Like any other cook, he was immersed in the enjoyment of talking about cooking. "I collect cookbooks," he said, with his soft German accent. "It's refreshing to see new things - I even learn new things from Betty Crocker books. I save all the magazines with recipes in them - our living room looks like a cyclone."
Munich-born Walter Achatz - a chef who believes, "nobody is so good he doesn't need to look at a cookbook now and again," and who uses as his own favorite reference a Lexikon der Kuche which lists, among other things, 1,200 ways of preparing flounder - is not just any other cook.
A gentle-voiced little man, he had recently in 12 nonstop, 18-hour days planned, bought and produced food for 24,000 seated meals and dozens upon dozens of cocktail parties and receptions.
He had done this, so far as anyone could tell, without once raising his voice above the decibel of a Brahms lullaby. In between, he had also met with a stream of food salesmen, tracked down the live lobsters that hadn't arrived, searched futilely for Hungarian rose paprika and broken in some 40 new kitchen helpers on a staff which, of necessity, grows overnight from 12 to 60.
Achatz is executive chef of the Top of the Mart Restaurant and the exclusive Furniture Club, which cover most of the Southern Furniture Market Center. Located in the small furniture-and-knitting mill town of High Point, N.C., the Furniture Center is occupied every April and October by people who come to see the season's new home furnishings offerings.
"Market" is many things.It is a geographical location -- actually a complex of four main showroom wings that includes a bit over 2-million square feet and covers portions of two downtown city blocks. "Market," too, is a measurement of time - it's a twice-yearly endurance race covering a nine-day span, of which the average market-goer stays six.
"Market" is people and business - it's 40,000 persons involved in the world of home furnishings and the members of the press covering it, who travel to High Point from 50 states and 40 foreign countries.
Located in the North Carolina Pledmont, High Point and its environs must be thought of as considerably less than a culinary oasis. Indeed, it has been said that one can't find a cut of good, rare beefsteak in all the area. Yet Chef Achatz serves fork-tender pink Tournedos Diana beneath Sauce Bordelaise in the Gourment Room at the Top of the Mart, Estouffade Lamande in the chic and popular Furniture Club and giant 40-pound, steam-ship-round roasts several times weekly in the Crown Room. In the heart of spoonbread land and barbecue, he sometimes dispenses chilled Hungarian Cherry Soup, Bananas Foster and Puff Pastry Shells "Picasso."
rather than rage at the incomprehensible culinary habits of his adopted home, Achatz regards them merely with mild amusement, for he is supremely happy just where he is.
Surprisingly, it is Chef Achatz who faces up to the reality of the standpat tastes of southern diners, and it is Robert P. Gruenberg, manager of the complex, who attempts to stir up a more cosmopolitan brew for the Top of the Mart.
Achatz dies a little each time an overcooked vegetable is served. "It's like killing it a second time," he says, but they think it isn't done if it's crisp-cooked." Nonetheless, " . . . we've come a long way. We have smoked tongue occasionally now. That would have been unthinkable five years ago. And every Wednesday we have stuffed breast of veal in the Club."
There are moments of rich reward. Like the revenous acceptance of the chef's own German Apple Fritters by local bec fins who previously associated the word "fritter" only with "corn." Chef Achatz believes people are becoming more receptive to fish, too. Charles Ramsey sends a truck up into the mountains of Sparta, N.C., two-hours distant, for the chef's constant supply of fresh brook trout. Steelhead salmon comes from Baltimore. In season, blues come from the North Carolina coast. Achatz notes that, "everybody is so weight conscious now. The women first, now even the men! People are getting away from fried food."
One hectically rushed day during the Market, in answer to an urgent plea, the chef made his goulash soup, then mourned, " . . . but it was not quite right - without rose paprika from Hungary, it is not right."
Paprika is only one on a lengthy list of unobtainables. "It starts with truffles," he grieves. "And then goose liver - foie gras. And another thing - plain, ordinary split peas, for my soup. And ABC noodles!" He shakes his head in wonderment that they should be missing from the South's provision shelves.
Now 46, Achatz came to the U.S. 20 years ago under the sponsorship of a Mormon family in Utah who guided him into a position as chef in New York's St. Barnabas Hospital for Chronic Diseases.
In his scrapbook, photographs of ice carvings he did as an apprentice in Germany are soon supplanted with troops of Boy Scouts, with Achatz, in scout uniform. As assistant scout master of Troop 298 in the Bronx, " . . . we cooked breakfast on a stick and grilled food outdoors; the kids loved it," he said in perfect Americanese.
Achatz' English improved rapidly with the help of his wife. "I asked her always to correct me." It improved, too, with southern exposure. "We went from New york to Kentucky to see Wilma's family for the first time. And there you go around visiting 'family.' Wherever we went, there was the pan-fried chicken, what you call it? The southern chicken. I said to her, 'Please don't take me to any more family where we have the chicken - I will grow wings!" Eyes twinkling, he added, "I learned to like fried tomatoes - I had to."
Actually, he has learned to like most of what is labeled "southern" cooking. "But sometimes I must have my little extra side-things - I go over to Mr. Dunderbak's, a shop in Greensboro, and there I can get my herring, the good cheese and rye bread.
"At home, will have a Wiener Schnitzel, or a roast pork with raw potato dumplings. And my wife makes a delicious German Potato salad."
The Achatz family has been in North Cafolina since 1969. "Money is not the most important thing. We did not want any more the pressure of New York."
The pressure of High Point, however, is not to be ignored. Before Chef Achatz, the Furniture Center changed chefs nearly every year - always after a Market.
The culmination of each Market, for the chef, his staff and 500 favored members of the international press who report it, is the press party on the Saturday of Market weekend.
Long double tables march parallel to twin giant roasts of beef at each end. Along the way, there are aspics, rosettes of fresh vegetables, floats of fresh fruits, the chef's famous ice carvings Pieces montees in incredible profusion.
The menu is traditional. At these two times of the year, southern food is allowed - indeed, anticipated. There is always spoonbread, evolved from four different recipes by Chef Achatz. The Hoppin' John, said to be the best that any Hoppin' John connoisseur has tasted, is made from black eyes "imported" from South Carolina, reports the chef.
Then there is the asparagus vinaigrette, made from superb large white asparagus, whole suckling pigs - with skin crackling, salads of langoustine and shrimp, whole fresh poched salmon, hugh lobster shells filled with chunks of the sweet lobster meat, watermelon baskets overflowing with fresh melon balls and grapes. The evening ends with another tradition - a visit to the small canopied ice cream parlor in a corner of the huge Crown Room that dispenses large, gooey ice cream sundaes of every flavor.
The day the Market ended this spring also ended the two weeks of invaluable kitchen help of four young apprentices from the culinary arts course at Johnson and Wales College in Providence, R.I. They departed for their classes, leaving four crucial posts vacant in Chef Achatz' kitchen.
The next morning the chef was on the phone. "We are expecting 200 tonight, and the baker hasn't arrived," he was saying with only the slightest trace of urgency. "The breakfast cook is not here, and I am behind the range . . ."
As the chef says, you have to be flexible. GULYASLEVES (Goulash Soup)
(Makes 6 servings) 3 medium onions, chopped (about 4 cups) 3 tablespoons butter 2 pounds good-quality stew beef, cut in 1/2-inch cubes 2 to 3 tablespoons paprika (preferably Hungarian) 2 to 3 large carrots, diced (2 to 3 cups) 1 teaspoon caraway seeds 2 cloves garlic, crushed 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind 6 cups beef bouillon 2 to 3 medium potatoes, cut in 1/2-inch cubes (4 cups) 1/4 teaspoon papper, or to taste Salt to taste
Melt butter in large casserole or stock pot with cover. Cook onions in butter until golden, but no browned. Add beef, and sprinkle with paprika (use mild or hot, according to taste), stirring constantily until slightly browned. Add garlic, lemon rind and bouillon.
Simmer, covered, for 1 hour or more until meat is tender. Add caraway seends, potatoes and carrots and cook at least 30 minutes longer. Add pepper and salt. This will produce a soup with a thin broth and firm vegetables. CHEF ACHATZ' HOPPIN' JOHN (Makes 8 to 10 servings) 1 cup dried black-eye peas 1 ham bone 4 cups water 1 medium onion, chopped Salt to taste Dash of cayeune 1 cup uncooked rice
Soak peas overnight in water to cover. Drain. Add peas with ham bone and chopped onion to 4 cups water. Simmer slowly until peas are just tender, about 1 hour. Put peas, and all their stock, with rice in caserole with cover. Add salt sparingly, for stock will be slightly salty, and cayenne. Cook very slowly, covered, for about 25 minutes until liquid is absorbed and rice cooked. Taste again for seasoning, and add salt if necessary, and pepper. HOT POTATO SALAD (Make 6 to 8 servings) 12 slices bacon, diced 3 medium onions, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups) 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons vinegar 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons salt 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pepper 6 medium potatoes (about 2 pounds), cut in halves
Cook bacon and reserve drippings. Set aside bacon and put 6 tablespoons drippings into a saucepan. Add onions, cook until transparent, occasionally turning with a spoon. Leave on very low heat. Cook potatoes in boiling water until just tender when pierced with a fork. Drain and dry by shaking pan carefully over low heat. Peel, cut into 1/4-inch slices and keep warm. To the cooked onions, add vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper and heat the mixture to boiling. Add the diced bacon to the onion-vinegar mixture and pour over hot potato slices. Toss gently to coat evenly. L'ESTOUFFAT LAMANDE (Make 8 servings) 4 to 5 1/2 pounds beef pot roast (shank or shoulder cut) 3 or 4 carrots, 1-inch diced 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, diced 1 sweet red or green pepper, diced fine 1 small jar green olives, pitted 2 pig's feet, scrubbed clean 1 clove garlic, minced 8 black olives, without pits, diced 1 to 1 1/2 cups firmly packed fresh bread crumbs 32 ounces Braujolals, or other good quality red wine Salt and pepper to taste Bouquet garni Flour, water
Sear beef on all sides and place in a large casserole with a tight-fitting cover. Make a dressing of the minced garlic, black olives and bread crumbs and spread it over the top of the beef in the casserole. Surround meat with the carrots, pepper, muchrooms and green olives (try to find Mediterranean olives, with pits rather than pimiento stuffing).
Add pig's feet, wine and a bouquet garni of a few whole peppercorns, bay leaf, thyme, marjoram (optional) and parsley. Lightly salt and pepper the meat. Make enough dough to form a strip long enough to go around casserole, using 1 to 2 cups flour moistened with water. Seal the covered casserole with the dough. Place in an oven heated to 325 degrees, and cook 6 to 7 hours. Remove dough sealing the cover, and serve beef from the casserole with a spoonful of sauce over each portion.