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.
Specifically what are the elements in your dishes in terms of
HR: I think theres 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.
So all this lends itself well to that term "International
HR: Thats correct. And maybe what makes my combination
of those different is my German heritage. I cant deny that
there is some German influence in my food.
Potatoes come to mind as particularly German. Is that fair?
HR: Yeah, thats fair. And its 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
dont 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
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 didnt 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. Im scheduled to do a James Beard dinner with
white asparagus next spring.
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. Its 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.
What inspires you when creating your menu?
HR: When youve cooked for as long as I have, there
is generally nothing that you cant come up with in a pot
that youve 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; dont
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, its
the spring; spring lamb a spring vegetable; peas, fava beans.
But you still need a clincher, something that ties it all together.
I havent done an aioli in a while so why dont 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.
Theres a pretzel roll, theres 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 its a great asset
because we can really custom make all the products for our restaurant.
What about mentors in your careers?
HR: There are sort of the obvious ones, the ones I worked
for, but theyre 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. Theres 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 lAuberge 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.
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: Im particular fond of Japanese mandolins and
slicers. Theres one machine, for instance, its 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? Its sliced in a circle around
the length of the log until theres nothing left. Thats
exactly how this machine works. It goes round and round and basically
shaves a very thin sheet of whatever youve put in there.
You can all kinds of things like cannelloni or these giant potato
chips. Thats probably the most unusual thing I love to use.
With regards to hiring, theres 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
didnt stay in Southern California because the pay rates
are not as high. And Las Vegas has gone through such a boom that
theyre hiring away all the highly competent chefs and managers
as well. What weve 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 thats
just not as educated in the field yet.
Do you have a sense of crisis, or is that kind of a hyperbolic
HR: Crisis may be a little bit harsh of a word. Theres
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 cant be everywhere at the same time.
A final question. As you fantasize about the places where you
would like to go to eat anywhere in the world, where would you
HR: Well, probably highest on my list is El Bulli.
Thats 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 havent been to France in while
and I want to see whats 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. Ive been to a lot of places there, but
they keep popping up left and right. And even the ones youve
been to you want to revisit. With its diversity and style and
eclecticism, its just unsurpassed.