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INTERVIEW

Oliver Ludwig: There appears to be some disagreement among critics over the years - or perhaps an evolution on your part - regarding your style, and I wanted to hear in your own words how you characterize your cuisine.
Hans Röckenwagner: You just said it: There has certainly been an evolution of style, which I think occurs with most chefs these days because there are so many trends and they change constantly. I think the one thing that would probably be still true today is that I was brought up on a very semi-classic French technique. But with the exposure to all these other cultures once I came to the United States, they have had a profound impact on my style. And obviously, the abundance and quality of the produce and products that we find in California had another big impact on my cooking style over the last 10 years.

OL: Specifically what are the elements in your dishes in terms of cultural influences?
HR: I think there’s a slight Asian influence, though not as obvious as some of the fusion restaurants. There is also a middle European, predominantly French and slight Mediterranean influence as well.

OL: So all this lends itself well to that term "International Eclectic"?
HR: That’s correct. And maybe what makes my combination of those different is my German heritage. I can’t deny that there is some German influence in my food.

OL: Potatoes come to mind as particularly German. Is that fair?
HR: Yeah, that’s fair. And it’s certainly become a little more fashionable in the last few years, especially in the winter months. But I have been doing these things for years and years. The other thing about my style is that we really do try to have seasonal menus. In Southern California you really don’t have that much of a season, but we try to recreate it with food such as the white asparagus in the spring and a lobster festival in the summer, mushrooms in the fall and game in the winter.

OL: Do you have any secret ingredients, so to speak, that you come back to again and again, that elevate your cuisine and that you consider indispensable?
HR: I definitely think that asparagus - in particular white asparagus - is something that I feel drawn to. I was dubbed "The Asparagus King" for a while. We started the White Asparagus Festival 14 years ago at the original Röckenwagner when people really didn’t know about it, and it has found a lot of fans. This year we had a big spread on white asparagus in Saveur magazine where we went to Germany, harvested them and brought them over. I’m scheduled to do a James Beard dinner with white asparagus next spring.

OL: What is it about white asparagus?
HR: Well, I grew up in an area of Germany where white asparagus in the springtime is a big celebration. A lot of restaurants change their menus where they serve asparagus only. It’s a very well known celebration in Europe that people actually travel from all over to enjoy. The season starts in the beginning of April and ends at the summer Solstice on around the 20th of June.

OL: What inspires you when creating your menu?
HR: When you’ve cooked for as long as I have, there is generally nothing that you can’t come up with in a pot that you’ve already come up with in your head. After so many years, you know how certain things react. When I come up with a dish, generally it works out. But there are mishaps; don’t get me wrong. I get inspired in any place. You know, driving in the car or working in my woodshop on a totally different unrelated project. I think about food all the time and something pops up; an idea is born. Then you revisit that idea several times and you come up with the accompanying items to serve with it. You think: I want to do a rack of lamb. And then you think, it’s the spring; spring lamb a spring vegetable; peas, fava beans. But you still need a clincher, something that ties it all together. I haven’t done an aioli in a while so why don’t I do a lavender honey aioli with it. You have the initial idea, but you keep working with it and revisiting it.

OL: The presence of bread in your restaurant strikes me as something Germanic. How do you explain the importance of bread and the particular breads you make and serve in your restaurant?
HR: We have a full-scale bakery at Röckenwagner making mostly German-inspired bread. We have dark bread, whole-grain bread and pretzel products. We have a full line of pretzel products. There’s a pretzel roll, there’s a pretzel bread, a pretzel bagel, a pretzel hamburger bun, etc., etc., etc. You go down the list. We put a lot of effort into that and it’s a great asset because we can really custom make all the products for our restaurant.

OL: What about mentors in your careers?
HR: There are sort of the obvious ones, the ones I worked for, but they’re mostly in Europe. Because by the time I came to the United States I had, to some degree, already developed my style and I had gone through most of my training. They are not necessarily well known chefs. There’s a guy in France I worked under for three years who was at that point a very young, very hotheaded, but very talented chef who taught me a lot and really guided me along. He saw my interest in food. He was an Alsatian named Theodore Strauss. He worked at Geltner; Schillinger; Haeberlin and l’Auberge de Lille. He is the biggest one who stands out in my mind. There were some other chefs who definitely influenced me - not because I knew them then, but just because they had such a big splash on the scene. The most obvious would probably be Paul Bocuse. He was the biggest name then, and we all looked up to him and admired his career. And then there was another guy in Germany; his name was Eckhard Witzigman. He was the first chef in Germany to be awarded three stars by the Michelin guide about 15 or 20 years ago at his restaurant in Munich.

OL: Shifting gears to a more technical realm of your culinary art: are there any tools or culinary equipment that you have a soft spot for, that you go out of your way to use, because you like the quality or the feel?
HR: I’m particular fond of Japanese mandolins and slicers. There’s one machine, for instance, it’s made out of plastic and it costs about $450 but it makes these continuous sheets of potatoes or daikon radishes or things like this. You know how a wood veneer is made? It’s sliced in a circle around the length of the log until there’s nothing left. That’s exactly how this machine works. It goes round and round and basically shaves a very thin sheet of whatever you’ve put in there. You can all kinds of things like cannelloni or these giant potato chips. That’s probably the most unusual thing I love to use.

OL: With regards to hiring, there’s been a lot of talk. The U.S. economy has been in a record 10-year expansion, with the lowest unemployment in 30 years. From where you sit is it more difficult for you to find qualified people to hire to work in your kitchens at this point than it was, say, three, four or five years ago?
HR: I think what has happened in the last year is that a lot of the very highly qualified people have moved on. They didn’t stay in Southern California because the pay rates are not as high. And Las Vegas has gone through such a boom that they’re hiring away all the highly competent chefs and managers as well. What we’ve seen though is with the arrival of a lot of the culinary institutes and culinary schools is that there is a new crop of very young and very eager group of people that’s just not as educated in the field yet.

OL: Do you have a sense of crisis, or is that kind of a hyperbolic word?
HR: Crisis may be a little bit harsh of a word. There’s definitely a labor shortage. And that labor shortage is in particular in the well trained knowledgeable staff. It gets harder for us because we have to assume those positions. I find myself in the kitchen more now than I did four years ago - which is not bad, but you can’t be everywhere at the same time.

OL: A final question. As you fantasize about the places where you would like to go to eat anywhere in the world, where would you go?
HR:
Well, probably highest on my list is El Bulli.

OL: That’s the place in Spain where Ferran Adriá is doing all the wild foams?
HR: I just want to see what the hype is about. I have a couple of his books. Also I haven’t been to France in while and I want to see what’s new there. But to me actually some of the most exciting food is happening in this country right now. You know, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. New York is probably the most exciting restaurant city in the world right now. As a city or a region goes, I would say New York is outdoing everyone right now. I’ve been to a lot of places there, but they keep popping up left and right. And even the ones you’ve been to you want to revisit. With its diversity and style and eclecticism, it’s just unsurpassed.

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