Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Johan Schuster of Charivari, On Cooking Throughout Europe, What He Would Prepare Each Season and Who He Would Want to Prepare His Last Meal

Johan Schuster Charivari Restaurant 2521 Bagby 713-521-7231

This is Part 2 in a three part Chef Chat series. You can read Parts 1 here and Part 3 in this same space on Friday.

EOW: When did you start cooking?

JS: I've been doing this for 34 years. We were three brothers -- I was the oldest. My parents worked, and once my mom was sick, she was in the hospital, and nobody at home was able to cook, so I cooked. We had a specialty called tocana; that's what I made. It's a stew, like goulash -- it's not just meat, there are different vegetables like peppers and onions.

EOW: You've worked all over the world. Map where you've been, starting with Transylvania.

JS: From Transylvania, I went to the Black Sea, which is still in Romania, then I got out to Hungary, from Hungary to Vienna, from Vienna to Munich, and then down to the Black Forest on the border to France.

EOW: Black Forest. Is that the border of Germany?

JS: It's on the border to Germany and France. It's close to the Rhine River. I opened a restaurant over there. And over in the Black Forest region, it's called the Southwest region of Germany, Baden-Baden. And Baden-Baden and South are the most famous restaurants in Germany; the Michelin-starred restaurants are there. And I was supposed to get a Michelin star as well, but I left, I came to the United States.

EOW: What was your restaurant?

JS: My restaurant was called Park Restaurant. It was in Ettenheim, close to the Europa Park, which is like Disney World in Orlando.

EOW: And it was your own restaurant, or you worked for someone?

JS: It was my restaurant, with my wife. We had it for nine years.

EOW: Nine years? And then all of a sudden you wanted to come to Texas.

JS: That's how I am. I like to travel, I like to meet new people, see new things, and new ingredients. If I'd stayed there, I would be old, I would look like I'm in my sixties. And so what brought me to Houston was a new challenge.

EOW: So, what brought you to Houston? Did you know someone here?

JS: No, I didn't know anyone. When I was young, I had an uncle who had a construction company in Anaheim. He would visit us every year from California to Transylvania and stay for a few months. He always told me, even when I was just a student, "When you come to the United States, I'll build you a restaurant." He would bring with him the National Geographic, and cookbooks, and books to learn English -- and so he put it in my head that I would go to the United States. But then he passed.

EOW: That's so sad!

JS: I know, I was unlucky. So I had this neighbor who was a lawyer, who had a case here in Texas. He told me, "You know what? Forget California. It's very expensive, it would be like staying here in Germany. You need to go to Houston, Texas. It's a new, upcoming city; they do a lot of developing. If you don't like it, you can always come back." So that's what I did. I flew into Atlanta, then connected to Houston Hobby Airport. It was exactly 15 years ago next month, one week before Thanksgiving.

EOW: You've told me before that you're really influenced by Paul Bocuse. Tell me about your inspirations, your style, the people you look up to.

JS: As the years go by, and you love what you do, and you have the passion for it -- that's how and why I work. A lot of people think you taste with the tongue and the taste buds, but I don't need to taste. (Taps his head.) You need to know the ingredients -- that's the key of cooking. I don't have to taste things -- I know how they combine together. I was lucky, I was trained by the last chef of the King of Romania. He was an older gentleman who worked in the kitchen where I got hired. This chef was my mentor and good friend as well.

EOW: What did he teach you?

JS: He taught me consommé. Consommé double, consommé triple. A lot of people don't even know anymore what that means. But it's an old classic culinary experience to do something like that. It's like escoffier. Escoffier is our grandfather now of chefs who are cooking. What I got from this guy is how to think, what you put together, what works with each other, how you have to think to put a recipe together.

EOW: How old were you when you worked with him?

JS: I was 18, 19 and 20, and then he retired. But just knowing him, because of his knowledge, we profited a lot. Like demi-glace, stock -- fish, veal, chicken, beef, vegetable. For him it doesn't exist to just mix something together and say, "I have a stock"; he would throw the whole pot. He would kick your butt. Or with a big wooden spoon he would slap you. Very strict, strict, strict school.

EOW: Your cuisine is French-based, but you've worked all over the world...

JS: I call it European Continental and New Contemporary Cuisine.

EOW: That's so complicated. What does that mean?

JS: European Continental is the continent of Europe. When you go to the menu, I can tell you exactly. You figured it out with the Portobello Transylvania. And then I have like Pasta di Casa, it's a spaetzle, a homemade egg-and-flour-based pasta we do every day-- that's German. The next, Taglierini a la Chitaria and Risotto al Piemontese, is Italian, because I worked for an Italian company and cooked for the President of Fiat when he would come and visit us in our hotel. Wiener Schnitzel is Viennese. Veal Zurich is Swiss. Ribeye "Cafe de Paris," which is a dry-aged entrecote -- that's French. Budapest-style foie gras -- that's inspired by my time in Hungary.

EOW: (looking through the menu) I love this: "Dracula's garlic cream soup." Why Dracula?

JS: Because Dracula loved garlic. And it's a best-seller. People order it all the time.

EOW: So it's my first time here. What should I order?

JS: You should ask for the chef, and the chef comes out and shows you the daily specials.

EOW: I meant, what are your signature dishes?

JS: Okay, I have a lot. So, seasonal. Let's do this: Right now, mushrooms are in season. Wild mushroom cappuccino, sautéed wild mushrooms, a nice fish or steak with wild mushrooms. I have different cuts, like bavette.

EOW: What about the other seasons?

JS: In spring, get the Spring lamb from Colorado, arctic char and white asparagus. In summer, morels, chanterelles and of course edible flowers, lightened salads and fish. Winter starts for me now soon -- game. We are big in game: pheasant, wild boar, deer, elk, kangaroo, bear. I did bear a couple of times.

EOW: Tell me about your knife collection. You have those special knives.

JS: Those are very special knives, Shun knives. They are Japanese steel and they are hand-forged. They are very expensive, and they were a gift I gave to myself for my fiftieth birthday in March. When you cut different carpaccios and crudos, I do a lot of raw things -- ceviches, tiraditos, sashimis, tartares -- and for this, you need good knives.

EOW: So if you had a last meal, what would it be, and who would make it?

JS: Morimoto.

EOW: Morimoto. What would you want him to make you? Have you had his food before?

JS: I would let him make what he wants. I've had his food, many times. We are friends. He's the most professional. I admire what he does with fish and chicken -- it's amazing. For me, he's the number one chef in the United States.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham