Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Humanist reflects on his path to a "respectable mastery" in culinary arts. 2 of 4

(continued from part oneMy German culinary experience.

Mittenwalt, Germany.
That sent me back to Germany, where my “Has Been German Citizen” legal status gave me the right to apply and receive work permits.  Finding an apprenticeship was another matter.

Mittenwald, Bavaria, Germany
Winter was coming and I needed to find some work, which I did at the Hotel Gasathof Mühlhauser in Mittenwalt, Bavarian Alps.  Basically an owner chef, a cook and me prepping for them.  I also washed the pots and pans though I remember more about my moonlight excursions out into the magical countryside and hanging out with other restaurant workers in the evenings drinking beer and puffing on Turkish cigarettes and discussing everything under sun, than I do about the kitchen.  It was a fun Christmas and winter, then back to hunting for an apprenticeship.

Gasthof Mühlhausen, Mittenwald winter of 1976/77
Restaurant Zum Burgkeller, Stolberg, Germany.

Eventually I found an apprenticeship way up north in the medieval town of Stolberg, Germany between Cologne and Basel, now I could learn about real cooking the European way.  

Stolberg, Germany.  Burgkeller is long gone, town remains.
The Restaurant Burgkeller (no longer in business), located in a wonderful ancient building, just below the old castle, had a menu that was a dozen packed pages worth, that should have been a red flag, but I was green and desperate and the place looked very cool.  We worked about ten hour split shifts.  Mornings prepping cases worth of salads, and other vegetables, in the afternoon evening, setting up our stations and dinner service.  Six days a week but one of those was spent taking the bus to Basel to attend culinary school which taught basic food science and handling, cooking along with Mise en place.
Unfortunately, turned out the Burgkeller’s variety was supplied by tons of canned processed food.  The apprenticeship was all about Mise en place, making your list of canned items needed, going to the store room, then emptying cans and setting up your station making nice plates.  In that regard it was a good learning experience being formalized and all.
Mise en place (MEEZ ahn plahs) is a French term for having all your ingredients measured, cut, peeled, sliced, grated, etc. before you start cooking. Pans are prepared. Mixing bowls, tools and equipment set out. It is a technique chefs use to assemble meals so quickly and effortlessly.”
But, Mise en place goes beyond that to include cleanliness of one’s station and oneself along with mentally preparing yourself for show time.  
Problem was I came to Germany to learn how fresh food was prepared the old world way, not to do the same shit I could have done in America.  Within weeks I was becoming increasingly frustrated and feeling trapped.  Then I started thinking the unthinkable, cutting and running, I was on a 90 day try-out period where either party could break the contract.
By chance, I read an article about this Hotel Hirsch south in Bad Wurzach, Allgaü, Germany that had just earned a Michelin Star along with this fascinating article I was reading.  It seemed exactly what I was looking for.  

So I did a Hail Mary and wrote them and was astounded to receive a favorable response with an invitation to visit for an interview.  By the time I received that response from Chef Abrell I was nearing the end of my 90 days, so I took the plunge and quit the Burgkeller.  I did miss the school and the comrades I made, but hey, it’s all in a day for the traveling man.
I almost forgot, during this period through some friends who were bakers apprentices, I was invited to work in their bakery a couple mornings, gratis, simply for the experience.  Not watching, but working.  I saw my first oven with a steamer and learned how bakers create those beautiful crusts that can’t be duplicated at home.  But starting work at 4am, was never going to be for me anyways.  Not that split shifts of 10 hours was that much fun either.  Still I was there and at least tasted some baker’s shifts first hand, another one for my bucket list.
Hotel Hirsch, Bad Wurzach, Allgau, Germany.

Michelin Star Apprenticeship

Bad Wurzach, Allgau, Germany, with Alps in the distance.
By and by I visited Hotel Hirsch and was blown away, menu was small and changed every other day since it was all fresh made depending on the best that was available then.  We were maybe a couple hours west of Munich, and Chef Abrell made trips to Munich every week or so to the huge Munich Markthallen.  He’d invite one of us to come along for the experience and a little help schlepping.  Thus I got to join him a few times and experience a wholesale market like none other.  On top of that I was the guest of a genuine big shot whom everyone knew and was trying to impress with their products.
Even more special, he and his wife took me and another to a two Michelin Star restaurant, run by Germany’s superstar chef Eckart Witzigmann’s, an old friend of our chef’s.  Why?  In order for us to experience the guess’s perspective.  We were even taken back to the surprisingly tiny kitchen to be introduced and shake the man’s hand.  Perhaps the height of my star struck phase, it was amazing service and food and another eye opening experience.  A few months later Michelin awarded him a third star.  
Another golden experience was the step-van that would spend a week driving around France picking up all the fancy stuff, then drive back to Munich to supply the top notch restaurants.  As chance would have it, they had only 2 stops before arriving at the Hotel Hirsch and then driving on to Munich.  
I mean the van was a cornucopia of France’s best foods and herbs and delicacies, fresh as can be.  Foie gras (disgusting specially once you learn how it’s achieved, but the upper crust loves it), herbs, truffles, cheeses, creme fraiche, the most luxurious butter you’ve ever tasted (when fresh, then within a few days that zing oxidizes away.), French breads and various other delectables, various sausages, cured meats and such.  We could sample in moderation and it was always a little mini party when that van showed up.  
At the Hirsch the shifts were more like 12 hour split shifts six days a week.  Lots of prep and quite the variety during the morning.  As entremetier I was in charge of the stock pot, I became one with the alchemy of making au jus and demi-glace, and worked with a variety of meat, foul and fish, and it was good.  Then we ate lunch together and had some time off.  Returning for a light meal together, set up, mise en place, and it was off to the races.

The Hotel Hirsch used to be in this building (right of center) - they come and they go.  
We were a small crew and being in my twenties I was expected to learn fast and hold down the position of entremetier, not helper.  For dinner I was on the line, right across the massive roaring oil stove and water-bath, from two amazing chefs, creating dishes and a la minute sauces using products I provided.  Two dozen guests was a slamming evening, 30 it was nuts, so many courses so much to do, so little time.
Turn around in my corner and I was in front of the hot salamander, deep frier, and two tilting skillets and large kettle built into floor.  I was responsible for soups, starches, risotto rice, spaetzle, and vegetables, made ratatouille, a la minute vegetable soufflés among others.  
Being on the front line, I was also the runner to the down stairs walk-ins and fish tank.  That was especially cool given the constantly changing variety.  The cold hitting my sweaty body from the heat cocoon I worked within, that was not so fun.  Sneaking an extra spoon from the 1kg can of Beluga caviar they ordered every couple weeks helped compensate.  ;-) 
Rather than weekly school, apprentices would travel to Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance, spending I’m thinking it was three weeks apiece engrossed in culinary school full time.
Chef Abrell himself was an interesting German mix of awesome generous person and flaming madman.  I was fortunate being older and American.  I never got treated quite as bad as the German apprentices of 15, 16 did.  I never got slapped like some, but I did receive my share of vintage German verbal abuse.  Then he’d invite me for a pleasant drive to Munich, go figure.  
I also learned that the apprenticeship system, awesome as it was for conveying knowledge, was a self-perpetuating system of abuse, since once apprentices survived, they all felt it their duty to make life hell on the new generations of young impressionable kids.  It was interesting, during the rush hours, the most outrageous abuses get hurled around, but by the time we cleaned the kitchen and ourselves everything changes - cooks and apprentices would all go out together for a couple beers and shoot the breeze.
Hotel Hirsch post card 1978
It made for hours of discussion with our sous chef, an accomplished top shelf culinary artist and conductor, but also a fascinating tortured guy.  Well read, particularly Nietzche and such, and desperate for someone he could talk with about philosophy, then I arrived.  We got along great and would discuss philosophy along with dissecting the restaurant trade.  
Too many experiences to even start mentioning.  Though I need to share a genuine religious experience that happened to me there.  
I was taken downstairs to a hanging gutted deer.  The sous chef helped me skin it.  Then he helped me with the rough sectioning, watching to see if my stories about six weeks in a metzgari were true.  Then I was left alone to finish carving up the creature into all it’s various cuts.
Alone in the room butchering this once beautiful vibrant creature, the realization slammed into me that this body I was dissecting was basically the same as my own.  Proportions were different, but we had the same bones, muscles and organs and descended from the same great-great-grandparents- - that realization infused every cell of my being with a sense of oneness with life that has colored everyday since.  
It was also a visceral spiritual lesson in Evolution as powerful as any Burning Bush of old.
The killing and dissecting itself I’m okay with because it’s permeated with meaning, reflection and introspection.  It’s a part of the rhythm of life and before long I know it will be my turn to die, be carved up and return to this Earth that created me.  So it is and it is good.
Interestingly as my personal spiritual awareness was blossoming, the thrill of the high class party was fading.  I’d seen and tasted some of the best, great stuff, fun stuff.  But for me it made little visceral impact.  My attitude was more of ticking off items on some bucket list.  Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, what’s next.  Don’t get me wrong, I never lost an appreciation for the fine things, excellent food, wine and liquors, served up with style.  But for me it was a case of familiarity breeding a certain contempt and the point of diminishing returns happened real fast.
During this year a sweet friend and co-worker gave me a book by Hermann Hesse that did a wonderful job of making me aware that for some of us non-monetary passions are worth following.  The sparkle had faded from my Escoffier dream and I simply could not bring myself to signing up for another twelve months of 12 hour split shifts, 6 days a week, with people screaming at each other a good part of the time, earning literally slave wages, though we did get room and board.  
I was figuring out I would never want to become a great successful chef.  The never ending obsessive single-mindedness required, then the never ending intensity of service hours.  
Turned out food was never the center of my life, I wanted to learn about it.  I’d achieved my main goals, learning how to cook and function in a kitchen while collecting incredible food handling and tasting experiences, first hand.  There was too much living and traveling and friendships and adventures and passion and woman calling me, I had to go.  Besides, I had accumulated a resume’ and skills that were worth gold in America.  
I couldn’t find any trace of Hotel Hirsch on the internet  too long ago, but I did find a Chef Abrell in Allgau who just might be the Chef’s young boy I knew way back in ’78.  I wish him the best and have always been grateful for the opportunity, education, and hospitality his dad offered me.
Back in America.
I hung with friends for a few months and then returned to the US with a pal Franz who came along since I could be his translator and tour guide.  We landed at LAX walked outside, got on a bus to Highway One and stuck out our thumbs, spending the next couple months on the road again and all that comes with it.  
First touching bases with friends back in Yosemite via San Francisco then heading towards Lake Tahoe, by and by finding ourselves at Lake Mead.  While there we were introduced to a gal and Falco a genuine bicultural German, having grown up spending years back and forth between both Germany and America..
Long story short, after a few weeks with them, Franz headed back to Germany and I stayed with Falcon’s magic bus, a VW hippy van, for more road tripping. 
I also discovered that with a VW Idiot's Guide in front of me and the VW’s tool kit, I could fix all sorts of breakdowns on that intrepid old van, much to Falco’s relief.  Though that says more about VWs and that genius book, than my basic mechanical skills.  By and by Falco needed to earn more money and he talked about some Colorado mountain tourist town where he could earn a bunch at his trade, tooling belts to sell to a couple friends who had a gift shop there.  Colorado sounded like a great destination.  When he invited me along, I said sure.  

How was I to know I was driving into Colorado’s last gold rush?


The adventure continues in part three of four.

I happened to come across a missing packet of a few postcards and some matchbooks I had stashed away and that my mom saved for me.  Allow me to share.
Top left, Playboy International naming Hotel Hirsch one of the ten best restaurants in Germany 1977. 
Mr. and Mrs. Abrell, and their story.
They also had a simple guest house where I had a room on the less attractive, north side, which was still plenty good for me.  Interesting, educational, and eventful year it was.

May 4, 2020

May 5, 2020
May 7, 2020

May 9, 2020

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