For the first seven years of his life, Paul Hortobagyi never tasted a waffle. Then one day he found himself surrounded by them.
The Fountain Valley resident was strolling through the streets of Liege, Belgium, with his parents when he encountered artisanal street vendors selling waffles at nearly every corner. They would grab a piece of paper, sprinkle the buttery-sweet treasure with powdered sugar and hand it out.
He recalled no fancy stuffing or topping. The confection, in its purest form, was a great indulgence.
"It's like when you give a kid a chocolate for the very first time, and he goes, 'Oooh, now you're talking, Mommy,'" he said, chuckling.
Hortobagyi, a native of Budapest, Hungary, returned to that memory recently when he established Gaüfreé, a waffle sandwich store in Irvine. The 2,400-square-foot venue on Alton Parkway is gussied up in red, yellow and black — symbolic of the Belgian national flag — with a state-of-the-art cappuccino maker and a call for "warriors" to conquer a "monster waffle."
Chefs work in clear view of customers, sharing the space with McConnell's Fine Ice Creams, Boylan Bottling Co. sodas, Backyard Bees honey and local wines. Everything in the store has a story, Hortobagyi said, right down to the long benches.
Recounting a 1998 trip to Vancouver with his wife, he said, "We went to a restaurant one evening and we couldn't find a seat, but there was space at the community table. I don't remember the gentleman's name, his face or where he was from, but we had a great evening together. We were laughing; tears were rolling down our cheeks and we'd just met! Why not bring people together ... and just have a wonderful time?"
In keeping with the spirit of community, he introduced "Do You Know Me" questionnaires, which have diners answering basic questions about favorite foods, colors, pets and so on, as a conversation starter.
Originally, Hortobagyi planned to establish Gaüfreé in Sherman Oaks, but he decided the move would be difficult for his family — especially his wife, a two-time cancer survivor who has doctors she trusts and a support system in Orange County. The Irvine Company Retail Properties-owned location serves him well, and although the store is still in its infancy, the community's response has been unwavering and overwhelming.
Stacie Ellis, senior director of marketing for the real estate firm, is impressed by Hortobagyi's decision to collaborate with local farms and organic suppliers.
"In this day and age, it's hard to find such dedication," she said in an email. "We're impressed they make everything from scratch. Gaufree is a perfect addition to the neighborhood. It's a really modern, fresh environment with warm and gracious service from a wonderful family business."
The well-traveled Hortobagyi, who speaks five languages in addition to English, finds that the organic buttermilk fried chicken sandwich, vegetarian gaufree, House Famous pulled pork and Nutella Madness with sliced bananas and whipped cream are among his top sellers. All items are under $10.
Families and people who work in the area often stop by for a meal several times a week. He is on a first-name basis with many of them, even though it's been little more than a month since the eatery debuted.
Ellis, a fan of the waffle burger and smoky Louisiana Tasso ham and Emmental cheese sandwich, is certain that Hortobagyi's peanut butter pie with sea salt caramel is poised to become "the hottest new dessert in town."
Gaüfreé's founder credits this popularity to the fact that all ingredients are made from scratch, on-site — balsamic vinegar, barbecue and pesto sauce, ranch dressing and tofu caramelized with port wine, to name a few.
Stepping into the restaurant's walk-in refrigerator, he popped open a bin to determine when to create the next batch of fresh, handmade batter, which is done several times during his 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. shift.
The witty 64-year-old with salt and pepper hair is entranced by cooking and spent a year experimenting with ingredients, brewing recipes and keeping a record of concoctions.
With parents who spent about two decade as teeterboard acrobats in a traveling circus, Hortobagyi visited Norway, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France and other European countries at an age when most children can't even locate them on a map.
When school was in session, he lived with his maternal grandparents. Today, he chalks up his culinary passion to his grandmother, whom he calls an "amazing cook," his voice warming when discussing her nurturing yet stern ways.
Hortobagyi met the "love of [his] life" during a two-year stint as an acrobat with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. She was working as a trapeze artist with her sister.
Now, the family act has come down from the high wire for an adventure of a different sort. His wife and daughter, both named Marcela, and son Jean Paul, who invented Gaüfreé's ketchup, work shifts at the eatery.
This isn't Hortobagyi's first restaurant. He is a former partner at Arnie's Manhattan Restaurant and Deli in Costa Mesa and co-owner of New York City Bistro in Fountain Valley. With a lengthy background in the hospitality industry, Hortobagyi seeks to treat every patron as a personal guest — a lesson he shares with members of his staff.
While checking on a woman chowing down on a Philly cheese steak, Hortobagyi's attention was drawn to a familiar face as the person burst through the doors. He smiled broadly and called out, "Hey, how are you?"
"Good," came the reply. "I'll be better in a minute — after I eat your food."
If You Go
Where: 3851-A Alton Pkwy., Irvine
When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays, and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
Information: http://www.gaufree.com or (949) 222-5622