Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

October 18, 2012

A CHEF, A CAT AND CO

Communism escapee, local chef also survives CO poisoning

BY BILL WOLCOTT
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Otto Kurcsics, the ninth of nine children from a Hungarian village, knows hard work, the hardships of communism and the adventures of escaping to freedom, but his experience with carbon monoxide leaves him most emotional.

Kurcsics, who became a internationally recognized chef after years of apprenticeship and study, lives in Williamsville with his wife Sharon. A faulty gas furnace nearly claimed his life last week and he credits his cat “Mookey” for saving his life.

Mookey, a 10-year-old tabby, died. Three other cats survived.

Kurcsics, who is a culinary arts instructor at the Orleans/Niagara Board or Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in Sanborn, wells up with tears when he talks about Mookey. The father of four and new grandfather told colleagues the story through email.

This is an abridged version of Kurcsics’ story:

”I started up the furnace for the first time this year and everything checked out and we thought we were protected. We weren’t. We went to bed soon after the horrendous football game, not thinking that we might not wake up in the morning. Then the unthinkable happened. The furnace malfunctioned and filled the house with carbon monoxide. 

”We are alive today by the grace of God and one of our beloved cats, Mookey, who always came to wake us up before, didn’t. I instead he was crying the most distressing cry I have ever heard. Even so, we were completely paralyzed by the effect of the CO. I somehow was able to get up... I found Mookey on the kitchen floor lying down, kicking and was unable to get up. I realized something bad happened and started to open all the doors and windows and, as sick as my wife was, she called 911. 

”All but one of the cats were located. Mookey needed to be put down. He gave his life to wake us, warn us. The greatest cat on earth saved our lives,” Kurcsics said.

Kurcsics urged his colleagues to have a qualified service man check their furnaces before they turn them on for the cold weather.

”This is serious stuff,” Tom Destino, a heating ventilation and air conditioning instructor, replied. “Otto - you and your wife, by all means, are lucky to be alive and I’m very sorry to hear about your pets.”

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, tasteless, odorless and deadly gas. Exposure can result in nausea and convulsions, followed by death. Destino adviced homeowners to have their heating systems have it checked at least once every two years.

”It was horrendous experience to my whole family, my whole life,” said Kurcsics, who has lived through extraordinary experiences.

Kurcsics grew up in a two bedroom house made of mud in northeast Hungary, a village of about 800 people. There was no furnace,  but a wood-burning stove that had to be maintained through the night by the parents, Paul and Maria.

”We had wheat. We had corn, We had feed for the animals,” he recalled. “My mother was the best cook in the world. She was able to create, from practically nothing, food fit for a king.”

Then there was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Otto was just 7.

 “Communism  came house to house and walked things out. They limited everything,” Kurcsics recalled. “The Russians came in a took everything away from the family. It was devastation to sustain life with this many kids. My parents had nothing. .... Even in our little village, where no guns were allowed, they shot us to pieces, I was told, Just to make us shut up, be quiet. You’re going to be under us period.” 

They took the horses.

”It was a lot of hardship my parents struggled tremendously. We had sometimes just slice of bread and pork lard,” Kurcsics said. 

Work never bothered the family members, but one by one, they left the village. Big brother Andrew walked out of the country through during the revolution. 

”We saw that’s not a life,” Otto said.  “It was hard life, it was aloving loving life and it was wonderful that our parents loved us. The siblings loved each other, but it was so hard, nobody wanted to do it.” 

Big sister Margaret encouraged young Otto to move to Budapest when he was 13. “Leave that mud behind.” She asked the parents, “Why don’t we get him out of this mud pit and get him to Budapest?”

Otto served as an apprentice at a culinary school and the little town boy became the favorite of the chefat that time in Hungary chefs were like kings.

 “I was hungry for knowledge, just like I am now,” Otto said.

He worked himself from the basement to the kitchen and worked under many famous chefs in Hungary before going in the Army. Again, he worked in the kitchen, earning three stars.

However, after discharge, he lived in a bed-bugged a bedroom and had to use half of his restaurant pay just for rent. Joseph, who was two years older, and Otto decided to begin the journey to America.

They escaped by foot out of Hungary and into Yugoslavia. They didn’t know where they were. 

”We were sneaking through places, scared, walking through woods, mountains,” he said. “We had no idea where we were going. It was pitch dark. We were just going by noises, sense and feeling.”

Joseph fell into ravine or pit. His little brother could not see him but heard him making, Joe was crawling. He bruised his left shoulder and needed help.

After miles on foot, carrying backpacks, the brothers came upon a manhole cover with Italian writing. They were in Italy.

Daylight was coming, dogs were barking like crazy, the young ment started to see people. They explained they wanted to go to the American consulate in Rome.

”The train stopped a Venice,” Otto said. “We sat there and thanked God for the freedom we had at last.”

At the American consulate in Rome, they met a Hungarian post.

”By the power of God, on the same day, someone transfered,” Otto said. “They needed a chef and I was already a trained. Joseph became a gardener for a monsignor.

Otto worked in a kitchen run by Hungarian Nuns, cooking for the high priests. Otto saw the pope many times.

”We had food, room and board and freedom!” 

They saved money and learned to speak English, with an accent. On their flight to America in 1973, they were served filet mignon.

Otto, recognized as certified executive chef and a certified culinary educator, has worked in several up-scale restaurants and country clubs. He owned the Gazebo Restaurant on Delaware in Buffalo.