Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I moved into the Hotel Belleclaire on Broadway. This was an old hotel, turned residence hotel. Historically, it had been the first hotel to have ticker tape machines for use by guests—on the top floor. But at this point in history, it was a community of people who were either down-and-out or on the upswing but not yet successful. I found out about the hotel from Dickran Atamian (Ritchie), a friend of my piano teacher. Dickran was hitting the big time and had moved a grand piano into his room. Somewhere around that time he won the Naumberg piano competition, played his first Carnegie recital, and was featured in an article in the New Yorker.

I very quickly found a job at the stoves of Laurent Restaurant, located under an exclusive hotel on 57th Street. We served the occupants of the hotel, which included Richard Burton, the actor, and Salvador Dali, the painter. The Laurent family was super nice. Mr. Laurent was quiet and unassuming. The chef of the kitchen was a Spaniard, and he treated me with respect. I worked as a Chef Tournant, doing the seafood station as well as the stoves. The food was great. I gobbled oysters and smoked trout. At one point, I cooked calf liver for Richard Burton’s dog, and I sent a platter of sea urchins out to Salvador Dali. I enjoyed working in this restaurant; it was good food, well prepared, nothing special, but the people were very nice—the owners, the wait staff, the chef, everyone. In the afternoons, we played Hearts and spoke Spanish.

While working for Laurent Restaurant, I looked for a second job, as I knew that I would have to pay a lot of money to get a divorce and to settle other things in Austin. I figured that, if I had to work so hard, I might as well make the jobs interesting. I talked to the chef of Waldorf-Astoria, Josef Schmidt. In his Germanic style, he responded, “You can’t work a second job and do well. You can’t work both in the kitchen and the bakery, either. You have to pick a single career and stick with it.”

I found a job with Éclair Bakery. This was a small chain of retail shops, one located in Grand Central station. The original location was a restaurant/bakery that served Viennese food. The owner was a Viennese man who fled the Nazis right before the Second World War. I met him at the central bakery, located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which in those days was a rather dangerous part of Brooklyn. My days became even more complicated. I worked from 3 PM to 11 PM at Laurent Restaurant, then from midnight until 6 AM. I then took the train to Manhattan, ate breakfast at a Greek diner, then went to sleep at 8 AM and slept until 2 PM.

The Hotel Belleclaire had some interesting tenants. Right about that time, New York State released a lot of mildly schizophrenic patients from their institutions in order to save money. These people, usually harmless, checked into residential hotels such as the Belleclaire. We had a talk, skinny woman with aquiline features who stood in a corner of the lobby and made insulting remarks about people as they passed. For example, she might say, “Oh, look at those thick ankles!” or, “Oh dear, you’re looking tired today!” Another man would pace the sidewalk in front of the hotel. He would suddenly run up behind a passer-by and crow loudly.

One morning, I had just gotten to sleep when I heard two men knocking on the door of the lady who lived next to me. They knocked and knocked. One said to the other, “No one has seen her in two weeks.” They opened the door and one said, “Oh, the stench! Quick, burn some coffee!” After that, I fell asleep.

During this time, I had dinner one evening with Mimi Sheraton, who was the New York Times food editor. She took me out to one of her favorite restaurants. I remember walking down the street very cockily, swinging my umbrella around a la Fred Astaire. I was so pleased with myself. The dinner was not particularly satisfying. She thought I made a bad menu selection and was pushing me to order the steamed lobster. Instead, I ordered something very French and saucy. Mimi Sheraton, if she ever was a Francophile, had long since given up on French cuisine and was more interested in the essentials such as the freshness of the product.

The reason I was so lucky as to deserve her attention had to do with her visiting Sweetish Hill. She and Patricia really liked each other. I had cooked a version of Caille en Sarcophage (see Babette’s Feast) which at the time I didn’t know the name for. Mimi never knew that I was a business owner; she was under the impression that I worked for Patricia.

During that fall, I worked in both jobs. Meanwhile, I let Mimi know that I was looking for something better, perhaps a position of responsibility. She contacted Roger, a restaurant consultant, who found me a job in Washington, DC. Someone he knew, a man named Irv, was starting a restaurant on Capitol Hill and was looking for someone to help him plan the menu.

While I was working at Éclair, I started to gather experiences that I found rather interesting. My job was basically to fill éclairs, fill cream puffs, and glaze them. I was working in the cake and pastry decorating room. I don’t remember much about the personnel, except that a couple German bakers kept to themselves in the corner. They were quite unfriendly to the other workers and didn’t like sharing their expertise with anyone else. But I did get the opportunity to make some observations, and these contrasted with my own experiences. They are:

1. The pastry cream they used contained no eggs, no dairy products. They used a mix from Caravan Products. It contained Yellow Number 5 in lieu of egg yolk and titanium dioxide (the opacifier of white paint) in lieu of milk. The starch in this mix was predominately modified amylopectin (branched chain), which had freeze-thaw stability. Thus, they could bring water to a boil, whisk in sugar and the powder, cook, then pour into buckets and freeze, then defrost as needed. The advantage of using this mix was two-fold: economy and stability. It’s a lot cheaper to use thickened water than milk and eggs. And, because the starch could tolerate freezing and thawing, you could make up huge batches, thaw them as needed, and pipe into the pastry. It was also possible to fill the pastry and freeze it and thaw the filled pastry as needed. Microbially, it was more stable because the number one pathogen, Staphylococcus aureus, is especially adapted to a high-sugar, high amino acid environment. The mix has sugar but little in the way of amino acids.

2. The whipped cream they made was a brand called “Instantwhip”. I learned from this that the artificial whipping creams are called “whipped toppings” and that they are essentially emulsions of hydrogenated fats designed to have high enough melting points that they hold well on the outside of a cake but not so high that they feel overly waxy in the mouth.

3. In order to glaze fruit-topped pastries, the bakers used agar-agar. The traditional glaze was either apricot or raspberry jam, thickened with pectin. A gel made from agar-agar, which is extracted from seaweed is as clear as a pectin gel but much stronger. For example, they made banana cream pie, consisting of a baked pie shell filled with a cream made of the pastry cream and Instantwhip (so-called Diplomate Cream) topped with banana slices and glazed with yellow-dyed glaze. A pectin glaze could never hold the banana slices on, but an agar-agar glaze could.

4. Cakes glazed with “chocolate” such as Sachertorte, a Viennese dessert use an artificial chocolate known as confectioner’s coating. This consists of hydrogenated fats that are easier to work with than cocoa butter, which is temperamental and temperature sensitive.

I wrote my observations up into an article and submitted it to Mimi Sheraton. I was so excited about it that I called her at home on a Saturday morning. She responded, “You got me out of the shower!” Mimi liked the article, but checked with lawyers at the New York Times. They all agreed that publishing it would make them susceptible to a lawsuit.


Certain items became signature products for us. There’s a song, “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” One of us (Patricia, I, or maybe an early employee) came up with the Heart in the Deep of Texas cookie. This is a butter cookie cut into Texas, and a bright red heart is glued over Austin. Sometimes it slipped and ended up over Dallas or San Antonio. But we did our best to be geographically careful.

A second signature item was gingerbread. We made a lot of it and to this day, Sweetish Hill sells large quantities of gingerbread. In the beginning, I made the dough with fresh ginger. And I went to the feed mill and got a 5 gallon of blackstrap straight out of the molasses tank. This was one-fifth the price of store-bought and just as good.

Just before Valentine’s Day, I would bake off dozens of hearts and write various messages on them. One day, I burned two batches—black. So, I wrote “I Hate You” on them and sold out within an hour. Another merchandising lesson.

After about two years in the old house, we had about maximized our use of the facility. Its location weighed heavily on us. The fact is, many whites weren’t about to drive into East Austin; they were too scared. Even though it was a quiet neighborhood and only a single block inside. We realized that if we only catered to the fearless, unprejudiced crowd, we’d never grow. One day, a smartly dressed woman walked into the business and informed us that she had purchased several properties in West Austin on 6th Street, to be called Pecan Square. She offered to build a restaurant for us.

We moved the restaurant to the Pecan Square location and continued to bake out of Waller Street. Sales plummeted there as people were a lot more reticent to make the trip just for a loaf of bread. The Pecan Square restaurant took off. It was beautiful: 12 foot high cedar doors with enormous windows, skylights, ceiling fans. The floor was made of brick. It had a very open feeling about it, and the restaurant was shaded by live oaks and Pecan trees. Outside, we built a Ramada so that customers could sit outside.

One Sunday after a particularly busy brunch, we were all sitting around feeling exhausted but happy (and happily stuffed with hollandaise sauce, etc.). A piece of dried bread fell on our table from the overhead rafters. An albino pigeon had set up shop there, stealing from bread baskets and hoarding up high. Not conducive to retaining customers. In a fit of pique, I lunged at the bird, which had descended to hunt more bread, caught it in my hands, and pulled its head off. The next day, I roasted it and ate the bird for lunch.

My employees were appalled at the savagery of my actions. I’ve thought about that incident several times since then. I still do not feel that guilty about it; maybe a little. But several of the employees started to cry. Our civilization tends to shield us from the unpleasant realities: we are all food. The pigeon was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We moved to the Pecan Square location in 1976. The following year, we started to rent the gas station on the corner, which we converted into a bakery. This gave us a lot more space. The little retail spot was perfect for displaying product.
Toward the end of my tenure as business owner, I started to get interested in the concept of vertical integration. I wasn’t content with developing arguably the best bakery in Texas or being part of an extremely innovative business. I wanted to control the quality of products we used. In the beginning, we used Falfurias butter, made by a dairy in the Galveston area. That must have folded, because after a while, we switched to Midwest Dairy, an enormous cooperative that made Land O’ Lakes.
I contracted with a local farmer to grow vegetables for the restaurant. He lived in South Austin and had an acre or two. I also started raising rabbits and quail. Two years before, I had employed a pied noir who taught me how to kill and skin rabbits. So, I put this knowledge to good use. The rabbits lived in cages sitting on bricks. Underneath the cages I kept dried hay, which produced a dry environment. Rabbits are very vulnerable to coccidiosis, a disease that becomes prevalent when they sit in their own feces and urine. So, cleaning the cages and maintaining a dry environment is critical. Also, one should never feed lettuce to rabbits as it causes diarrhea.

I learned a few useful tidbits of information about these critters. One, when you administer medicine, expect to run through a few eyedroppers, as they chew on them because they like the taste of the medicine. Two, female rabbits respond to dog barks by eating their young. If there are dogs in the vicinity that bark excessively, you will find half babies lying around in the cages. And three, rabbits are oblivious to death. I would pick a rabbit up by its hind legs and club it over the head right in front of the others, and they wouldn’t react a bit. Pigs, of course, can smell death and should not be slaughtered near the living ones. Otherwise, they develop problems with PSE pork (pale, soft, exudative) and the hams aren’t any good.

I raised quail in cages above the rabbits—along the walls of the back of the house. I raised two kinds: Bob Whites and Faro. Faros were easy to handle. If you inadvertently left the cage door open and they dropped out, they would bounce on the ground and were easy to catch. Bob Whites on the other hand flew straight away from the cage door, never to be seen again. Both were excellent and I served them in the restaurant.

At the same time that we opened the bakery in its new location, we needed to sell the Waller street house. We unloaded it for about the same price that we paid, so this wasn’t a drain on our resources. Unfortunately, the man who bought it elected to cover all its architectural charms with siding and extremely bon marche windows. And a few years later, it suffered a major fire, thanks to the quality of tenants. The trees are still there.

Some time during the winter of 1978, Patricia damaged her back when lifting a large container of food out of the refrigerator. She was forced to bed rest right at the beginning of the Christmas season. I was torn between the bakery and the restaurant. We had recently opened evenings at the restaurant, and we had achieved a certain degree of recognition. I left Lawrence, my assistant cook, in charge of the evening business. This turned out to be a mistake because he couldn’t keep up with demand and we soon developed a reputation for slow service. In fact, one of our waiters, “Michael”, peeved that his customers hadn’t tipped him but a couple coins, followed them outside the restaurant and threw the coins in their direction.

I was focusing all my energy on the bakery, as we were under-staffed and it was Christmas season. I worked 18 hour days, 7 days a week, in order to bake enough high-profit items such as Bûche de Nöel and gingerbread houses to generate enough cash to weather our financial crisis. At this time, because we had just opened the bakery in a delicate financial situation, we were bouncing paychecks. Insufficient funds. The situation became worse when one of the employees stole the weekend receipts, $3,000, after smashing up the office to get at it.

We were surviving by falling behind on our payments to the IRS and the State. One Monday, as I recall, the gas company stopped delivering. I had to pull cash out of something else and pay the arrears at the corporate offices. At the same time, I was meeting regularly with both the State and the IRS.

This was all a highly stressful time. My marriage was crumbling, as Cecille had started seeing someone else. Patricia was flat on her back for months, eventually having back surgery.

We managed to weather the financial storm but I was physically and spiritually exhausted. In late spring, Cecille and I went to New York City for a week’s vacation. We saw a good five Broadway shows and plays. While there, I decided to stay, to never go back.

It was a Draconian measure, and foolish on my part. But I was so exhausted and so discouraged. I felt that Cecille didn’t care for me anymore and I felt unappreciated by Patricia who, when she was at work, was extremely domineering. Instead of seeking professional help to get me through the situation, I cut and ran.

So, in a dramatic fashion, I brought my partnerships to a close. In the end, I got my initial monies back out, but I never realized a dime of profit from the businesses.

43. Hollandaise Sauce

We soon discovered that making and selling bakery products, while profitable, scarcely generates the sort of capital that oils the wheels of commerce sufficiently that one can think about other potential business escapades. After maybe a month, we hit on the idea of opening for Sunday brunch. Both Patricia and Joe knew Austin well. They also knew that Sunday mornings were sacrosanct in the Austin intellectual community.

We started with a simple brunch menu: basket of sliced breads on each table, whipped butter, homemade jam, Eggs Benedict, Eggs Florentine, homemade sausage with potato pancake (latke style), and Emincé of Beef Tenderloin with Sautéed Mushrooms. The main profit generator in all this was butter, bread, jam, and hollandaise sauce. 5 hours of sales, from 9 AM to 2 PM, generated enough capital to cover up our microeconomic ineptitudes.

One learns by doing. I’m not sure some of the lessons we learned are ever taught in business school. But the canon in successful business is: provide what the customer wants.

We did that. The customer wanted hollandaise sauce, poached eggs soft as pillows, fresh bread, homemade jam far superior to anything they could purchase at the store, sausages like no other, and the immensely yummy potato pancakes with high quality sour cream (ingredients label says: cream, bacterial cultures, salt).

And, as JFK famously said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” The Sunday brunch got people addicted to fresh bread that has never seen the insides of a plastic bag, and we became known for bread, croissants, Danish, cookies, etc.

42. Generosity in Gingerbread

The first Christmas in our new business location, I made a large gingerbread house model of our lovely Victorian house. I cut out the windows and poured caramel into the gaps to make panes. Inside the house, I installed Christmas Tree lights in each window so that each window glowed. The house was quite attractive and gave our business a very sophisticated feel.

After Christmas was over, Patricia suggested we deliver the house to the children’s ward of the hospital, located only a couple blocks away. This donation appeared on the evening news, easily producing $20,000 worth of publicity and rocketing us to fame (though not fortune.)

I consider this to be one of my life’s greatest lessons: generosity is its own reward. When you give, you will also receive. I have never forgotten this, and in this aspect of my life, Patricia was my greatest teacher.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

41. Leaning Tower of Wedding Cake

When you’re young, everything is possible. You expect that all will go right, nothing wrong. From the very beginning, I was determined to make good-looking and also good-tasting wedding cakes. Most of what you get these days is patterned after the Wilton School of Cakes and the products look beautiful because the fondant is smooth and terribly white and the icings are every shade of the rainbow. But the cakes I learned to make in Austria and in France had real flavor.

The American cake industry is based on the high-ratio cake, that is, a high ratio of sugar to flour. Sugar delays gelatinization as it competes for water with starch granules in the formula. This causes the cake to rise higher, and more of the water is outside rather than inside the starch granules. The result is a moistness inachievable in the traditional pound cakes, sponge cakes, and genoises. In a poundcake, the ratio of sugar to flour is 1:1. In many high-ratio cakes, the ratio is 1.4 to 1.

My very first wedding cake was not stacked but tiered. As I recall, I charged $25 for it! It served maybe 100. Cheapest wedding cake ever made. I made the tiers out of plywood and dowels, but I made the dowels too long and skinny. As a result, the cake, which was an almond cake with almond buttercream, had a tendency to list to port.

When I delivered the cake, I had to hold the cake up so it wouldn’t collapse during the photoshoot. I was wearing a dirty sweater, so that completed the ambience. Another product of the Goofy Bastard.

40. Goofy Bastard

Just at the beginning of our business, Norm, who rented his restaurant to us from midnight to 8 AM commissioned me to make him 3000 patty shells and 3000 cheese twists for the opening of Neiman Marcus, San Antonio. Everyone I knew called it Needless Mark-up.

I baked him 12 of the most beautiful butter patty shells (aka bouchées or vol au vents) you’d ever find. Flaky, straight up, light. Just perfect.

I made the puff pastry the day before the event, and put it in our “freezer”, which was a semi-functional Rich Plan freezer. The dough froze, and I put it out on the table before going to bed. I rose at 1:30 AM and started to roll the dough out. In those days, I did not know the three methods of making patty shells. I only knew one, which required cutting two pieces of dough for each shell: one to serve as the base and the second being a ring.

I rolled and cut from 1:30 AM until 5:00 PM the next day. Patricia worked in the adjacent room, baking them off. During that time, I never once went next door to check on the quality of the shells. At 5:00 PM, I had produced 3,000 patty shells and 3,000 cheese twists.

I went into the next room to find crackers. Totally flat, unflaky crackers. I said, “Why didn’t you tell me they weren’t rising?” Patricia said, “I thought they were supposed to look like this!”

I said, “Could you help me deliver them?” Patricia said, “No, these are your babies.” So, I had to haul umpteen boxes up to the 20th floor of the Westgate Building. When Norm, the owner, saw the fruits of my labors, he said “You goofy bastard!” And he called me by that name from then on.

39. AUSTIN, 1974-1978

We bought an old house in East Austin, 1406 Waller. It was a Victorian style, 1915, built in an area called “Swedes’ Hill” after all the Swedes who lived in the neighborhood and worked for the railroad. One Saturday afternoon, under pressure to make a business card, we toyed around with business names. Neuhaus & Bauer came first. But, this sounded too much like a funeral home. Joe suggested playing on the neighborhood name. We came up with “Sweetish Hill” and Joe painted a giant wooden sign with a pile of sugar on it. Corny. But fun.

The house had served as a dinner theater. All the walls in the front had been removed to make a cozy theater. The plaster and lathe had been replaced with sheetrock, and the spool and wire system was replaced with very expensive commercial wiring. The sheetrock walls had never been painted, but were covered with burlap in order to absorb sound and light.

The house at 1406 Waller sat on a corner lot. To one side was a blacktopped parking lot, shaded by 3 enormous live oaks.
My parents and sisters came that Christmas and donated time to remove the burlap, plaster the walls, and paint them. I don’t remember how long they stayed, but I’m sure the job was enormous. Knowing the energy levels of my parents, I’m sure they accomplished minor miracles.

Before we opened, I spent much of my time sanding the floors, which had been painted by the dinner theater. The entire house was constructed of yellow pine, a tree that termites break their teeth on and therefore eschew. Patricia and I spent many hours stripping the gorgeous front windows of their ancient, cracked varnish, replacing it with high quality, durable stuff. The windows were each made of dozens of very small, diamond-shaped panes, and the front door had a very beautiful, oval, beveled glass window.

In addition to prettifying the front, I cut out walls in the kitchen area, covering the walls with sheetrock and facilitating passage from one room to the next. In the back, we installed a large, commercial refrigerator that we had purchased for a song. In the corner, I cut a large hole in the floor, severing several major joists, and installing a circular staircase into the underneath space. In this space, I rebuilt the outside walls, and also poured concrete footers down to bedrock (only 1 foot down). I jacked up the house and reset it on massive used railroad ties. All of this foundation work was unnecessary, as we never installed anything all that heavy.

In the kitchen, we installed a small dishwasher that we rented for the price of detergent. I was determined to plumb it myself, so without consulting any sources, I cut copper line and used compression fittings. I then turned the water back on and found on entering the kitchen a veritable series of fountains gushing in all directions. I made several more attempts before calling a plumber who charged me time-and-a-half to fix the problems. While I was crawling underneath the house, running amateur electrical lines, I heard the plumber just feed above me cursing about “amateur plumbers.”

All the carpenter work earned me the sobriquet, “El Destructo.”

The day we opened for business, we were several hundred dollars overdrawn. However, a time passed, we gained a loyal following. We were close to the hospital and not all that far from the university, so we were a quiet lunch place. In the beginning, we offered soups and sandwiches. One was a hoagie, which Patricia, being a Philadelphian, designed. It of course had onions macerated in vinegar and oil with dried oregano. We bought Hormel Genoa salami, which was really good. We also did open-faced sandwiches in memory of our times in Austria, where these are popular. I remember doing a “Philadelphia Guacamole”, made with cream cheese and avocado.

We had two bakery cases in the front room, facing the front door. One bakery case I refrigerated by cutting a hole in the floor (more destruction) and paying a HVAC person to install a small air-conditioner; this set-up worked really well.

Every morning we made Viennoiserie (croissants, cinnamon-almond croissants, chocolate croissants, Schnecken, Bear Claws, and a variety of other Danishes.) I rolled all the doughs in the back room, using a large rolling pin. In those days, I could “benchpress” a hundred pound bag of flour.

We also made brownies and chocolate chip cookies, as we quickly learned to cater to the market’s demands. Products like obstkuchen, wildly popular in Austria, simply did not sell well. Americans (Texans) like big, gloppy things with lots of gushy fillings, extremely sweet and rich. Being of sound mind, we weren’t about to cave to the base instincts of those around us. At the same time, we didn’t do like Primo or Secundo of Big Night, stubbornly resist the prevailing wind, and ride our business into the sunset. Aren’t mixed metaphors fun?

I also developed a pastry/cake in honor of each of the partners, and being of dirty mind (nothing like a fallen Lutheran), I named them after certain body parts (excepting mine, of course). One was Sein Cecille, two disks of pie dough sandwiched around a frangipan cream, the top disk having a hole cut out in the center to allow the cream to upwell through it. Another was Pomme Patrice, an apple in French representing the same body part as melon in English. This was a baked apple stuffed with pecans, cinnamon, brown sugar, and raisins wrapped in pie dough to represent a whole apple. Then there was Zizi Joe, a zizi being, well, you know. It was made of a piece of puff pastry wrapped around frangipan cream. And last was Prinz Tom Torte, chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream garnished with toasted almonds. This has stood the test of time, and is still sold at Sweetish Hill Bakery.

The first two years, I lived on the second floor of the house. Before she moved to Austin, Cecille would come up for the weekend. I had a cute little alcove located directly over the dough-rolling room. I would arise at 4 AM and roll out the Viennoiserie and get it in the proof-box.

A couple little stories from that period…

I grew vegetables in the yard at one point—cherry tomatoes and watercress in the effluent from the air conditioner.
At one point, I put three hens and a rooster underneath the house. I cut yet another hole in the floor of the kitchen, closed it with a trapdoor. Whenever we finished extracting the meat off cooked chicken in order to make our fabulous French Chicken Salad (seasoned with homemade mayonnaise and fresh tarragon), I would dump the bones through the trapdoor. The chickens were ecstatic.

I also had a compost heap at the back of the parking lot. It started to smell and either the neighbor behind us (who bore a striking resemblance to Baba Yaga) or a customer persuaded us to get rid of the thing.