The Chef Who Came Out of the Cold

After a childhood of deprivation behind the Iron Curtain, Sandor Zombori escaped to the West and became an American success story. Then he risked everything to follow his dream.
By Keith Dunnavant
South Walton Life

Even now, Sandor Zombori remembers how the snow drifted from the sky without any wind. If only he could forget the snow, perhaps he could forget the rest. But he will never allow himself to forget.

As he walked through the streets of Szeged, Hungary's second-largest city, the first snowfall of 1953 fell gently on his 10-year-old shoulders. For a few precious moments, he felt like a king. He did not feel like an orphan. He did not feel like the disheveled little boy who was forced to wear the same rag every day, an old Russian army jacket that hung across his body like a skirt. He did not feel like the emaciated little boy who had to fight for enough food to survive, gladly accepting the crumbs offered from classmates as compensation for tending to the room's coal-burning stove. For a few precious moments, he did not feel worthless.

Several days before, a girl who had always been kind to him invited Sandor to her birthday party. It was an important event in his life, because it was the first time anyone had ever reached out to him in friendship.

Determined to make a good impression, he got up early that morning and slipped into a nearby bathhouse. Pretending to be a paying customer, he gave himself and his rag a good scrubbing, until he thought both smelled clean. Then he stopped at a barber shop and swept the floor so the barber would give him a free haircut.

When he dusted the snow from his clothes and rang the little girl's doorbell, Sandor felt good about himself, perhaps for the first time in his young life. Then the father opened the door and took one look at him. "The party has been postponed," he said, even as Sandor could see many of his classmates lingering in the background. Then the door slammed in Sandor' face, and he cried as he walked home in the snow.

"I'll never forget the incredible feeling of rejection," says Zombori, the proprietor of Sandor's restaurant in Seagrove Beach. "It was just so devastating. The man lied to me and I understood that. From then on, I was determined to make something of my life so nobody could ever make me feel that way again."

At the time of his birth in the middle of World War II, Zombori's parents were the wealthy owners of a textile mill and a big house. But after the communists came to power, four policemen showed up at the house and took them all away. The communists nationalized the textile mill, the house and everything else the Zomboris owned. His mother grabbed a pillow case and stuffed it full of clothes and food, and the police hauled the family off to a filthy ghetto, where the five of them shared a one-room apartment no bigger than the typical American bathroom. They lived on stale bread, water and a flimsy hope that someday, things would get better. Three years later, when his parents were arrested as political prisoners for participating in a movement calling for free elections, Sandor wound up in an orphanage, fighting for food like a dog.

Given a different twist of fate, Sandor Zombori could be a statistic now, another faceless victim of the cruel system that destroyed millions of lives before being rendered to the ash heap of history. Instead, he is an American success story.

Motivated by the deprivation of his childhood, shaped by the humiliation of that day in the snow, Zombori drove himself to succeed. In an incredible life that has defied the odds, Zombori became a championship athlete, defected to the West, served the U.S. Army as a Green Beret in Vietnam, built a successful career in the computer business, and walked away from a six-figure salary in middle age to start his own restaurant.

"Sandor is living proof of the American dream," says his friend Bill Sabella, a local architect.

From an early age, Zombori channeled his rage through sports. He briefly flirted with following in the footsteps of his uncle and namesake, a three-time Olympic wrestling medalist, but soon changed to judo. Combining rare physical skills with unrelenting will, he was a ferocious competitor in a brutal sport, becoming the biggest star of the Hungarian national team of the late 1960s.

"Sandor fought like a wild animal," remembers current Hungarian Olympic head coach Ferenc Moravetz, a former teammate and coach. "He was fearless and incredibly driven to be the best."

Reduced to watching in horror while the communists destroyed his family, Zombori grew into an angry young man who desperately wanted to fight back. Judo became his outlet, his revenge. They could take his home, they could make him poor and hungry and burden him with low self-esteem. But on the mat, he was in control. On the mat, he was a free man.

Even as he churned all that anger into one championship after another, Zombori became a tool of the very system he abhorred and, therefore, worthy of extra privileges, including a college education and a more civilized apartment. But the government never trusted him. More than once, they refused to grant him a passport to travel to competitions in Western European countries, fearing he would defect.

The angry young man especially hated the Russians. Not just because they subjugated his country, although that would have been reason enough for someone trapped behind the Iron Curtain during the age of Khrushchev. For him, the bloody uprising of 1956 wasn't just an aborted revolution; it was personal. During the 10-day revolt that shocked the world, the Russians murdered his brother - an event so devastating that their grief-stricken sister committed suicide. Sandor dug both graves.

About six years later, Zombori needed no further motivation when a violent match with a Russian crossed a line. The Russian wound up in a coma with a stretched neck and the man who put him there was suspended without pay for a year.

"To me, he was a symbol of the oppression of my country and the tragedy of my life," Zombori says. "Unfortunately, I was too young to understand that he was as much a victim as I was."

In the summer of 1969, Zombori was walking within sight of the American Embassy in Budapest when a poster draped across the front window caught his eye. It looked, from a distance, like a deep-sea diver. Intrigued, he walked up to the front of the building, even though Hungarians were discouraged from approaching the home of their Cold War enemy. He did not know he was being watched.

Tempted by a sign offering free English lessons, Sandor walked through the front door and inquired about the classes. "What is that picture in the window?" he asked an American lady who greeted him.

"Americans landed on the moon," she responded.

He was dumbfounded. Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind had somehow failed to make the Hungarian papers.

"That's when I really got pissed off, that this great achievement had taken place and we were deprived the very basic right of knowing," Zombori says.

After enjoying the first Coca-Cola of his life, Sandor asked the embassy official if he could buy a can to take home to his mother. He knew she would enjoy the treat. The lady gladly brought him a six-pack for free, along with an English-language book and a Look magazine, and signed him up for the classes.

Half an hour after he arrived home, four policemen broke down the door, searched the apartment for contraband and found the magazine, the language book, the six-pack, and a copy of Catcher in the Rye. (Years later, Zombori would learn that the woman he had intended to marry sold him out for reading the forbidden J.D. Salinger classic.) The police, who interrogated him for several hours, were convinced that he was passing secrets to the Americans - that he had betrayed his country for a six-pack of Coca-Cola.

Despite his status as an elite athlete, Zombori was sentenced to three months of forced labor on a collective farm. There, he befriended an elderly Catholic priest serving a 19-year sentence for the crime of preaching Christianity. The old man with failing kidneys and an appreciation for Shakespeare and Keats opened his eyes about many things.

After a childhood of deprivation and humiliation, Sandor had conditioned himself to accept the status and privileges he achieved for being a star athlete as some sort of triumph. As much as he hated the system, at least he could eat regularly, earn an education, and maintain a decent roof over his head. But prison changed him. Slowly, a resolve bubbled up inside him that he could no longer deny. He wanted to be free badly enough to risk everything.

"I had to get out," he says. "I was either going to escape or they were going to kill me trying to escape. But I could not go on living like that."

After he was released from the work farm, Zombori and friend Paul Jaszy plotted their escape from behind the Iron Curtain, a 13-day odyssey full of enough intrigue and suspense for a Cold War thriller.

"We could have been killed several times," says Jaszy, now a successful businessman in New York. "The odds were stacked against us."

Instead of trying to sneak across the heavily fortified western border with Austria, which seemed like suicide, the two men escaped through communism's back door, passing through Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia before finally reaching safety in Austria.

To leave their own country, they crawled on their bellies through a mine field, both men holding their breath while Sandor used his mother's knitting needle to poke the ground for explosives. When they reached a dirt field near the Romanian border, they took off all their clothes and walked on top of their shirts and pants to avoid leaving any footprints.

For nearly two weeks, Zombori and Jaszy lived in constant fear. If approached, they pretended to be Israeli students. Mostly they tried to remain invisible, sleeping in movie theaters by day, traveling by night, sometimes on foot, sometimes hidden in trains loaded with coal. They subsisted on movie theater chocolates and stolen milk.

One day in Bulgaria, they got cocky. The two fugitives decided to hitchhike toward the Yugoslavian border. After one man took them as far as he could, he pulled in to a roadside diner. While Zombori and Jaszy ate breakfast, the man walked out to the parking lot to see if he could find someone heading their way. A few moments later, he returned with good news, then led them to a Bulgarian army truck loaded with a dozen soldiers.

"I almost wet my pants," Zombori says. "Now what the hell do we do? We can't say we don't want to go with them because that will make them suspicious. But if they ask for papers, we're doomed."

Determined not to panic, they played the Israeli card soon after climbing into the back of the truck, which led to a discussion of 1967's Six-Day War.

"Were you in the Israeli army?" one of the soldiers asked.

"Oh, yes," Sandor said with a smile, launching into an elaborate lie. "We beat the hell out of those Arabs."

The soldiers seemed quite impressed. No one asked for papers. An hour or so later, the truck stopped at their destination and they climbed out, having dodged a gigantic bullet.

Several days later, after separating from his friend, Zombori slipped into what he thought was Austria, but he wanted to be sure. Back in Hungary, he had heard stories of escapees who thought they had crossed a final frontier only to be a few miles short - only to be recaptured and sent back. And he was not going back. They would have to kill him.

When he walked in to a small grocery store just across the border to listen to the voices to make sure he was free, the woman who owned the place noticed his dirty clothes and the frightened look on his face. Immediately, she knew.

"Have you just escaped?" she asked in German.

When Sandor nodded, she started to cry.

Choosing freedom carried certain consequences. It meant Sandor Zombori had to start over. After competing briefly with the Austrian judo team and knocking around Western Europe for a few weeks, he scraped together enough money for a plane ticket and wound up at New York's Kennedy Airport in the spring of 1970, because he wanted desperately to be an American. Even though he had been educated as a petrochemical engineer, he soon discovered his credentials were worthless in the U.S., so the star athlete took a job washing dishes in a Manhattan restaurant.

"He was scared and didn't speak much English but you could see he was determined to make something of himself," recalls restaurant owner George Lang, himself a former Hungarian refugee.

With his first paycheck, Zombori bought a Hungarian-English dictionary, which he used to learn 17 new words each night. After three months, feeling somewhat comfortable with the language, he took and passed the U.S. Army entrance exam. Several months later, with the army's help, he became a naturalized American citizen. "I will never forget the pride I felt that day," he says. "It was like I was reborn."

Determined to be not just a soldier but an elite soldier, Zombori went to Ranger school and fought his way into the Green Berets, which led him to Vietnam, where he resumed his own private war against the communists. Before dawn one morning, Zombori's squad stopped in the jungle to have breakfast. The soldier sitting next to Sandor asked him to pass the Tabasco sauce, which they needed to make the food edible, and when he reached over to pick up the bottle, a sniper's bullet that might have killed him instead struck his friend.

"There were times when it was a miracle I survived," Zombori says.

During his nine years in the military, Sandor parlayed his math skills into an engineering degree, which helped him land a job with a large computer company designing missile guidance systems for submarines. During his nine-year stint in the corporate world, he worked his way up to a comfortable salary, met and married the love of his life, and saved a lot of money. At the age of 44, Sandor was living the American dream. Then he made the boldest decision of his incredible life. He walked away.

Driven for many years by a desire to be in the restaurant business, colored by the memory of an orphan who had to fight for enough food to survive, Zombori initially started a pasta catering business on the side and then quit his job to open an Italian restaurant in Pensacola. His father-in-law was convinced he would go bankrupt within six months.

"It was a total leap of faith," Zombori says. "Either incredible stupidity or incredible cockiness. But I wanted to follow my dream, and I was so determined, I knew I would not fail."

After studying at France's prestigious Condo Bleu for 14 months, Sandor returned to Florida, moved to Walton County and opened a new restaurant in Seagrove Beach, reasoning he could attract a following for an intimate fine-dining establishment featuring sophisticated European cuisine. Several months after Sandor's opened in 1995, Hurricane Opal devastated the area. Traffic was dead for months. But since surviving that crisis, the restaurant's business has grown an average of 30 percent every year, proving the entrepreneurial gamble correct.

Determined to create a memorable dining experience, Zombori emphasizes elegance and comfort in every aspect of the restaurant. The tiny dining room seats only 25. While most restauranteurs must turn each table several times a night to support a large overhead, his unusual business plan allows him to accept only 25 seatings a night, which helps prevent any guest from ever feeling rushed. His patrons use only the best china, silver and glassware while seated in luxurious leather chairs. He uses only the finest ingredients and prepares meals to exacting standards, honed during winter trips to New York, where he works for free in five star restaurants including Le Bernadin and Cello.

Upon seeing the menu, which includes sophisticated dishes such as white truffle tortellini and sautéed anise-crusted Atlantic salmon, it would be perfectly logical to believe that the kitchen is crowded with several cooks. But the staff includes only two waiters. Sandor handles everything else, often working 15-hour days. He's the chef, the pastry chef, the manager, the reservations clerk, the dishwasher, the janitor. The foundation of all that elegance and comfort is Sandor's sweat.

"He is the most amazing person," says waitress Barbara Campbell. "To see what he does on a daily basis is absolutely awe-inspiring."

Zombori credits Eric Ripert, the celebrated chef of New York's Le Bernadin, for his culinary transformation. "He made me the chef I am today," Zombori says. "He has taught me so much and been so unselfish. Eric Ripert is responsible for the fact that I am able to feed my family."

But Ripert insists Zombori's success is much more fundamental, much more profound than his influence or even cooking. "Sandor's story proves that you can overcome long odds to make it in this world if you have passion and determination and are willing to work hard," Ripert says. "I'm amazed that he's still alive, and that he could be such a kind man to have seen all the bad things he has seen. I have been inspired by him."

As soon as they met, he knew. On a late January day in 1981, one of Sandor's co-workers at the computer company introduced him to a new employee, a beautiful young blonde with kind eyes and a sunny disposition. Her name was Mary. "I know it sounds silly, but I looked at her and I knew she was the woman I would marry," Zombori says.

They quickly became friends, but it took months for him to get a date. She kept saying no. He kept asking. Finally, after a company beach outing, she agreed to dinner at a Japanese restaurant, and a relationship blossomed. Two years later they drove to New Orleans to get married, then hid the union from their co-workers because the company maintained a strict non-fraternization policy.

For nearly 20 years, the Zomboris have built a wonderful life together, creating for their two daughters the kind of stable and secure environment that Sandor never knew as a child. "She is the love of my life and my best friend," he says. "Everything was perfect until..."

The family was shaken last year when Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery to remove the tumor and doctors were hopeful. All of the signs were good until this spring, when doctors discovered another tumor. Mary spent several weeks at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where surgeons removed the new growth, but the surgery was only partially successful. She will spend the summer months undergoing periodic chemotherapy at a Pensacola hospital, and all Sandor can do is hold her hand.

"This is the most difficult thing I have ever had to face," he says.

Throughout his life, Zombori has overcome tremendous odds not just to achieve but to survive. The common denominator through it all has been his iron will, his ability to muster the strength and tenacity to endure any amount of pain or hardship without giving up. The same qualities that helped him survive the orphanage made him a championship athlete, a decorated soldier and a successful entrepreneur.

But for the first time in his life, he feels helpless.

He can remember what it was like to be hungry and he can remember what it was like to be rejected, but those were like pin pricks compared to the pain of watching the mother of his children suffer without being able to help her.

Sometimes he flashes back to the last time he saw his beloved mother when he returned to Hungary after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sitting in a wheelchair with both legs amputated, she told him how she had renounced her Jewish faith to save the family during World War II. "Maybe God is punishing me," she told him. He tried to console her, but he didn't know what to say. All he could do was hold her hand.

Sandor, who subsequently embraced Judaism and is now very observant, concedes that his wife's illness has caused him to question his faith. Like any husband facing such a situation, he is frustrated by the most fundamental question of all: Why? After all those years of having nothing to believe in but the strength of his own will, his mind still struggles with the concept of surrendering control, even to a higher power.

"All I can do now is believe she will get well," Zombori says. "So I believe. We will beat this. We will beat this and have a happy life."

Copyright 2002 by Keith Dunnavant

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