ST. GEORGE — Imi Kun just may qualify as the best cheerleader southern Utah ever had.
That’s a mouthful. But consider this: how many people do you know who were born and raised in communist Hungary at the height of the Cold War, could hold their own and then some with the finest chefs in Europe, could live anywhere in the world of their choosing, didn’t even lay eyes on the red rocks of southern Utah until they were in their mid-30s — and took one look and never looked back?
That, in a nutshell, is the story of the man everyone around here calls Chef Imi, a relative newcomer who has become something of a legend in his own time.
And not just because of the food he serves; it's because of his unabashed fondness for where he lives.
“There is everything here,” he said during a recent break from the kitchen at the Riverwalk Grill at SunRiver, where he is the resident master chef. “The climate, the people, the nature, the lifestyle. Within two hours you can ski, you can go to Las Vegas, you can get lost in the wilderness. Where else can you do that? And a lot of people say if you’re not Mormon you can’t make it here, but I’m telling you that’s a big lie. That doesn’t matter at all. I would never want to live anywhere else.”
And that’s just a warm-up for what he thinks of the United States of America.
“We have to be very, very proud of our country and about our freedom,” Chef Imi, a naturalized U.S. citizen, continued. “I think anyone who was on the other side can appreciate it even more. The American dream is true. Here, it’s up to you. If you work hard for it, you can get what you want. It’s not necessary to be a friend to a powerful leader or whatever. And the peace that’s here! You don’t have to worry about the kids going to school, what’s going to happen. For long years I don’t even worry about where my house key is.”
You get the drift. If the restaurant thing ever gets old, Imi could easily find work with the Chamber of Commerce.
* * *
I met Imi Kun quite by chance while I was on the way to do a story about someone else: in this case, a golf addict by the name of Marty Grossman who has played the SunRiver golf course more than 2,400 times.
The night before my interview with Grossman, I was introduced to Imi at SunRiver’s Riverwalk Grill.
Or, rather, I was introduced to his Hungarian goulash.
I have never tasted better goulash.
I complimented the chef and, as I learned, compliments are nothing new for Imi. He’s been getting them for decades.
He first came to the area in 1993 as part of a group of Hungarians sponsored by their government who were taking a grand tour to see what they could learn about America.
This was just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the democratic world was beckoning. Like all Hungarians to that point in time, Imi, born in 1957, knew nothing other than communism. The state required teenagers to choose a profession in middle school, so at 14 he chose the culinary arts.
It turned out he was very talented, so for the next 15 years, for two and three years at a time, he was trained in every aspect of the profession: as a server, a bartender, a cook, a restaurateur and a chef. Say what you want about the stifling nonfreedom of communism, but it produced some fine specialists.
Imi was one of those. He became a master of masters. He represented Hungary in the world culinary championships in Luxembourg. With state approval he lived and worked in Italy, Germany and France to absorb the finest aspects of those cuisines.
Then he took that trip to America.
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