László Kókai
László Kókai
Budapest, Hungary

One waiter knew this Hungarian castle long before it became a hotel

By pulse

Laci bácsi arrived at my table with my amuse-bouche; a tiny rectangular pastry shell filled with a variety of caviar. Life was good. Though he offered a menu, he also offered to simply present me with delicious dishes of his choosing. I trusted him and, as I’m nowhere near a picky eater, I took him up on his offer.

The Botaniq Castle of Tura  is a forty-minute drive from Budapest and I was eager to learn the history of this storied property, which was restored and began operating as a hotel in 2019.

From the moment he entered the room—this spry man with thick, stubby fingers, dressed in black slacks, a black waistcoat, white shirt, and a real, green bowtie (no clip-ons here)—his joy for his job and his workplace was evident. As we sat in the Library, Laci bácsi told me the story of how this castle, now his place of employment, is a thread that’s weaved throughout his life.

The castle was built in 1883 and has a storied history that includes occupation by both the Nazis and communist regimes. It’s been used as a film set for a movie directed by Angelina Jolie and, from 1945 until 1973, it was the city’s school. That’s where Laci bácsi enters.

First, his proper name is László Kókai. Laci is a nickname for László, and bácsi is a term of endearment that young people call older people they respect and adore. It’s pronounced lah-see bah-chi, and everyone calls him this.

He attended the school from 1971-1973. Entering the school for the sixth grade, he explains that he spent quite some time in, what is now the Grand Salon, but what was then the teachers’ office where misbehaving students were sent.

“I had a lot of energy,” he explains. “But I spent less time there once I became interested in girls.”

And, speaking of girls, Laci bácsi had both his first date and his first kiss in the castle’s garden.

The school closed when, in 1973, the roof over the chemistry lab caved in. Though officials first thought it might have been a chemistry experiment gone awry, it was ultimately determined that the building was simply in such disrepair that it was falling down and unsafe to be in.

In time, Laci bácsi grew up and graduated. He married a local woman—they’ve been married for 35 years and he still keeps a photo from long ago of the two of them in the palace’s garden—and moved to Budapest where he worked in hotels. He worked in the iconic Hotel Gellért for a while before he and his wife decided to move back to Tura and open a small grocery, ironically named “Kastély,” meaning Castle. Happy to be back in Tura, Laci would pass by the palace, remembering his school days fondly, yet watching it continue to fall into disrepair.

In 2016, it was announced that the palace had been sold and would be turned into a hotel. Laci bácsi dreamed of working there and, in 2019, while it was under construction, he saw an ad for jobs at the castle. With the possibility of his dream coming true, he became nervous. He thought that maybe at 61, he was too old. “You don’t see too many older waiters. Who would want me?” he says, explaining his apprehension.

“Yes, it’s my dream, but what if they don’t take me,” he told his wife.

She encouraged him saying, “If you apply, they may take you or they may not. But if you don’t apply, the answer is sure to be, no.”

The person who interviewed him said the minute he walked in the door, they knew they would hire him. He simply exudes his love for the place.

Even if he’s not working he passes by the castle and greets it. “Good morning, my castle,” he says. “Even if it’s not my castle, it’s part of me and I am part of it.”

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