Meet the Chef
Werkstatt Brooklyn, N.Y.
By Julian Steiner
You were born in Austria – Where exactly?
I was born in Vienna, in the 18th district Währing. My father was a bread baker and my mother was a Hausfrau.
When did you first discover your passion for cooking?
When I was a little boy, I watched my mother in the kitchen all the time. She made her own Strudel dough in our tiny apartment, stretching it on a sheet on the dining room table. She would make her own noodles too and dried them on top of her bed. She removed them at night and put them back in the morning to dry all day. I can still remember the glass jars in which she stored them. I also enjoyed watching my aunts as they pickled, preserved and baked pastries all from the Schrebergarten we had in Floridsdorf, Vienna.
My father was an amazing gardener and he grew raspberries from which my mother made Himbeersaft. I really loved this organic, homemade raspberry syrup but every once in a while, I wanted a bottle of Fanta instead.
You learned how to cook in Vienna – What makes the Viennese cuisine special?
I went to cooking school at the Gastgewerbefachschule, a cooking school in the first district of Vienna on Judenplatz. Viennese cuisine is the result of the melting pot that was the Habsburg Empire, with Czech, Hungarian, Croatian, Romanian, Polish, and more influences. The Viennese cuisine is therefore incredibly versatile.
All the migrants, from the cooks to the household helpers, brought their cuisines, their seasonings, their preparation techniques to Vienna and all those integrated into what we know now as Viennese cuisine. Every day I hear that my Viennese food reminds so many of our New York customers of the tastes of their homelands and their mother’s or grandmother’s cooking back home, which is a great compliment.
Your restaurant is called Werkstatt, German for workshop. Does the name influence your choice in the menu at all?
It is my “workshop.” After cooking in New York for 37 years, I can cook anything I want, anything I feel like eating, anything I want to serve my guests. I have adapted many of the New York culinary trends into my repertoire, such as soft-shell crabs, Matzoh Ball Soup, shad & roe and other New York traditions I have become accustomed to after cooking and eating here for more than three decades. When we first opened Werkstatt, we had tacos on the menu – just because I love tacos.
One of my mentors, George Lang of Café des Artistes, helped shape my culinary outlook. He too was a transplanted New Yorker and a culinary consultant for over 40 years. I was fortunate to have him as a boss and mentor for 12 of those years. He familiarized me with many of the New York traditions, which now became part of the repertoire of my workshop.
This issue of Austrian Information has a focus on architecture and I could not help but notice the interior design of your Werkstatt. You have old Austrian enamel-metal signs and even a motorcycle on the wall. Where did you find all those Austrian memorabilia?
I started my collection by buying signs at a pharmacy in Vienna, owned by a man who collected and lovingly restored them. He had some excess ones which he did not restore and he sold those to me. When I moved to Brooklyn, I continued to collect vintage Austrian enamel signs on eBay. With every visit to Vienna, I go to the Naschmarkt to see what’s being sold, thus adding to my collection. I love these signs, they remind me of my home and my childhood in Vienna.
You had a restaurant in Brooklyn before – What makes this borough so special?
Brooklyn is my home. I started a family here and made my life here. It has a diverse culinary culture, which never stops to interest me. Everywhere I turn, there are small, local restaurants serving the cuisine of a family, who has moved here and made Brooklyn their home. I have everything I need in Brooklyn.
What is the difference in cooking and owning a restaurant in New York compared to Vienna?
I haven’t cooked in Vienna in 30 years, except for family on visits and I never owned a restaurant there. However, I don’t think there is a big difference. A customer is a customer anywhere in the world and everyone wants quality and good food.
If you could choose one celebrity, Austrian or not, to dine at Werkstatt, who would it be?
Eckart Witzigmann, super star chef and my idol.
You serve everything from the iconic Schnitzel to P.E.I. Mussels – What is your favorite dish to cook?
This is like asking a mother which is her favorite child. It’s a question nearly impossible to answer.
Our last question for most of our chefs is the same: What’s your favorite Austrian dish?
Again, I can’t answer this. I have so many favorites. Would it be Sauerbraten? Maybe Zwiebelrostbraten? Or a faithful old Gulyash? Or some other beautiful plate of flavor? I guess it depends on which day you ask me. But one thing I love every day is my cream spinach.
509 Coney Island Ave Brooklyn, NY, 11218