I first met him back in 85. I was working in a little Northern Italian place in Milwaukee. I was waiting tables while hoping for a spot in the kitchen to open up. I was to work a wine tasting at the restaurant that night but a blizzard cancelled the event. Never-the-less we opened for dinner and I was the lucky guy picked to watch the morgue. (It was the 80's, you didn't close because of snow) Not beeing in a very residential area the restaurant was dead. Everyone bundled up and headed to the cocoon. So I ended up shootin the shit with Jeff the cook until we finally got a customer. "A" customer. Great, I get a table and it's a one top. I greet the weary traveler and in a heavy European accent says he's here for the wine tasting. I think it's a German accent but I'm not sure, it's a little different. I apologized that the event had been cancelled due to the snow. He looked annoyed but said he would stay for something to eat and drink. He'd been "dliiving in dis sheet" for too long. He was average height and on the sleight side. A touch of gray in his casually styled short hair. His glasses looked "euro", stylish for these parts. He was dressed casually but expensively. He sat down in the desserted restaurant, ordered some wine, had a light dinner and changed my life.
Up to this point in my career I had worked in "corporate kitchens" where you follow the company mantra. Don't get me wrong, I loved every minute of it. I thought of "cooking" more of the actual physical act of cooking, like a sport,cooking in a busy restaurant and pushing yourself to the extreme to produce well prepared food at a very high volume. The food itself was second. I loved cooking. Not food but cooking. I was a bad ass cook.
Four months later I'm having dinner with my gorgeous girlfriend Patrice at the fanciest, chicest, slickest restaurant in town. It was callled "Claus on Juneau", a small little 50 seat restaurant. I was blown away. It was an experience. I was introduced to the world of haute cuisine. As we finnished our dinners the Chef and owner came out to say hello. It was the same gentleman that I shared many of glasses of wine with four months earlier. Claus P.W. Bienek. A whirlwind of a man. He came by and thanked me for the great service and company on that snowy evening and made some hints about looking for a sous chef. My girl friend began to kick me in the shins under the table. I think it was her first wise decision that I benefitted from and probably the most significant. I took the job and I was born again. Claus grew an incredible herb garden in a small little plot outside the backdoor of his urban postage stamp restaurant. This is 1985. No one in Milwaukee is doing this. Every Tuesday and Saturday we would go to the local farmers markets and shop for produce. This is 1985. No one in Milwaukee is doing this. We'd go down the street and clip the very tips of new pine needles and use them with mushrooms. Vileroy and Bosche (sp?) china, chrystal, silver domes, etc. Yet in a very subdued atmosphere. Smooth, trendy, slick, Euro? Anyways, every entree was served with a silver dome covering it.(real silver) We'd always garnish the entrees with fresh herbs from the garden and it wasn't until later that I realized one of the main reasons for the herbs was for the sense of smell as well as sight. The plates were already a thing of beauty but when they were all unveiled at the same time the aroma of the herb garnishes would be released and you'd get a nose full of fresh herbs mixed with the the savory scents of truly world class cuisine.
Claus wasn't only a phenomanal chef he was the entire package. He could charm a socialite like a prince, hunt elk with the bank president and charm the pants of most any woman he chose. Did I mention he is also incredibly smart. A shrewed business man but you'd never know it. Although he always seemed to come out on top. He was what I wanted to be. He was what every man wanted to be. Smart, successful, wonderfull wife, kids, dog, etc. Chef and owner. Perfect. I've worked with Claus in one form or another since that first day back in 85. I haven't seen or heard from him lately but I know one day my cell will ring and it will be Claus with a snoot full calling from Norway. He's retired now no doubt enjoying himself like no one else can. For over 20 years he taught me about this business. First about the food. An eye opening revelation that seemed so obvious that I felt embarrassed for calling myself a cook. Secondly about the business. You have to get paid. To get paid you have to have high standards. The most important thing he taught me will most likely be the most misunderstood. I thought of a dozen ways to say it but the best way to describe it is "don't take it too seriously". He had the most relaxed attitude toward food of any chef I've known. I call it it Zen cooking. Just letting it happen, very little thought is wasted on the process, it comes natural. It's as if we are here for no other reason.
I wrote this draft about two weeks ago after finding an old video from 1995. Claus, as predicted called my cell the other day to touch base. He had a snoot full as well. He is retired and living comfortably in the hills outside Oslo, Norway. He enjoys his summers at his cabin on the lake. Life is good. He told me he got a little bored and decided to get a job working in the cold kitchen of a large corporation. I laughed, someone who's worked with Bocuse and Chapelle doing salads. I told him I've always wanted a dishwashing job after I retire. He asked me if I was crazy? "That's too much like work".
We talk twice a year and he still manages to teach me something..... There's no heavy lifting in the salad department.
I'd love to be a fly on the wall listening to the fresh faced culinary grad teaching the mature new guy how to make salad dressing.