Gerhard Dillner came to the United States from his native Germany and with his wife Ruth opened House of Gerhard in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1964. The restaurant quickly earned a reputation for outstanding German-American cuisine. Today the restaurant is operated by their daughter and son-in-law Angie and Dick Rudin and their children Sabine and Kyle. Kyle traveled to Germany this summer and immersed himself in the German culture, to re-connect with family and bring back ideas to his family’s restaurant. Over the course of three weeks, the chef was determined to live like a local, and not visit like a tourist.
Kyle was 13 years old when his grandfather Gerhard passed away. Until six years ago, he had never met one branch of his family tree: Gerhard’s sister Erika and her children and grandchildren in Germany. In April 2012, Erika’s daughter Ute came to the United States for the first time, with her boyfriend Werner. Over dinner at House of Gerhard one night, Ute invited Kyle to spend time working in her restaurant in Germany. And that’s how he came to spend three weeks in the small town of Blankenburg, located in the Harz Mountains of Germany. He was an hour away from Kenosha’s sister city Wolfenbuttel.
This was not Kyle’s first visit to Germany. But this visit was very different. He worked in the kitchen of Todtenrode, a small restaurant with 60 to 70 indoor seats and an attached 10-room inn/hotel. Calling the setting “beautiful”, the building was surrounded by quiet woods and mountains. The land used to be part of the border between East and West Germany. He calls the area untouched land, a pristine forest with hiking and nature trails.
His visit consisted of a lot of kitchen work, and a little sightseeing. He calls it “rewarding to know a lot of our recipes are made the same way.” Still, he learned a lot. They use different ingredients including wild cuts – venison, boar, and rabbit. He may start incorporating venison in the House of Gerhard menu come fall. In fact, he came back with “tons of new ideas” – a journal full of recipes, things he was taught, and new ideas sparked by trying new things.
Kyle took pictures of everything he ate so he could remember it all, as he “ate and drank his way through Germany”. He tried everything he possibly could, in case it would generate a new idea. He experienced places beyond Ute’s restaurant. Asked if as a chef, he just knows what’s in a recipe, or if he asks, he says you can ask chefs how a dish was created. However, they likely won’t reveal their secrets. He can get a pretty good idea of what’s in a dish. He says he writes down ideas, and then later plays with it, experiments, and conducts research.
He participated in a Schnitzel challenge at one stop, although he was unable to complete the 2.2-pound dish. Kyle loves Schnitzel and he didn’t want to ruin that love by cramming every last bit in his mouth.
Kyle also visited Austria for the first time. A 12 to 13 hour drive away, he was amazed by the high quality of food at the rest stops – including made to order food and homemade desserts. Their destination was what Werner called the best restaurant in Austria. A helicopter landing pad was outside the restaurant, located in a small town, as people from Vienna fly to it. The menu changes each week and the restaurant is closed Monday through Wednesday to prepare for the rest of week. When the kitchen is out of food, it is just out of food.
He found the restaurants on his three-week trip are different than American restaurants in many ways. They have fewer staff members, and yet an efficient system. The chef will do the dishes and pour beer if necessary. There is only one chef at Ute’s kitchen. He found this to be the same at every restaurant. He admits the service is then slower, but it is a different culture there. The older generation especially takes their time to eat and savor their meal.
Ute’s restaurant had virtually all of the same kitchen equipment as House of Gerhard, but it was laid out differently. Ideas were exchanged between Ute’s chef and Kyle. From the preparation and the cooking to the mundane, he did it all. He visited the farmers markets, the food suppliers, and even the dry cleaners. He would help where he could. He used a smart phone app for measurement system conversions.
Kyle said it’s far from your typical American breakfast in Germany: bread, meats (blood or liver sausage, a variety of pressed meats, “fantastic” raw pork), cheese, and hard boiled eggs were on the menu. It was the kind of breakfast he grew up with, that his mom loves, so he had no trouble handling it. Ute’s son Andreas is a master butcher with his own butcher shop. So all of the meats featured at Ute’s restaurant are family recipes from his shop.
Kyle made salads for the salad bar at the restaurant and now has brought back those recipes with him. House of Gerhard includes a relish salad of the day with each dinner. These salads include sweet/sour sauerkraut, kidney bean, fresh tomato, or fresh cucumber. Now he has even more ideas.
Kyle said it was nice spending his time in small towns. He felt like he was part of the community and culture as he was working and interacting with the locals on a daily basis. An “Aha, I’m in Germany” moment was when they were driving late one night and hadn’t had dinner yet. They pulled into a gas station. He was thinking he’s not picky; he can eat chips. He was shocked that the attendant behind the counter prepared and served fresh “fancy” coffee, as well as bread, sausage, and mustard.
He said it was great to connect with family and learn of shared memories/impressions of his grandpa. Ute’s daughter Romona shared what it was like to grow up in East Germany. She couldn’t play outside with Barbie dolls because they were seen as a Western influence. One day during Kyle’s visit, Romona and her husband took him to a housewarming party – a German BBQ. Marinated pork chops, grilled sausages, pasta salad, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and beer were on the menu. He says it was not that different from here, they just spoke German. That party was a very memorable part of his trip. It’s what he came to Germany for – one of his goals was to be immersed in the culture, and not do the “touristy stuff”.
Kyle went there not knowing a lot of German. He did take German in college, and did some crash course studying before his trip. With a dictionary in hand, he “just went with it.” Ute’s chef did not know any English. By the time Kyle left, he could understand quite a bit, but speaking it was a different matter. He found many people there who spoke a little English. He wishes he could’ve spoken fluently.
He calls his three-week experience “ultimately life-changing.” It opened up his mind, made him look at things differently, and re-charged his batteries. Moving forward, he will be experimenting with his newly discovered recipes, and making sure they are perfect before serving them to his House of Gerhard customers. Noting the menu will always have its core items like prime rib and “amazing German dishes”, it will be looked at and tweaked as a result of all the inspiring things he saw and tasted in Germany.
He plans to return to Germany next year, hopefully with his family for a week. This summer, the time was right in his life for the three-week immersion. While he was nervous going in, when asked if the trip was all he thought it would be, he replies: “Even more!”
House of Gerhard is located at 3927 75th Street (Hwy 50) in Kenosha. For more information: www.houseofgerhard.com, (262) 694-5212.