Friday, January 20, 2012

Kurt Gutenbrunner

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.”

Click cover to order.
A portrait of Lou Reed by Timothy Greenfield Sanders.
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.
"Land of The Free" by John Reynolds hangs above a collection of hats.
Looking across the main entrance hall.
A bold abstract painting hangs above stacks of reading material.
[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.
Peeking into the master bedroom.
A work by artist Césare DeCredico hangs on the far wall.
Kurt's desk is tucked into a corner of the master bedroom.
Family photos hang near the bedroom desk.
A Thonet rocking chair fills a corner of the master bedroom.
More family photos are arranged atop the TV console.
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!
Looking into the dining area of Kurt's loft.
Winnie.
Kurt's streamlined kitchen.
Kitchen shelves.
[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.
Looking across the sun-filled living space.
Open views of the financial district can be seen from all windows of the loft's open living/dining room.
A work by Tamar Halpern hangs above a comfortable day bed.
An electric piano stands near two works by Peter Beard, a friend and patron of Kurt's restaurant Wallse.
An oversized photograph by Alexander Vethers hangs above a banquette in the living area.
A mask from Venice adorns a carved mirror.
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.
Looking across the open living area. The sectional sofa is from West Elm.
Thonet dining chairs surround a functional wood dining table.
Mirabelle warming herself in a sunny spot.
About ready to end interview.
A small work by Georg Baselitz hangs near the windowsill plants.
An abstract work by Virginia Matinsen hangs above the flat screen TV. Hanging above a bentwood highchair is a collage by Césare DeCredico.
Victoria Langer, Director of PR and Marketing for the KGNY  Restaurant Group.
Kurt with Victoria Langer nearby.
Mirabelle and Winnie.
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.
Wooden toys fill a windowsill.
A fragment of the Old World: silver teapots from Austria.
Stunning views of New York harbor surround Kurt's Financial District loft.
Kurt showing a portfolio of work by Austrian artist, Hermann Nitsch.
(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.
Work by friend and patron of Wallse, Peter Beard. A pink toy car is a favorite of Kurt's daughters.
Kurt, an active father of four, houses his 12 year old twin daughters, Roman and Thess as well as his 9 year old daughter, Romane in this large room tucked away, just off the living area.
[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!

• Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge • Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch