Joe Mannke is a restaurant legend. Born in Germany, he served as an apprentice in the kitchen of the best hotel in Munich at age 14, then set off on a life of adventure, working his way around the world as a chef. Arriving in New York in 1960, Mannke got a job at the Stork Club, the swankiest eatery in Manhattan. There, he cooked for Walter Winchell, J. Edgar Hoover, Arthur Godfrey and other celebrities of the era. After stints in Bermuda and Puerto Rico, he opened Anthony's Pier 4 in Boston, then the largest-volume restaurant in the world, serving 3,000 meals a day. His next gig was executive chef at Disney World, where he supervised the production of 120,000 meals a day in 34 restaurants. He came to Houston to work in the Hyatt Regency but left the hotel to open his own restaurant, Rotisserie for Beef & Bird (2200 Wilcrest, 713-977-9524), a fixture on the city's restaurant scene for 23 years now. We called Mannke to talk about German food.
Q. Houston has many citizens of German extraction, so why is it so hard to find any decent German food around here?
A. I don't know. I guess we Germans have a good reputation for Mercedes-Benz and beer, but not for cooking.
Q. But some of the world's best chefs are Germans -- like yourself, for instance. And there are some stunning German restaurants in Berlin and Hamburg.
A. Yes, but the Germans who came to Texas in the 1800s didn't have a lot of money. I don't think they brought a lot of fine cooking experience with them.
Q. What German food do you serve at Rotisserie for Beef & Bird?
A. Well, I do a wonderful special sometimes: sauerkraut cooked with pineapple and champagne topped with roasted pheasant.
Q. That's sounds wonderful. Why don't you do it all the time?
A. We do red cabbage all the time, but my customers aren't that wild about sauerkraut.
Q. You find all kinds of dishes with sauerkraut in Germany: fish and Rieslingkraut, oysters and winekraut. You never do anything like that?
A. No. You know, I never really tried to make a certain kind of cuisine here. Our restaurant evolved the way it did. It started out as a simple place for hamburgers and chicken. But my customers knew about my background, and they would ask me to do special dinners for them: "Joe, I have a client coming in from Mexico City, will you make something special?" "Joe, could you put some tablecloths on the tables for my friends from Saudia Arabia?" "Joe will you cook some wild game?" I just did what people asked me to do. Then they said, "Please get some wine." So I started out with 20 wines. Now we have 1,000 kinds of wine, a 25,000-bottle inventory, and we are one of two restaurants in Texas that have been given Wine Spectator's Grand Award; Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas is the other.
Q. That's pretty impressive. Do you serve the great new Texas beers too?
A. No. You can't be all things to all people. I love beer. And I love German food too, but I'm too old to open a German restaurant now. We do serve roast goose with red cabbage and apples for Christmas during the last weeks of December. And we have a long tradition of giving away German stollen to our regular customers as a Christmas present.
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Q. Wow, stollen! How do you make yours?
A. I have a wonderful recipe with almond paste and all kinds of good things in it. We bake something like 2,000 stollen every December. We don't sell them; we just give them away. Some old customers we don't see all year, they just come in during December to get some stollen.
Q. That's terrible!
A. No, it's great, after 23 years in business, you make a lot of friends, and it's nice to see them all again -- even if they only come for the stollen.