After labor camp hell, gourmet pens prose on sweetness of life

Restaurateur and gastronome George Lang is holding court in a plush upholstered booth at San Francisco's restaurant of the moment, Farallon.

The carefully groomed waiter grows visibly uncomfortable when Lang asks if the chef would come over to visit.

"I want to compliment him," Lang assures him.

"Who should I say would like to meet him?" the waiter asks.

"George Lang."

It doesn't ring a bell. In New York and European culinary circles, it would.

Lang, 74, is known as the man who owns and revitalized Manhattan's Cafe des Artistes and who transformed the Four Seasons into one of the most celebrated and influential restaurants in the world. He's in the Bay Area to promote his memoirs, "Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen."

A short but solid-looking man with maitre d' posture, he is stylishly dressed in a dark, double-breasted suit. He displays a hint of his eccentric nature by wearing a tie festooned with little circus elephants and a miniature fork-and-spoon tie clip.

His faint Hungarian accent is intriguingly blended with a mastery of American colloquialisms.

"Unfortunately, with fusion cooking, unless a chef has learned the steps before he starts choreographing the culinary ballet," he said, "it can become a kind of traffic hazard because the signals get all mixed up."

At first, it seems awkward to steer the lunchtime conversation toward the Holocaust survivor's harrowing World War II experiences, which he recalls in detail in the book.

"I will answer any question," he says, "with the possible exception of my sex life."

He takes almost nothing seriously, except the war, which dramatically altered his life. In fact, when he mentions his father, his mood turns starkly sober. "He had at least a dozen professions — from custom tailor to incredible gardener," Lang says. "He was so resilient that nothing could hurt his ego or psyche. Unfortunately, he couldn't recover from Auschwitz."

Lang's father sacrificed his life by electing not to leave his wife's side when she was assigned to the gas chamber. "He couldn't bear to be without her," Lang says. "That was amazing."

The first third of his autobiography chronicles his younger years.

"A Jewish kid in Hungary was born into a poisoned atmosphere," he says, referring to the country's pre-war, anti-Semitic climate. "To some degree, the body and soul get used to the most horrible things. During the war, the hate surrounded you. If you were not scared, either you were some kind of superhuman creature or had a few screws loose."

After escaping from a labor camp, Lang survived at first by hiding in various abandoned Budapest basements. Later, he infiltrated the Arrowcross Militia, a Nazi-sympathizing group of Hungarian thugs.

"That's the only way I could save myself and maybe a few other people," he says. "I had to make those kind of split-second decisions, because sometimes it was the difference between life and horrible death, not just death."

Lang's upbeat mood suddenly rekindles when the daytime chef comes over to banter with him. After telling the chef how "amusing" he finds the decor, Lang takes a quick glance at the dessert menu and snaps it closed. "Just bring us four desserts," he says. "Whatever you think is best."

Lang's close friends include Luciano Pavarotti, William Safire and Ed Koch. He's orchestrated events for Princess Grace and Queen Elizabeth, and hosted meals featuring such provocative guests as Gypsy Rose Lee, Alger Hiss and Roy Cohn.

He's a partner of Ronald S. Lauder in the Budapest restaurant Gundel.

"I hate name dropping," he says. "I'd rather drop good Baccarat crystal than a name, even through one of the many titles for the book I considered was `Tycoons Who Have Known Me.' Actually, I considered that for about five seconds."

Lang returns to discussing the war. He admits that being a survivor has made him a driven person. Despite his undisputed success, he can't slow down. He's up at 5 or 6 a.m. every day.

"Some writer once wrote about me that Lang gets up in the morning and searches immediately for the nearest hill to climb and if there's no hill, he's surely going to manufacture one.

"I can't help it. That's my nature. That's my addiction," he says.

But Lang adds that maybe there's more to it. "I survived and such extraordinary people as my parents, my grandfather and my rabbi did not. I guess subconsciously and sometimes consciously I try to justify why I survived."

He says what helped him survive is his resilience, a trait inherited from his father. "A measure of mental health is how fast one recovers from small incidents to major disasters. My ability to overcome is still lightning fast."

Dessert comes. The presentations are on the simple side, which pleases Lang, who thinks the architectural influence in gourmet food has gone too far.

As he walks toward the front door to leave, the waiter stops him.

"What is the name of your book?" the waiter asks, pen and paper in hand.

Lang writes it down on one of his business cards and says, politely, "I hope you like it. You can learn a lot about the restaurant world by reading it."