Jeremy Nolen grew up with a chef for a father and the German food heritage of Reading, Pennsylvania on his dinner table. He spent his childhood running around his father’s kitchen and cooked through high school at German Social Clubs, learning old-school recipes from immigrant grandmothers. But food and cooking, for Nolen, were largely a means to pay for his youthful passion: music.
After high school, Nolen majored in history and German at Penn State University, and before he could graduate, he was on the road traveling with his band—cooking between gigs to pay the bills. When his band broke up, returned to the kitchen lifestyle he knew as a child. But this time around, Nolen got serious about food. He first worked at British gastropub, The Speckled Hen, in Reading. He then staged weekends in New York and worked stints at Oceana and DB Bistro Moderne. Finally moving Philly, he led the kitchen at Coquette before catching the attention of Doug Hager and Kelly Schmitz-Hager, a couple looking to open a beer hall with sophisticated German food.
His grandmother teachers in Reading had given Nolen their culinary treasures, and having refined his cheffing skills, Nolen was ready for the challenge. As executive chef of Brauhaus Schmitz, Nolen is helping revive interest and advance German food in Philadelphia. And with the recent opening of Wursthaus Schmitz in Reading Terminal Market and a cookbook on the way, Nolen and his culinary heritage will soon reach the masses.
Interview with 2013 Philadelphia Rising Star Concept Chef Jeremy Nolen
Caroline Hatchett: How did you get into German food?
Jeremy Nolen: I grew up outside Lancaster county, in German Country. I learned from old women all the old German food. I started cooking German food at 20 or 21, working at German clubs. It was a part time thing. I always enjoyed cooking it, and there were no restaurants serving it in Philadelphia. I was just making it at my house, or going to my parents and having Oktoberfest parties. The owners [of Brauhaus Schmitz] knew a mutual friend, who recommended me. He called Doug [Hager] and said, “You should talk to Jeremy.” Another friend said the same thing. Basically, I did a tasting and now I have a partnership in the restaurants.
CH: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
JN: My dad’s a chef. I grew up in the business and was in and out of kitchens. My mom would always take my sister and me to the kitchen. My dad took me on weekends at 13 to help and to spend time with him. I didn't want to be a chef. I cooked through high school. When I graduated, I went to Penn State and minored in German. I was kind of cooking, and didn't graduate. I pursued a music career, but it didn't work. I was cooking here and there, doing whatever I could. When the band broke up, I moved to Philly and started working in kitchens.
CH: What’s the toughest challenge you have had to overcome?
JN: Changing opinions and expectations of German food. People think it’s sausage and sauerkraut. We make exciting things and have vegetarian options. We’re working to dispel the myth that [German food] is bland and meat and potatoes.
CH: What is your favorite cookbook?
JN: I have over 400 cookbooks, so it’s hard, but lately it’s been Lustvoll Geniessen. It’s in German so it helps me with the language. It’s super modern German food so it really inspires me to do more and break out of the boundaries that everyone is familiar with regarding this type of cuisine.
CH: What is your favorite dish you have ever made?
JN: That’s pretty difficult. Lately it’s been the ramen that I made for my staff. I did a lot of research on it and it came out really well. For the restaurant, I would say our Foie Gras Liverwurst. Taking something so humble like liverwurst and using a luxury item like foie gras and having it turn into something delicious and exciting was a highlight.
CH: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Opening more places, definitely. That’s our goal. The second, [Wursthaus Schmitz
] just opened. Once that gets going, we’ll definitely move forward. We’ll get a cookbook—we’re close to signing a deal. I definitely want to get a book out on new German cooking.