NEW YORK — “I’ve got to stop it with the analogies,” says Austrian chef Kurt Gutenbrunner in his vaguely Schwarzenegger-like accent. In the first hour of an interview, he’s already compared designing a kitchen to building a race car, running a restaurant to playing baseball, and ordering à la carte to shopping at Helmut Lang. (“Sometimes you don’t want to buy a suit, you just want to buy a shirt. And that’s fine too, right?”)
The 43-year-old is weeks away from opening his third New York restaurant, a 100-seat place on the Lower East Side called Thor. And while he’s full of the swagger that has come to define his profession — this is a man, after all, whose first restaurant, Wallsé, is dominated by a painting of himself — he’s far from calm. One minute he’s moving banquettes, the next he’s critiquing a sauce in rapid-fire German, and through it all he’s texting on his handheld. It becomes clear, to use a Gutenbrunner-esque phrase, that with Thor he’s betting the house.
Born in Wallsee, Austria, a tiny town on the Danube, Gutenbrunner grew up picking apples when he wanted a snack and walking home from school through fields of strawberries. He even learned to tell the time of day by the aromas emanating from the local bakery. (Croissants were done at 1 p.m.) As a young chef, he cooked at top establishments in Switzerland, Vienna and Germany before coming to New York in 1988 to cook at Windows on the World. He then worked with David Bouley for several years before becoming executive chef of Monkey Bar. The corporate dining crowd, however, turned out not to be his ideal audience, more interested in the martinis than the food. In search of more refined palates, he headed for the West Village, where in 2000 he opened the neo-Austrian Wallsé.
In the years since, Gutenbrunner has developed the sort of following that even more well-known chefs would kill for. An average night at Wallsé might draw Karl Lagerfeld (who, says Gutenbrunner, always has “the halibut with cucumbers, no butter, no cream, no dessert”), Elton John (“likes chocolate desserts”) and Julian Schnabel, whose paintings, including the aforementioned portrait, cover the walls.
This story first appeared in the September 6, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I love Kurt and his Austrian delicacies,” raves Lou Reed, another regular. “Perhaps in a past life I was an Austrian given to goulash, sauerkraut and crispy brook trout mit truffles.”
The downtown darling has also succeeded with the uptown crowd. His Café Sabarsky, in Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie on upper Fifth Avenue, has been a hit, with museum goers waiting an average of 30 minutes for a chance to sample the Sacher torte. In October, Gutenbrunner will open a second Neue eatery, Café Fledermaus, where customers will be able to watch black-and-white German films while they dine.
But before Fledermaus, there is Thor (an acronym for The Hotel on Rivington, where it’s located), which opens this week. And while the Neue outposts have found Gutenbrunner on familiar territory, this place is different. For starters, though Wallsé and Sabarsky are both subtle spaces, Thor’s interiors are decidedly dramatic. The work of Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, the restaurant is accessed through a giant “blobular” fiberglass entranceway that gives way to 22-foot ceilings and sweeping glass walls with views of the neighboring tenements. It’s impressive, for sure, but certainly not the cozy environment for which Gutenbrunner is known.
The food is also something of a departure, less lightened-up Viennese classics and more of a pan-European mix. “It’s an opportunity to express myself on a level of personality rather than nationality,” says the chef, who notes that his four children, ages three to 15, have been his most trusted taste testers. The menu is built on the trendy small-plates model, with petite portions of things like foie gras with caramelized peaches, squab with parsley and mushroom crust, and king salmon lasagna. And while it’s not an Austrian restaurant per se, Gutenbrunner knows better than to do away with things like his famous spaetzle and rösti with leeks. “K.G. is K.G.,” he says, half in jest, before lapsing into one last analogy. “Rock stars don’t play classical music.”