Chef Chat: Chuck Krauthamer

Chuck Krauthamer ("Craw'-tha-mer") has returned to his hometown to become managing partner and cook at the Sabine River Café (10001 Westheimer), located in the Carillon Center shopping plaza in Westchase. With 36 years in the restaurant business, Krauthamer has placed his bets on an elegantly appointed dining room serving what he calls Tex-La cuisine.

Why do you prefer to be called a cook rather than a chef?

I started as a fry cook across the street from the University of Oklahoma in Norman at a place where you called in your order from a phone at the table. When I started working as a manager at Chili's, the owner, Larry Lavine, made managers cook two 40-gallon stock pots of chili as soon as they got to work every day. I'm not a trained chef. My expertise is tasting a plate and doing something different with it.

What was the most useful thing you learned at Chili's?

When I worked for Chili's, from 1981 to '85, Mr. Lavine emphasized freshness, quality and a fun atmosphere. After Norman Brinker bought the franchise, it was all cluster, build and dominate the media. He emphasized getting customers. I learned from Larry to emphasize the food and trust that word of mouth would bring people in.

Why did you decide to make the cooking space visible to diners at Sabine River?

It has a lot to do with the popularity of food television and the increased curiosity of diners. Twenty years ago people wanted to sit in silence with a little background music; now the cooking is part of the experience. And it brings energy from the front of the house to the back of the house. The kitchen staff is more careful because people know they're being watched.

What's the difference between what you call "Tex-La" cuisine and Texas Creole cooking?

They're very similar. I'm not trying to create a new category. It's a geographical reminder and more of a marketing term than a culinary one. However, it is also a way to identify my distinct taste and my preference for Texas peppers over cayenne.

What are your favorite things to eat?

Plain meat and potatoes, pasta, shrimp and crab. I like the rack of lamb we make and anything au gratin. We have the best meatloaf in town, Angus beef encrusted in mashed potatoes, with a red Creole sauce.

What is Big Thicket sangria?

Homemade sangria. When you get to your camp on the Sabine River, you stay there and make what you can. You make one big trash can of punch and drink it all weekend. It complements any meal, and groups can share it. The fresh fruit and wine have more of a cocktail taste. It's so easy and smooth, you don't realize how much wine is in it.

How do you like cooking on camera?

I hate it. I don't want to be in the limelight--I'm not even comfortable doing this interview. But I want to make my restaurant known. Even though I love being in the restaurant, it shouldn't be associated with any particular person, but with the food it makes, its atmosphere and hospitality.

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