BACK in Zurich, Urs Gabalthuler worked in Switzerland's largest hotel. In Amherst, Va. he runs a hotel so small it doesn't even have a lobby.
An Alpine chalet built as a hunting lodge in 1932 and given the unlikely name of The Rutledge Inn when it went public in 1975, Gabalthuler's little Swiss-style hostelry has carved wooden balconies with window boxes waiting to bloom, and a view of the Virginia hills that may lack a certain scale but still calls Heidi to mind. When the Gabalthulers took it over nearly 1 1/2 years ago it already had painted furniture from Germany that would suit a gingerbread house, and a big stone fireplace and a good bit of countrified--if somewhat tumbledown--charm. The Gabalthulers rent out four rustic guest rooms with niceties such as lace-edged quilts and eccentricities such as door handles that fall off in your hand; they also serve the public lunch and dinner, as well as that American invention, Sunday brunch, but with a definite Swiss accent.
They left Switzerland in the first place, they explain, because in Switzerland you need foreign experience to get somewhere. Urs chose convention work in Atlanta, thinking he would learn English better, and they planned to go home after two years. But through a friend, the mayor of Amherst persuaded them to take over The Rutledge Inn. "We always thought, start small and look how the thing is running," says Urs in a soft voice with a quiet smile under his wispy moustache, suggesting this might be even smaller than they had meant. "This place gives us a lot. With a big hotel you are only one little wheel in the whole operation."
Urs Gabalthuler, 28 years old and 6 feet four inches tall, has had to make a number of adjustments to the American innkeeper's life, the first of them to raise the hood over the stove so he doesn't have to duck. "I'm the kitchen and my wife is the dining room," he says. Michelle, who was born in Austria but also attended Swiss hotel school, makes the breads and pastries for the restaurant and carryout orders, in addition to running the dining room, and in between caring for their daughter, born in February. He runs the kitchen with an apprentice and two other helpers; in the dining room she has a full-time waitress and three part time.
Therein lies their biggest adjustment. "The employees demand a lot," begins Urs.
"You have to educate them," Michelle completes the thought for her husband. Their apprentice, who found them through the local high school, showed up for work originally wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "Taco Power."
"In a city you get a waiter who at least knows which side to serve," he further explains. By now they have trained the waitresses to tell the patrons that their veal is fresh and cut in the kitchen.
Ordering supplies--that was another adjustment. Right off the bat, he told a supplier, "I am going to open a restaurant in two weeks and want to have all fresh things, not frozen things." The supplier responded with a "special deal" in roast beef that he insisted was fresh, eventually admitting it was "fresh frozen." Then Gabalthuler got a speech from the supplier that started with, "Let me tell you, young man . . ."
Eventually Gabalthuler got the point across to his suppliers that he wanted fresh foods, and now he gets whole legs of veal that he breaks down himself, and fresh vegetables, and fresh seafoods the likes of which, he says, a small restaurateur could not get in Europe, certainly not at such low prices. He gets deliveries from Charlotte, N. C., Virginia Beach and Washington. His wursts and salamis come from Schaller and Weber in New York. Local vegetables are not plentiful. "Yeah, you get tomatoes," says Urs.
"And melons," adds Michelle.
"Potatoes," he completes the list.
He would love to get Belgian endive without having to order it weeks ahead, and fresh kidneys or sweetbreads, or veal loins that haven't been frozen. He is delighted, however, with the Provimi veal he can purchase, which is pale and of the quality a Swiss expects.
If the Gabalthulers were surprised at the lack of local produce, they were even more so at the lack of local clientele. Ninety percent come from outside of Amherst, they say; as Urs figures, "We are here more or less in a rural area and the people need a little bit of time to see there is something other than deep fried." He uses the deep fryer only for chicken, which he fries whole and without batter in the Swiss style, and for french fries, which go only with the chicken and the wienerschnitzel. In Urs' cuisine, each dish has its own appropriate starch accompaniment: spatzli with rahmschnitzel, parsley potato with fish, roesti potatoes with veal Zurich style, spaghetti with piccata Milanaise, rice with curried dishes--for which he was inspired by a grand tour from Turkey to Bali after hotel-school graduation.
While they still draw customers who marvel at their first taste of fresh cauliflower, says Urs, "We didn't do too much adjusting. The taste here is the taste we brought with us." Thus each dinner is accompanied by his four special marinated salads--red cabbage, green cabbage, carrot and potato--and by fresh vegetables. Brunch is not eggs and pancakes, but cold roasted meats and fresh fruits arranged on mirrored trays, and bratwurst with onions, sauerbraten, knackwurst, that Swiss-style fried chicken (all at an American rural price: $6.50).
"Many people are not used to tasty vegetables," declares Michelle, citing a woman recently who discovered in their dining room that for the first time in her life she liked spinach. But people are finding them without their having advertised in nearly a half year. As Michelle puts, it, they get "mouth to mouth advertising." Diners come primarily from Lynchburg but from as far as Saudi Arabia. The proximity of Sweetbriar College helps.
It is taking longer for them to adjust to their customers' tastes. The inevitable (in the South) iced tea: "This is an adjustment." Another difficult adjustment: serving coffee with steak. And then there was the day that Amherst finally and fully dismantled prohibition, allowing hard liquor to be served in restaurants, just last November.
Gabalthuler recognizes that he has to go slowly. "I did once a shark steak," he says. Only once. Still, he's planning to introduce squid. And he keeps a careful eye on the plates as the waitresses bring them back to the kitchen. "There is no chance they get by with a plate that is full and I don't know why it is full," he declares.
Michelle finally found unsalted butter for her pastry, but still has had to adjust her pastry recipes to American ingredients. "I have had to work out a lot of cakes . . .," she begins.
"You call that testing," he prompts.
Her black forest cake has become a hit, and she feels compelled to always have her apple strudel and chocolate mousse cake on the menu. In season she uses fresh fruits for Swiss fruit cakes, which are rich custard-and-fruit pies. Her fresh plum pie last fall was at first considered a strange animal, but after the initial wariness it became the local woodcutter's favorite and people began to come specifically for the plum pie.
"An inn is a very delicate thing," muses Urs.
Michelle nods in agreement. "We are weather-dependent," she says, explaining that they are always busy when the dogwoods are in bloom, but, "As soon as the weather report says one word about snow we are dead."
They have, however, postponed the idea of going home. Says Urs, "It is really a good field to be in here in America, especially when you use fresh food." Another small grin, and he adds, "You never know . . . we might even end up in Washington." SCALLOPS BOMBAY (2 to 4 servings) 1 pound sea scallops Salt and pepper 1/2 teaspoon worcestershire sauce Juice of 1 lemon 3/4 teaspoon curry powder or to taste 2/3 cup chopped shallots 3 tablespoons butter Flour 1 cup chablis 1/3 cup whipping cream Rice, whipped cream rosettes and curry powder for serving
Place scallops into small bowl. Marinate with salt, pepper, worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, curry. In a large skillet, saute' shallots in butter until soft. Powder scallops with flour, adding enough until marinade is mostly absorbed. Add marinated scallops to skillet over medium heat. Saute' for 2 minutes, add chablis, let simmer for 5 minutes or until scallops are almost done. Remove scallops and reduce wine by half. Return scallops to pan, add cream and stir lightly.
On warm plate arrange rice in ring shape, put scallops in the middle, pour sauce over. Garnish with a rosette of whippped cream, which you powder lightly with curry. CARROT--ALMOND CAKE (Makes a 9-inch cake) 5 egg yolks 2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar plus enough for sprinkling on top 1 tablespoon grated lemon peel 10 1/2-ounces almonds, finely grated 3 carrots, finely grated 4 tablespoons sifted flour 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon 1 tablespoon baking powder Pinch salt 5 egg whites 2 tablespoons cherry brandy or rum Butter for greasing pan
Beat egg yolks, sugar and lemon peel with electric mixer until very smooth. Add almonds and carrots to egg mixture and combine with a wooden spoon. Add flour, cinnamon, salt and baking powder. Stir and combine. Beat the egg whites until very stiff and fold into other mixture. Add cherry brandy or rum and stir to combine.
Prepare a 9-inch cake pan by liberally buttering bottom. Pour in mixture and bake at 350 degrees for 60 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar. BEEF STROGANOFF (3 to 4 servings) 1 pound beef tenderloin, diced Salt, pepper and paprika Flour for dusting plus 1 tablespoon for sauce Vegetable oil 5 tablespoons butter 2/3 cup chopped shallots 4-ounce jar pimientos, julienned 2/3 cup pickles, chopped 2/3 cup burgundy wine 2/3 cup beef stock or bouillon 3 tablespoons sour cream Noodles for serving
Season tenderloin with salt, pepper and paprika. Dust meat lightly with flour. Saute' meat quickly in a little oil in a hot skillet until it is slightly underdone. Remove from pan. Add butter to skillet and stir in shallots, pimiento, pickles and 1 tablespoon flour in butter. Whisk in burgundy and reduce slightly. Add beef stock and let simmer for 2 minutes, or until thickened.
Add sour cream and stir thoroughly. Return meat to pan just before serving and reheat briefly. (Don't let it simmer any more, so the meat won't be completely well done). Serve on warm plate, with noodles. SWISS ROLLS (Makes 24) 1 package yeast 1 teaspoon sugar 1/2 cup lukewarm milk plus an additional 2 to 2 1/2 cups milk 8 cups flour (use bread flour or unbleached, or a mixture of both) 1 teaspoon salt
Dissolve yeast and sugar in the 1/2 cup of lukewarm milk. Set aside for 5 minutes. Add remaining milk and salt and beat in flour, 1 cup at a time. The last 1 or 2 cups will have to be kneaded into the mixture. Once flour has been absorbed, knead 5 to 10 minutes, until dough is very smooth and comes easily off the walls of the bowl.
Cover and let rise for about an hour in a warm place. When volume has doubled, take dough out of bowl, knead quickly and shape into 24 round rolls.
Let rest for 15 minutes, then bake for 25 minutes in a 350-degree oven, until light brown.