Among the handful of Los Angeles chefs who have defined this town's restaurant scene, Hans Röckenwagner often seems to go under-appreciated. Maybe because he doesn't show up on flashy food television. Or maybe because he spends a disproportionate time baking pretzels and making his outstanding traditional German-style holiday cookies. Or maybe because he's too busy carpentering all those wooden cabinets and Christmas decorations.
But Röckenwagner has quietly been opening and running wonderful restaurants and bakeries since the 1980s: fine-dining restaurants, homey neighborhood cafes, farmers market baking stands and, most recently, a beautiful little restaurant in the first floor of a hotel. He's also been busy running a very large baking empire and working on a cookbook, just published by our very own Prospect Park Books.
Das Cookbook, like Röckenwagner's restaurants, is very pretty, not overly large or daunting, and filled with fantastic versions of the chef's singular California-European cooking. German engineering, if you will, as applied to modern farm-to-table cuisine.
Röckenwagner, for the uninitiated, is originally from Germany; he trained in Germany and Switzerland, and then moved to this country in his early 20s — to run the notable Chicago restaurant Le Perroquet. From the Midwest to Southern California, where he opened his first L.A. restaurant, Röckenwagner, in Venice in the '80s. A few decades later, the chef now has three restaurants (3 Square, Cafe Röckenwagner, Rockenwagner Bakery Cafe) and an enormous commercial bakery in Culver City.
See also: Hans Röckenwagner's Giant New Bakery: 10,000 Square Feet of Pretzels?
In his three decades or so of cooking in L.A., Röckenwagner has perfected his distinctive cuisine, a happy marriage of traditional German dishes and European technique with farmers market–driven California cooking. Thus in his restaurants — and now in his cookbook — there are dishes such as mussel chowder with parsnips and leeks, a quinoa burger, and avocado crostini with baby radishes, as well as Old World-y things like spring spaetzle with herbs and peas, and roast goose with citrus-spiced red cabbage.
Röckenwagner's gift, not unlike Wolfgang Puck's, is to seemlessly blend both new and old world traditions while maintaining his personal touch. This is not fussy food or elaborate food, but dishes driven by ingredients and flavor.
The best part of this cookbook, although this writer is biased, is the baking sections. Because although some of us are not going to trade the pleasure of buying Röckenwagner's pretzels and his whole-grain rye at his bakery, it's nice to know that now we could bake them at home if we wanted to. An even greater bonus is Röckenwagner's inclusion of his fabulous holiday baked goods: the leckerli and Elisen lebkuchen and linzertorte bars and, thank you God, his magnificent stollen. This alone is worth the price of the book.
There's also, unsurprisingly, a lovely pantry section, which includes important things such as ham stock and glace de viande and spicy horseradish mustard. There's also a brief section on flours, as you'd expect from a baker.
This book is a long time in the making (see above comments on what Röckenwagner does in his copious spare time), and well worth the wait. With lovely photography by Staci Valentine, the book also shows the handiwork of two distinguished co-writers, experienced L.A. food writer Jenn Garbee (a former contributor to this blog) and Wolfgang Gussmack, the Austria native who is the longtime chef de cuisine at Röckenwagner's restaurants.
One of the many utterly charming things about this book is the inclusion of the German, from the hilarious title (yes, Röckenwagner drives a Volkswagen, or at least he did three years ago) to the section names (Mittagessen, Stammtische, Sprechen Sie Supper?, Das Fest) to the final acknowledgements (Danke) to the occasional jokes about, of course, German engineering itself. Ausgezeichnet. Und vielen, vielen Dank.
Turn the page for a recipe for Röckenwagner's gravlax…
From: Das Cookbook, by Hans Röckenwagner
Makes: About 1 1/2 pounds
1/2 small onion, roughly chopped
1 medium leek, white part only, sliced
1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 cup roughly chopped dill, leaves and tender top stems only
1/2 cup roughly chopped packed flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
1/4 cup roughly chopped chives
1 1/2 teaspoons mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon chile powder
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons lime juice (about 1 medium lime)
1 1/2 pounds skin-on steelhead trout or salmon (a single piece), deboned
2 or 3 sprigs dill, finely chopped
Toast, crackers, or rye bread
1. Combine onion, leek, carrot, dill, parsley, and chives in a food processor. Process until vegetables are finely chopped and form a rough paste, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a medium bowl and add mustard powder, coriander, red pepper, chile powder, salt, sugar, and lime juice. Mix well.
2. Line a 9” x 13” glass pan lengthwise with a sheet of plastic wrap large enough to hang over both ends by about 6 inches. Lay another sheet of plastic wrap width-wise in pan with about a 4-inch overhang. With your hands, spread half of paste mixture on plastic wrap roughly in same shape as fish. Place fish, skin side down, on paste. Spread remaining paste on top of fish. Fold both sides of plastic wrap around fish, securing well, then fold in lengthwise pieces of plastic wrap. Securely tuck edges underneath the fish to seal it well. (If curing 2 or 3 sides of fish at the same time, you can stack them all in the same pan.)
3. Refrigerate at least 48 hours, or up to 72 hours for a more flavorful cure, flipping fish upside down every 12 hours. Be careful not to loosen plastic wrap when flipping the fish.
4. Remove fish from refrigerator, unwrap, and gently scrape off curing paste with a rubber spatula. Be careful not to tear the flesh. Rinse fish quickly in cold water to remove excess paste. Pat dry, cover with clean plastic wrap, and refrigerate flesh-side up for up to 5 days.
5. To serve, slice fish very thinly along the diagonal with a very sharp knife. To serve skinless fillets, first flip fish upside down and slice skin off the bottom in one piece. Arrange salmon on a platter and sprinkle with dill. Serve with toast, crackers, or rye bread.