Archive for December, 2012

An American Classic

In mid-November of 1954, RCA-Victor’s New York office was occupied with the recording of the first version of the Robert Allen/Al Stillman Christmas perry comoclassic, “Home for the Holidays.” At the microphone stood Perry Como, an American crooner whose eponymously named Perry Como Chesterfield Show was the first simulcast, available on both the Mutual Broadcasting- and the Columbia Broadcasting Systems. Beloved from coast to coast for his vocal agility and casual manner, Mr. Como seemed the most assured choice for the piece. In his first televised appearance, the legendary crooner had invited his eight-year old son Ronnie to join a boys’ choir onset to lead America in “Silent Night”, and he had recently begun a Christmas Eve tradition of sharing a solo rendition of “Ave Maria” with his guests. These occurrences notwithstanding, he also stood as one of the few radio performers whose agile leap from the fading volume of American Radio to the increasing static of television proved not only his worthiness to ably collect a faithful audience, but to keep them entertained through humor and talent, making him a true American classic.

A year prior to what became Perry Como’s initial taping of “Home for the Holidays,” a twenty-two year old German began a journey from his homeland in Eisenach to a place where he would mature into a personality who, like Perry Como, was able to hold each of his own audience members’ rapt attentions for decades through his own humor and talent. His name was Dieter Krug, and the culinary institution he created in my hometown of Kettering, Ohio, was called “L’Auberge.” And at a time when many are traveling home to enjoy a holiday with their own loved ones, I felt it apropos to step away from the well-worn sidewalks of Chicago to narrate the tale of a man who united not only those in Dayton, but our world community. I share Dieter’s tale with you, as it was related by his daughter, Claudia, thereby allowing “American Maitre d’” to truly go “Home for the Holidays.”

“He left Germany in 1953,” began Claudia,” because he heard a rumor at the time about The Wall going up in East Germany.”

According to the local hearsay at the time, a wall was to be constructed to discourage the defection of Eastern Bloc inhabitants to the west. Possibly suitcasespurred forward by the government-enforced closure of the inner German border in 1952, those residents wishing to leave had only one point of exit, the Berlin border.

“There was only one train that was leaving,” Claudia continued.” So he [packed] one suitcase and left after bribing one of the train conductors to get on the train.”

Once he was safely across the invisible divider separating the German Democratic Republic from its western counterpart, Dieter sought employment in Dusseldorf, the rapidly growing capital of North Rhine-Westphalia. This location, less than an hour’s drive from The Netherlands, would prove advantageous to the young chef, who would utilize the culinary skills he developed while apprenticing outside of Eisenach to push himself forward to the European towns of Madrid and Rome. The relationships he made in these cities would lead him to American soil, eventually.

“He came to America in 1956 sponsored by George Braundorfer, a friend who used to own The Black Forest, a restaurant outside of Cincinnati. They had been friends for years and years. Actually, I believe it was George’s sister who sponsored him to come over. So [his first move] was to Cincinnati, because there were a lot of German immigrants there.”

DKDieter’s voyage to the populous Ohio city came at an opportune time, too. For soon after his disembarkment he met with members of the influential Comisar family, an entrepreneurial line of Frenchmen who owned a multitude of toney dining establishments within the Cincinnati area, including La Normandie and The Golden Lamb Inn. They carefully noted Dieter’s refined culinary skills and asked him to join the able team of chefs who operated within the walls of their much lauded Queen City gem, La Maisonette, a worthwhile task that proved satisfactory for a number of years. Then, an offer came that changed the chef’s life unalterably. Packing his suitcase once again, Dieter Krug’s next move was away from Cincinnati’s comfortable environs to a town roughly an hour away, the city of Dayton, where he continued his work with the Comisar family, only, at the thirty-year old King Cole, located in the Kettering Tower on Second and Main.

“He stayed with them until he bought The Inn, where he was a chef.” Claudia remarked.” The Inn was very traditional American food. But he always tried to implement gourmet French dinners there. He wanted to bring a different style of cuisine to Dayton. And that’s where the idea for L’Auberge started. People slowly took an interest in it, especially after [Dayton Daily News Food Critic] Ann Heller began writing articles about it.”

According to family friend George Braundorfer, L’Auberge officially began menuoperation in 1979, its menu an appealing diorama of French cuisine. Diners chose a main dish from one of three categories, “Les Poissons”, “Les Viandes”, or “Les Grillades”, each with a vegetable garnish. As an accompaniment, they could opt for a few selections from a catalog of “Les Legumes” or “Les Pommes de Terre”, as well. And, finally, should they be inclined to indulge themselves, a septet of desserts awaited their choice at the end of the meal.

Claudia recalled being at the restaurant often as she matured from childhood into adolescence.

” My first memories are of Fanny and Ethel, these two fantastic, hardworking women who worked in the kitchens of both The Inn and L’Auberge.” Claudia paused reminiscently, then laughed. “Fanny was so short that she had to stand on an old Coca-Cola crate while she was cutting and chopping things on the prep table in the back! But both she and Ethel would make staff meals…

“The first time that I worked there and could actually make money was at the age of nine or ten, when I was given something like a dime for every egg that I peeled. Later on, in junior high and high school, I had to give up one night every weekend to work at the restaurant. I was a waitress there for years, where all of these different cultures worked, Middle-Eastern, Turkish. A lot of our waiters were homosexual, too, and it was just accepted.”

As to working alongside her father, it was equally enlightening.

“He was a hardworking man,” she commented,” but his sense of humor was great, too. One time, he sent one of his dishwashers out to find a ‘Pea-Splitter’. So the poor guy goes to a shop where they sell kitchen supplies, and my father created some story about how it could split peas [that] weren’t ripe. This guy went everywhere looking for one, and no one could help him! So he put someone on the phone, and when they said they couldn’t find it, my father joked,” It looks like a gag thing, but it splits the peas, it splits the peas,…” And the people on the other end of the line would freak out and go all over the place looking, while he was laughing himself silly.

“Still,” Claudia hesitated,” he was a hardworking man. He was very proud to be an American, believed in the American Dream, and would go in every morning at 8:00am or 9:00am, then come home in the afternoon for a nap before heading back into work for the evening.”

For those who never crossed beyond L’Auberge’s Doric pillars to reach for the latch permitting entrance into the reputed plantation-style mansion, here is a view of those faces you may have seen Dieter Krug serving, were the l'aubergeopportunity ever presented. One of the first might have been Mrs. Kettering, resident-inventor Charles Kettering’s widow, quietly sitting across from Mrs. Beerman, a widow herself. Another may have been former WHIO news anchor Donna Jordan, doling out a dose of Champagne to mark her graduation from WDTN. In addition, were you to peer in the direction of Table Thirteen on that same night, you would not only have seen a gregarious regular named Ken, but heard his characteristically gruff voice, as well. Last, were you lucky enough to make it beyond the door on a handful of chilly November evenings in 1995, you would have borne witness to a cabinet of distrustful foreign dignitaries and their American counterparts, all endeavoring to help the embattled nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina reach peaceful terms.

A score of years within the beloved walls of L’Auberge lapsed before Dieter Krug doffed his chef’s toque for the last time. Forsaking the kitchen he grew to love for twenty years, he retired to his nearby home, spending the last years of his life with his faithful daughter, a departure noted by an ardent L’Auberge supporter, who shared these thoughts:

Dear Dieter,

L’Auberge, formerly The Inn, has been a part of my life since coming to Dayton in the late ’60’s. At the time, when it was a family restaurant, we used to come in every Sunday after church. When I heard you were buying it, I was excited, because I had followed your culinary career. I celebrated my 40th letterbirthday party upstairs at a private party you served…What I remember was your special attention, your explanations, your seeming genuine pleasure at our interest in the food, etc. It still ranks as one of the very special evenings in my life…

We have come to support L’Auberge over the years in so far as our income and budget would allow. This past winter I celebrated my 6oth birthday in the Dining Room with five other guests. It was fun and it was special, but not as special as my 40th…

I have always respected you as a chef and have believed your food is some of the finest we have had over the years. But what I respect more is your manner: your genuine pleasure in greeting your guests, your amiable low-key approach, and your willingness to take on more over the years as the restaurant expanded…

I can appreciate your desire for a well-earned rest and change of pace, but your presence will be sorely missed by many, myself included… Before you left, I wanted to let you know that in your quiet way, and from a distance, you have made a difference in my life…

Sincerely,

Harriet Uphoff

L’Auberge would avail itself to the community at large for the next twelve years, faithfully led by Chef Dominique Fortin, Dieter’s protege and the current owner of the inspired C’est Tout, also located in Dayton, Ohio. During this industrious time, the kitchen would continue to succeed by offering dishes of a more casual nature, reflective of changes in dining trends. These alterations would not be enough for L’Auberge, however. For, perhaps owing to the absence of the generous German chef whose uncanny knack for French cuisine would unite the Dayton community, L’Auberge would ultimately complete its mission on February 20, 2012, leaving its empty shell behind near the corners of Stroop and Far Hills Avenue.

70thThoughtfully considering the hours her father spent there and his contributions to family and community, Claudia related a sadness that was as familar to her as it is to the city her father served since  1979.

” I miss him,” she stated plainly.” I miss him in the best possible way, and I miss him in the worst possible way. It almost brings tears to my eyes to think of it.”

She paused before sharing a final thought.

“But it’s all good,” she said, the sounds of sadness and joy catching in her throat.” It’s all good, good stuff.”

And as one who grew up in Kettering, Ohio, where Dieter Krug’s passion transformed an antebellum mansion into what initially defined fine dining for many, it is hard to disagree. It was indeed all very, very good stuff.

Piano Bench

In 1973, singer/songwriter William Martin Joel painted a musical picture describing each familiar face he saw after rising from his piano bench b joelto retrieve a complimentary ale from John, his friend and bartender. Glancing around the bar while John confided his unhappiness, Mr. Joel’s first broad stroke delineated the outlines of coquettish lady staff members and lonely businessmen, the latter sinking into bloodshot hazes while sizzling marijuana embers glowed in the backroom. Briefly meditating on his role within the framework, the poet deftly moved his brush to another area of the canvas next, capturing the forgotten shadows of two friendly career men conversing while a few pint glasses remained in front of each, emptied. Last, the pianist pointed his lyrical palette toward another smoky corner where a grinning manager leaned, nodding his head approvingly in the artist’s direction.  The watercolor completed, Billy Joel returned to his keyboard for his finale, where a collection a quarters formed a puddle in his tip jar.

Talented piano men have had the ability to coalesce a room of strangers into a community long before “Piano Man” peaked in the spring of ’74. The slur of undertuned keyboard keys being massaged characterized the Old West, where townfolk gathered daily to converse over a beer in nearby saloons. At the turn of the twentieth century, private clubs in the northeast bustled with personalities resembling those invented by Fitzgerald and Runyon, most sipping dry martinis and talking politics as music played quixotically in the background. It continues its sway in our current era, too, in trendy enotecas, toney shopping malls, and leather-boothed eateries which pay homage to the Golden Era of U.S. dining, when gatherings formed to enjoy favorite libations, listen to music, and celebrate their successes.

“I joined the staff at Christopher’s [after working] at the Orland Park Chi-Chi’s, where I was a busboy, host, and bartender, before moving to [being] general manager,” detailed Jeff Lawler, who has managed Geja’s Café since January, 1993. “[Christopher’s] was one of those unknown gems [with] a chef named John Bogan, who had some incredible dishes.

Dave Green“But the real star was this guy named Dave Green, the piano player.”

Dave Green, a former boxer who sparred in Chicago rings while concurrently teaching himself the art of piano playing, came to Christopher’s on a regular basis, outfitted in a tuxedo, his crown topped with a trademark bowler hat. Tucked under an arm, The Chicago Piano Man carried an almost limitless repertoire of 2,000 songs.

“The way he could play was amazing,” Jeff remembered, smiling.” One [regular] would sit by the piano for an hour or so, and Dave Green would make $2,000.00 off of him. He was that level of player.”

The keyboardist clearly was that level of player. As evidence, Geja’s Café’s general manager reminisced, albeit briefly, about a notable guest who rose from her seat unannounced to join the musician onstage. Her name was (and is) Liza Minnelli, and together she and Mr. Green entertained all who were in attendance.

Dave Green’s music would continue to play at Christopher’s for another eight months. Then, a Rolls Royce driven by an elite-looking couple would drive up to Christopher’s door, its occupants would alight, and then enter the establishment. Inside, they would be greeted by Jeff Lawler, of whom they had previously heard. They would get schmoozy, ask many questions about the establishment and its offerings, then request that Jeff visit them, when he had the time. Ultimately, the same couple would purchase Christopher’s from its owner, with the provision that Jeff Lawler find other employment.

Two months would pass. Within those months, Mr. Lawler would diligently look for work before decidedly trading his illustrious keyboardist in for a Flamenco guitarist. Today, nearly 20 years since his first day as a Geja’s Café manager, Jeff Lawler still employs a Flamenco musician regularly, to unite people’s spirits as their seasoned cuts of tenderloin sizzle to perfection in pots of hot oil.