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Courtesy Imi Kun
Chef Imi at work.

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.

It included a visit to St. George, where the folk dancing troupe that was part of the touring group was booked for a performance.

The visiting Hungarians were hosted by local residents. Imi ended up staying with Kent and Vera Christensen and their family.

The Christensens — who remain great friends with him to this day — showed off the area. When Imi saw Zion National Park he was mesmerized.

Long story short, a year later he emigrated from Hungary to southern Utah. For four years he ran a restaurant in Escalante, the Ponderosa, that catered to the many Europeans visiting the national parks. From there he worked as food and beverage manager at Zion National Park and Death Valley before opening his own restaurant, the Cosmopolitan, in Leeds, just outside St. George. The restaurant seated 70 and was packed nightly, but the historic building it was housed in was falling apart, bringing about another restaurant in St. George, the Orchids, before Imi took over supervision of the Riverwalk Grill two years ago.

Added to Imi’s many career awards is the 2013 honor from the National Association of Homebuilders designating Riverwalk as the best 50-plus dining experience among all active adult communities in America.

The plaque hangs in the lobby next to numerous other plaques praising Chef Imi — an unexpected treasure in a place that’s full of them.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com