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Love, War & Pasta: Meet Sandor Zombori

One of the best things about South Walton is its stories. You’ll find interesting people behind every counter, on top of every paddleboard and below every beach umbrella. This month, we’re taking you inside one of South Walton’s kitchens to meet Sandor Zombori, pasta and pastry chef at The Bay and Great Southern Café.

Chef Sandor Zombori making pasta

Sandor’s story begins during World War II in a Hungarian orphanage, where he was tasked with making pasta for himself and the other children. “I still remember waiting to watch the pasta puff up on the stove when we cooked it,” he says. “There wasn’t much food to go around. In those times, we were cooking and eating to survive.”

Despite his limited diet, Sandor’s strong build and natural athleticism would take him far. He practiced Judo throughout his youth and even went on to represent Hungary in the 1964 Olympics. As a champion athlete, he was privileged to have access to food, housing and an education.

Despite his success in Hungary, Sandor was eager to get out and see the world beyond the Iron Curtain. He eventually made his way to Italy, where his physical strength caught the eye of an Italian restaurant owner and butcher who needed help handling large pieces of meat. At age 23, Sandor could easily lift and carry half of a cow.

“After I’d been working for him for some time, one day he pulled me aside and said, ‘Sandor, I know that there’s more to you than just your strength. I’m going to teach you how to make pasta.’”

Chef Sandor Zombori in the kitchen

From that point on, Sandor embarked on what he calls “a lifelong obsession with pasta.”

By 1970 Sandor had made his way to the US. “I immediately fell in love with America,” he says. “I’ve wandered around many places in the world, and none are as welcoming as this country.” He had dreams of opening his own restaurant.

Sandor spent more than a decade learning English, serving in the US military, earning a degree and working as an IT specialist for a large computer company that relocated him to South Walton. Along the way, he continued to work hard in order to support his family and save money to open his restaurant. In 1995, Sandor finally opened Sandor’s Restaurant in Seagrove, which he successfully operated for more than ten years.

One of the main menu items? Homemade pasta prepared by Sandor himself.

“Pasta making is like an art,” he explains. “The key is to only use the bare minimum amount of liquid required to preserve the pasta’s texture and feel. In my opinion, the flour is the star of the show when it comes to making pasta. The eggs and liquid are just supporting acts.”

Fresh homemade pasta

Today, you’ll find Sandor making pasta for local chef Jim Shirley at Great Southern Café and The Bay. Sandor’s creations range from original, authentic spaghetti to basil-infused fettuccine.

“To ask me which one of my pastas I love the most is like asking me which one of my children I love the most — it’s impossible,” he jokes. “I’ll always say that my favorite pasta is the one I finished making last.”

And Sandor is always making something new. Although consistency in quality and flavor drive the chefs at The Bay and Great Southern Café, Sandor loves working with his team because he feels continually challenged to innovate and improve — something that he appreciates at age 73.

“I’d like to say that I’m a thinking chef,” he says. “I like to push myself to get better and improve everything I make, which is in line with what my boss encourages. He wants his restaurants to be known for serving top-quality dishes.”

Clearly, this type of can-do attitude has taken Sandor far in life. He’s come a long way from his days as an orphan, shaping “an incredible life that has defied the odds,” according to South Walton Life writer Keith DunnavantToday, Sandor’s only goal is to keep perfecting each batch of pasta he makes in the back kitchen at The Bay.

“I’ve been very blessed in this life,” he says. “I don’t know how much time I have left here, but I do know that I want to spend every moment of it in the kitchen doing what I love.”

Chef Sandor Zombori

 

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