Chef Chat, Part 1: Johan Schuster of Charivari, on Count Dracula, Transylvania, and Foraging for Mushrooms
Chef Johan Schuster of Charivari
Photos by Mai Pham
This is Part 1 in a three part Chef Chat series. Look for Parts 2 and 3 in this same space on Thursday and Friday.
Fifteen years ago, Transylvania-born chef Johan Schuster decided to leave Europe to open a restaurant in the United States. His destination? Houston. And for the last 12 years, he's been the proud owner of Charivari Restaurant in Midtown, where he serves European fine dining in the good old European fashion, with tables covered in starched white linen, and a full bar that can serve up anything from beer, to aperitifs, to cocktails and good European Port after dinner. This week, I sat down for a chat with Schuster, arguably one of the most interesting chefs I've ever met, for a chat about everything from Count Dracula to wiener schnitzel.
EOW: What does "Charivari" mean?
JS: It's a confusing name; everybody asks me that. I picked the name up in France...I had a restaurant over there. So, all the time, when I traveled to France three or four times a week, shopping for my restaurant, I drove by a restaurant by the same name, Charivari, just before Strasbourg. And I was always wondering, "What does that name mean?" So, I stopped by that restaurant, and I talked to the people, and they said "C'est comme ci comme ca," a mix of different things. It was a very regular menu, nothing out of the world, but I liked the name and the operation, and I like that pronunciation. I like the name, so I said, "All right, when I open my next restaurant, I'll call it Charivari, because I like it."
EOW: So Charivari is the name of a restaurant outside of Strasbourg in France.
JS: Yes. Some people asks me, "Is it Indian?" And I say "No, no, it's French." And they say, "I speak French, but I've never heard that word," so I say "Okay, then, your French is not that good!" (laughs merrily) It's a mix. Somebody who wrote about us in the beginning called it "a beautiful, good mix," and I said, "Okay, I live with that." I know in Germany, there are two restaurants with the same name, and it means the same thing over there as well. They call it "wo oben uuten ist," which means "everything upside down."
EOW: Let's talk about Transylvania -- that's where you're from, right? Everybody goes to Transylvania, they think of Dracula. Why is that?
JS: It's just the evolution of Hollywood.
Chef Johan Schuster in his kitchen
EOW: What is Transylvania like?
JS: I would describe it like Oregon. There are lot of trees, a lot of hills, a lot of mountains. We're surrounding the most famous mountains in Europe -- the Carpathian. As for Count Dracula, he was a Count who lived in the 1400s. He was a real fighter. He was fighting a lot of wars against the Turks, the Tatars, Hungarians and the Roman empire. When he would catch invaders, the prisoners would land on a stick -- he would impale them. That's why he was also called Vlad the Impaler. Because his real name was Vlad Dracula.
EOW: Did he drink the blood?
JS: (laughs) No. I never heard something about that. There was a lot of blood around at that time because he did these terrible things to the people he caught.
EOW: So tell me...what kind of food is Transylvanian?
JS: Transylvanian food is very influenced by Austria, Hungaria and Luxembourg.
EOW: Tell me about the ingredients.
JS: The ingredients are very fresh, always seasonal. That's my background as well -- what I always try to do. And I don't care that much about the menu, I'm focused on fresh, daily ingredients. In this time of year, we would use pumpkin, wild board, deer, fish, rainbow trout, and a very famous fish was a type of catfish called wels.
EOW: So I'm visiting Transylvania, and I'm going into a Transylvanian restaurant. What do I order, and do you have that here?
JS: In Transylvania, we are famous for our stews and soups. So from head to tail, you can imagine everything is usable. Meatball soup. "Ciorba" is an Eastern European name for soup or stew. Of course, very much so, chicken. People over there like their chicken. People like their sausages. Many different kinds of sausages. In Romania and Transylvania, we are known for skinless sausage called "Mititea." You'll find that all over Romania and Transylvania.
EOW: You have something on the menu called Portobello Transylvania. Why do you call it that?
JS: I call it that because I grew up with it in Transylvania. It was inspired by my grandfather, he was a chef as well. I would be seven or eight years old, and we would go foraging in the forest and the pasture. We'd find portobello mushrooms by the hundreds on the pasture. Transylvanian is great place for produce and growing things because it's a volcanic area. Volcanic soil is one of the most fertile soils, whatever you want to grow, it grows.
EOW: Do you go foraging in Houston?
JS: Yes, I do. I go to Memorial Park and forage for chanterelles. I take a little book by the Wild Mushroom Association on Montrose. You can be a member of that club as well. They organize mushroom trails. Not just in Houston. We have good areas in Texas. It depends on the weather. This year for sure we'll have a lot of mushrooms because of all the rain.
Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Johan Schuster.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.