a spare childhood, ingredients like Budding sliced meats and Minute Rice filled the pantry. With a couple of dollars, Varga’s mom could create a meal for all. Fondly remembering dishes like chipped beef, tuna casserole, sausage noodles, steak fingers … Steak fingers? “Exactly,” he laughed. “They are so good. I’ve been craving them lately. My mom could throw together anything.” At one point, Varga’s father– a journalist– wrote a piece about her home cooking. “My dad wrote that she couldn’t cook rice to save her life; she was so pissed.”

“My mother had a natural ability in the kitchen,” he boasted, redeeming his father’s diss. “Her best trait was that she could make something out of nothing and not everyone can do that.”

Even though Minute Rice was a constant companion, Varga’s mother made sure to get her meat ground fresh, especially for the annual cabbage roll extravaganza. “She would call the guys up at the Kroger Westerville and we would pick it up for her… they all knew us,” he said. “At this time of year, we would make the big batch of cabbage rolls– at least 100.”

“We used instant rice, Lawry’s Seasoning Salt– something most chefs look down on—but it was the way my grandmother made them…a big stock pot would be going on the stove and the smell of cabbage and paprika… when they were done, we would store them on the floor of the garage and go out there to grab some all winter long.” When Varga recreates this dish and others, he knows he is connecting with his family, his past. His grandmother and mother have both passed and he knows, deep in his heart, they are “looking down and are smiling at me, happy.” And with that sentiment, badass Dan gets a little teary. Varga’s son, Donnie, helps him out with butchering and making charcuterie. “He loves it,” said the proud Dad. “He doesn’t tell me, but I see him Snap-Chatting and Tweeting about it.” The old ways meet the new ways, one generation to another.

Get a taste of Dan Varga’s heritage on January 15th when the Hungarian Butcher takes over the kitchen of Three Tigers Brewing Company in Granville. Visit details about this event, as well as the newbie brewery itself, its schedule of kitchen takeovers, and the rotating brew offerings pouring from its 12 taps.