Yesterday we spoke with Kurt Gutenbrunner about the meaning of "neue" cuisine and the release of his just-published cookbook. Today he tells us more about his restaurants and why it's not so much the type of food that matters, but the experience.
Do you have an overall philosophy vis-à-vis your eateries?
I always believe the bigger point to be successful is not to look at the nationality too much but look at the customality. What do you want to create to have your customer feel, like, 'Oh, I want to go there because I can't get it anywhere else"?
Your restaurants are all similar in that they follow a Germanic tradition, but what would you say the biggest differences are between them?
The biggest difference is that the conceptions are all different. Wallsé is 12 years old now, and it's really been established as a fine-dining restaurant. We have the biggest Austrian wine list in the United States. Café Sabarsky is a classic Viennese café. Blaue Gans is more of a bistro version of a bierhaus, with space for draft beer and sausages and calf's liver. Then I have a wine bar in the West Village. And I consult for the beer gardens at the Standard Hotel.
Do you think about opening another restaurant?
There are so many things I want to do in my life. I want to write a book with my daughter. It's very important that we think about nutrition as education. We have a good chance now with the administration and Michelle Obama raising awareness. Working more in this direction would make me happy. I also really loved L.A. [having opened the beer garden at the Standard]. Not the driving so much, but the love of life and it's cool. So I don't know what I'm going to do next. If you want to do something right, you have enough to do on a daily basis.
Have you ever thought about not cooking Austrian cuisine?
The beauty with Austrian and German cuisine is that there's a huge influence in there from before when it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Parts of Italy like Trieste were part of it, and so was Slovakia, Yugoslavia ... You see those traditions, too. As I said before, the steps I took [to open my restaurants] were necessary because that was the expectation. When I opened my first restaurant, had I done an Italian restaurant, I don't think it would have lasted. Now things might be different, though.
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New York got its first taste of chef Kurt Gutenbrunner‘s cooking when Wallse opened in 2000, and in the years since it has embraced four more of his restaurants. Fans of the chef’s style, which combines artful modernism with a deep respect for Austrian classics, are no doubt already devouring his new cookbook, Neue Cuisine: The Elegant Tastes of Vienna–and, from what we’ve seen, recent converts will find just as much to appreciate. The coffee table-worthy book, “made with love and lots of work,” combines recipes from the chef’s kitchens with images illustrating the deep link Gutenbrunner sees between food and art. “We have an amazing, beautiful art collection at Wallse, a constantly evolving collection of poster art at Blaue Gans, and Cafe Sabarsky is housed in the great Neue Galerie,” he told us. “If you go to any of these locations, the art and design are as important as the food.”
If all that sounds a bit cerebral, don’t worry. Gutenbrunner enjoys American classics like “steak and potatoes or a good hot dog at Yankee stadium” as much as the next guy, and he always appreciates the chance to share good, unfussy food with his daughters. “For the winter I love to make my kids a good soup with vegetables. Sometimes I make them fresh herbed quark spaetzle or veal schnitzel with paprika sauce.” And he says that any cook would do well to master the strudel; savory or sweet, in any season, it’s “one of the things that always works.”
We haven’t seen any signs of a slowdown yet in Gotham’s appetite for Gutenbrunner’s food, and the admiration is mutual. “Vienna is beautiful and is rich in Austrian culture,” the chef told us, “but my home is New York. The variety of people, food and cultures brought me to New York, and continues to fascinate me every day.”
In chef Kurt Gutenbrunner’s volume Neue Cuisine (Rizzoli New York; $45), the acclaimed New York-based, Austrian-born chef shares his secrets to the two S’s of Viennese cuisine: schnitzels and strudels. The recipe book features Viennese delicacies from the menus of New York restaurants Wallsé, Blaue Gans, and the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky that beg to be enjoyed during the holidays, as each dish exudes a feeling of warmth and comfort. Colorful entrées such as lake perch with melted leeks, tomatoes, capers, and kalamata olives or lobster with cherries, fava beans, and béarnaise sauce offer a festive delight for the eye while the more understated Christmas goose serves as a holiday classic.
When it comes to dessert, Gutenbrunner favors the Salzburger Nockerl, a dumpling soufflé with warm berries, as well as the Dobostorte, a caramel-cream layer cake that is “so refined with its different layers and crunchy caramel on top.” While these treats top his holiday list, the chef, forever Austrian at heart, cannot imagine, “Who can forget about the strudels?”
The highly personal book also spotlights the chef’s passion for art. Photographer Ellen Silverman captures the beauty of each dish and pairs his fare with tableware from turn-of-thecentury Vienna and art from Gutenbrunner’s restaurants. Rounded out by works from the Neue Galerie’s collection, the tome perfectly reflects Gutenbrunner’s world, in which “art and food are very close.” Available at bookstores citywide.
Kurt Gutenbrunner is the force behind the West Village restaurant Wallse, as well as Café Blaue Gans in Tribeca and Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie. The trouble with interviewing a chef is that it makes you hungry! He kept talking about apple strudel and sacher torte and cream and pork and … weirdly it never occurred to us to look inside his fridge—the only—and now lost opportunity—we may ever have to see what such an accomplished chef might always have to hand. He did tell us that on the way to school, he and his daughters stop at a café to eat chocolate chip cookies for breakfast and that his now-grown son was an impossibly fussy eater when he was young, which was a relief.
All these other well-known chefs irritatingly boast about how their kids eat everything (for example Gordon Ramsay serving his four kids hare in chocolate sauce and Jamie Oliver’s kids eating salad. Salad!) It was a typically honest admission from someone who, when it comes to his restaurants and his Austrian-influenced cooking, says that his main aim is to make you feel as though you had come to his house as a guest —“only there’s money involved … and let’s be humble about it and let’s understand what it is: it’s a craft.”
His new book: Neue Cuisine, The Elegant Tastes of Vienna (Rizzoli, $45) shares signature recipes from his trio of New York City Restaurants and gives us a modern take on Austrian cooking.
I guess we should start with your food—how you describe it yourself: half Lou Reed and half Mozart. What do you mean?
What I mean is that I leave the classics alone. And I have certain dishes I can play around with. I would not touch a Wiener schnitzel. I would not touch sacher cake. I wouldn’t touch an apple strudel. Like I want to stay with classical music, everyone plays the same piece over and over, nobody changes [the compositions]. They are just perfect they way they are. And then I have a playground of, let’s call it seventy percent, which I can use for “KG” cooking.
In every interview you mention Lou Reed … what kind of food does Lou Reed like?
Well, I like his music and he’s a good friend of mine. He eats a lot of fish. He eats venison. He doesn’t eat red meat—he’s a diabetic.
What did you learn from Austrian cooking? What are its limits?
Well, there’s no lobster, there’s no halibut. There’s only lake fish. And I live here in the U.S. with all this beautiful shellfish—why not use it, right? But it is also important that there are elements in the dish that reflect Austrian cuisine.
[Lesley] I’ve been to all your restaurants and I love them but when someone first suggested Wallse, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of Austrian food … heavy food.
[Sian] Like traditional Jewish food.
That’s absolutely the cliché. And when you take what the Americans eat! Thirty-ounce steak! Over-cooked potatoes! You almost throw up when you enter a steakhouse here in America. I’m on a kick of British food right now but I can name you twenty dishes that aren’t edible because they are so heavy. If I want to pick French food, not even looking at French pastries compared to our pastries, I can pick twenty dishes that aren’t edible because they are so heavy.
[Lesley] You need to talk about this food obsession that’s taken over our whole culture. I’m bored out of my mind by people talking about food in a fetishistic way. It’s a product of affluence; it’s even become judgemental and righteous—or at least it is in Brooklyn where I live. Food is food—it doesn’t have magical properties.
[Sian] I love talking about food!
You have to choose your road. Maybe we chefs didn’t prostitute ourselves so much [back then]—that’s the biggest thing in celebrity culture. But at the end of the day, I have to agree with you—it’s just food. It’s simple food. I can’t go to restaurants where the people are trying to “educate” me. I have no respect for dehydrated pineapples when there is a fresh pineapple. But this is my way.
I suppose I’m partly thinking of the over-inventiveness … I haven’t eaten much of that kind of laboratory food: foams and gels and things. It seems to be more of an “experience” than the eating of food.
They all do their best work, and they’re all different. You have to choose your road – I have to. I have to say, I’m not interested in doing that.
The seed of that kind of “cooking” was, I guess, original, but it quickly becomes a pretentious trend. We ate at 11 Madison Park the other night—the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten and I hated every second of it. It was so ritualized and the food was embarrassingly bad. We were being asked to almost worship the food.
My job is to give you an experience—the same experience I would give you if I invited you to my house. The only difference is that you would give me money for it.
But not everybody is looking for that, are they? Some people are looking for a more theatrical experience.
I can’t help you!
[Lesley] It’s just that I grew up in Africa where there’s frequently not enough food and I can’t stand listening to people talk in this fetishistic, obsessively refined way about food.
Yes, there should be respect for the simple apple. We don’t have to glorify an apple or glorify a chicken: “Like oh my God! It was slaughtered at midnight with this special blade used only by the right hand!” Forget about it!
I was thrilled to discover that you know how to slaughter a pig, or at least that is what I have read.
I grew up in a little village and we had to eat what we had in the garden. We made our own apple cider, apple wine, apple vinegar. We had to learn how to kill and butcher a pig.
I’m not pushing any vegetarian agenda but how do you feel about killing and eating animals?
Look, whatever has to be done, has to be done properly. I don’t think you should keep pigs in terrible conditions because it’s not worth eating them.
Running a restaurant and working as a chef seems to require such extraordinary energy levels and discipline—is this why there seems to be an almost military environment in the kitchens? Or is that just Gordon Ramsay?
When I worked in Europe it was much more military than it is now. When I was in Munich there were 22 chefs and 200 people on the waiting list for a job. So if you made a mistake, you were out. I don’t think we have any restaurant with 200 people on the waiting list now. You have to be happy that we still have a few young people that want to learn this profession. Let’s not kill it with too much TV. And let’s be humble about it and let’s understand what it is: it’s a craft.
Is the hard thing with restaurants to keep the momentum going, to have it stand the test of time?
I don’t think [keeping the momentum going] is the hard thing. If you create something that you can’t hold on to, it doesn’t have a time line. Look at the Viennese cafés … they’re still successful. If you come to my restaurant, you know what you get.
I was surprised to read in your book that the first café in Vienna was established in 1685 …
From the Turks!
And that’s where coffee came from.
And we had no idea what to do with it. Turkey is a very, very influential culture in Eastern Europe.
(Sian) My 20-year-old son is working in southern India for a chain called Café Coffee Day and it’s booming—and the reason it’s booming is because people live in very large tight-knit families and they want to get away! So this is the place to go … this is in rural areas, not cities.
In Vienna it comes more from people wanting to be together … think of all the wars we went through. And look at the coffee houses. The coffee houses were homes for all the artists. [One] writer had his mail delivered to one of the cafés.
I love the fact that you use your restaurants for displaying art.
I have good friends. It helps when you have good [artist] friends. I see it all as a home, you know the food, the wine, the interior. Like I would have here—just a couple more tables. And there’s money involved. But everything else is about hospitality.
And you’re there … that’s important.
Well, I can’t cut myself in pieces but I go from one to another every night.
[Sian] Actually I had two first dates in Café Sabarsky … it’s the perfect place for that because it’s not too intimate, and you don’t have to have a really big meal, but you can chat and the tables are spaced far apart.
I feel the same way. I go on dates to Café Sabarsky too!
And you can skip the line!
Yeah, I can walk by the line! I’ve already impressed my date! I went through all of this already—it works!
Austrian cuisine gets short shrift around here. But whenever I get to New York, I eat at Kurt Gutenbrunner's Austrian bistro Wallse, which is why I was thrilled that he's got a cookbook out this season. As soon as I got my hands on a copy of "Neue Cuisine: The Elegant Tastes of Vienna," I was planning menus to test the recipes.
Roasted squash soup with a touch of honey, swirled with iridescent green-red pumpkin seed oil, makes an autumnal first course. I made spätzle (squiggly noodles) a couple of ways. The version with white corn, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms and tarragon easily works as a main course for any guests who don't eat meat. And the goulash? An Austrian friend swooned, claiming it tasted just like his grandmother's as he sneaked in an extra helping. Grandmother or no, that goulash exhibits a deep, resonant flavor. Make it with the best paprika you can find (one that hasn't been sitting in the cupboard for years).
Boiled beef tongue with horseradish sauce and the classic boiled beef shoulder are both excellent. After the goulash, however, my favorite dish has to be the roasted pork shanks with sauerkraut cooked with bacon (I used the locally made kraut from Kruegermann). Marinated overnight in caraway and garlic and basted with wheat beer as they roast, the shanks develop a tantalizing caramelized crust. I've already made this one twice.
The recipes could have been better edited (the publisher does more art books than cookbooks). I found myself caught short sometimes wondering what to do next, but I eventually figured it out. And in the end, all the recipes I tried worked, the only disappointment the kaiserschmarren, which seemed more like a regular pancake than the ethereal bites of cloud I was anticipating.
Another plus is that the book is also an introduction to Viennese culture and design, illustrated by objects from the collection of the Neue Galerie in New York. The chef operates Café Sabarsky, a great spot for Viennese coffee and apple strudel, inside the museum. And recipes from the cafe, as well as KG's Blaue Gans, are included in the book.
"Neue Cuisine: The Elegant Tastes of Vienna" by Kurt Gutenbrunner, Jane Sigal, Ronald S. Lauder and the Neue Galerie, Rizzoli, $45.
MANY great talents started young, charging forward right out of the gate.
Take Kurt Gutenbrunner, the chef of the New York restaurants Wallsé, Blaue Gans and Café Sabarsky, and the author of a hot-selling new cookbook, “Neue Cuisine.” Growing up 75 miles outside Vienna, on the banks of the Danube, Mr. Gutenbrunner was barely 15 years old when he went off to a special boarding school to study cooking.
In the 1970s, the tradition of heavy German food was much in need of a weight-loss (or sauce-loss) regime, and it was getting one at the Munich restaurant Tantris. That was where Mr. Gutenbrunner, now 49, wanted to work, and in 1986, after school and a stint at a restaurant in Vienna, he did.
Landing in New York a few years later, he made a name as chef de cuisine at the Monkey Bar and Bouley. But it was only in 2000 that he was able to open a restaurant of his own, Wallsé, in the West Village, where he could create a light, modern take on traditional Austrian fare like Wiener schnitzel, kavalierspitz and apfelstrudel, a Wagner opus filtered through a Puccini prism.
Curiously, when his architect, Constantin Wickenburg, wanted to bring a bit of Vienna to the place, the chef balked. Mr. Wickenberg, a fellow Austrian, insisted that Wallsé have chairs from Thonet, the storied Austrian chair-maker, which from 1842 to 1953 was headquartered in Vienna. The company was famous the world over for its miraculously light chairs, created through a new process of steam-heating wood that was then bent into extravagant curves and fashioned into simple, sturdy designs.
The most famous Thonet model, the so-called Chair No. 14, introduced in 1859, became a kind of official chair of European cafes. At the peak of production, in 1912, nearly two million pieces were sold. Mr. Wickenburg had his eye on a lesser-known model designed by the architect Adolf Loos in 1899 with a graceful Art Nouveau design.
Mr. Gutenbrunner didn’t get it. Growing up near Vienna, he was as familiar with Thonet chairs as a modern American might be with, say, the red-and-yellow swivel seats of McDonald’s.
“If you know the beauty of Austrian coffeehouses, you take it for granted,” he said. “It’s Vienna: everything’s Wagner, everything is Josef Hoffmann. But Constantin insisted, because we were making a statement about a modern Austrian restaurant. It had to be. ... ”
“A gesamtkunstwerk?” someone suggested, using the German term for “total work of art.”
He smiled broadly. “Genau,” he said. “Right.”
Before Wallsé had even opened, the news that an Austrian-born chef was buying up Thonet chairs got back to the planners of the Neue Galerie, the Vienna-centric museum then nearing completion in New York. Before he knew it, Mr. Gutenbrunner found himself with a contract to open a Viennese-style cafe in the Neue Galerie. If he hadn’t seen the beauty of the Thonet chairs before, he was surely seeing it now. And, he added: “In 10 years, not one of them has broken. Do you know how rare that is?”
After Wallsé opened, he received from the wife of one of his backers a novel gift: a late-19th-century Thonet highchair, with a tray that swung down to secure its occupant. Mr. Gutenbrunner was utterly delighted. His twin daughters, Romane and Thess, were toddlers at the time, and it seemed the ideal gift. But even knowing Thonet’s hardy nature, he couldn’t bring himself to put them in it.
“It was never used — maybe once in a while,” he said. “They would have killed it.” Besides, the Thonet highchair, which sits next to the dining table in the chef’s apartment in the financial district, came to symbolize something beyond its utility — namely, a past that he never knew he wanted.
“Sometimes unconsciously you hold on to something from childhood, or — I don’t know. Little cars make me happy, too.”
Sooner or later, your childhood catches up with you. Far better to greet it as an ally than an enemy, and offer it someplace nice to sit.
It’s been more than 10 years since I first dined at Wallsé, Kurt Gutenbrunner’s attempt to recreate the tastes of his rural childhood in Austria, in New York City’s West Village. Even at that point, less than two years after it had opened, Wallsé had the feel of a confirmed neighborhood establishment, so sure and certain, its diners so relaxed and content. Then, as now, it struck me as the very definition of timeless. Like Gutenbrunner’s other restaurants -- including Cafe Sabarsky, at the Neue Galerie, and Blaue Gans -- his more casual dining spot in Tribeca, Wallsé is classic without being stodgy. The food is certainly important -- simple, with a focus on a handful of quality ingredients -- but it was the Tomato Pepper Martini that I dreamed about for weeks after. The flavor of a delicate and piquant Bloody Mary, it felt like a conjuring trick (Gutenbrunner uses tomato water, gently solicited from chopped and salted tomatoes). The cocktail, of course, was only part of it -- the décor and ambience, the invisible but attentive service, and the way the music was at just the right level combined to make that martini memorable.
“That’s what we call gesamtkunstwerk,” said Gutenbrunner when I met him at his most recent venture, Cafe Kristall, on Mercer Street (it’s adjoins the Swarovski store, which lends Kristall its motif and extravagant light fixtures). Gesamtkunstwerk translates as “total work of art,” and it’s how Gutenbrunner approaches the diner’s experience. At Kristall, he invites me to touch the gently beveled marble surface of the table, then gestures to the chairs, made by the Austrian chair-maker Thonet, which had a near monopoly on the cafes of Fin de siècle Vienna.
“For a chef, the dish doesn’t end at the kitchen door -- it’s the experience you have with it in the dining room,” he says, and then tuts at the no smoking sign behind the bar. “It drives me crazy looking over there right now, and the frames are not straight.” Was he this way as a child? “I drove my mother crazy about cleaning, organizing, because everything has to have its place,” he says. “It’s probably why I left this little village of two-and-a-thousand people when I was very young.”
Recently, he passed his test for American citizenship and says that New York has been too good to him to think of leaving. He remembers arriving in 1988 and falling in love with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Now, some of his musical idols are among his most loyal customers. On the morning after September 11, he sat down with Lou Reed and wondered how he would survive -- Wallsè was in a restricted zone and strictly off limits to all but local residents. “Lou said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re all going to be there,’ and he was right. We had 45 covers on September 12, and I kept everybody employed.”