Photos Courtesy of KG_NY Group (Upholstery Store, Blaue Gans)
The story of how Kurt Gutenbrunner learned to cook is the story of a boy who was afraid of heights. Growing up in the Austrian village of Wallsee on the Danube, young Kurt shied away from joining his junior brother in assisting their father, a construction worker. “They were running around on roofs as if they were on the ground,” he recalls. “I just couldn’t get up there, so I ended up in the kitchen with my mom, who made food for the real men.” It was there that Gutenbrunner learned the basics of Austrian cuisine: tender Wiener schnitzel, spicy goulash, crisp potato rösti, unctuous apricot dumplings.
As Gutenbrunner grew older, he was certain of two things: He wanted to cook, and he wanted to travel. Eventually, he would travel all the way to New York, but his first position there was inauspicious for someone afraid of heights: sous-chef at Windows on the World, 107 stories above Manhattan at the top of the World Trade Center. That was in 1988, and for the entire year he was there he never once visited the observation deck. After a stint at David Bouley’s namesake restaurant in New York’s Tribeca, he returned to Europe in 1990, but was back in Manhattan by 1996, this time for good.
It’s been 15 years since Gutenbrunner opened his first restaurant, Wallsé, in a corner space on West 11th and Washington Street in New York’s West Village — at the time a primarily residential district. Naysayers told him the location would never work, but Gutenbrunner would not be dissuaded. Six weeks after it opened, New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes gave it a rave, adding, “New York never knew it needed Austrian cooking. Now it may not be able to live without it.”
In the years since, Wallsé has been joined by pastry heaven Café Sabarsky in New York’s Neue Galerie, and Blaue Gans, a Viennese-style bistro in Tribeca. Gutenbrunner attributes his success to offering a modern version of what Austrian food and decor can be.
“It feels like Austria and tastes like Austria, without the clichés,” he says. Yet his latest venture, the newly remodeled Upholstery Store: Food and Wine, next to Wallsé, reflects Gutenbrunner’s going native, with a menu featuring oysters, lobster rolls, and other seafood dishes, like a tuna ceviche with blood orange, in which the Austrian accent is subtle rather than predominant. “I never had seafood when I was a child,” he says.
He is an American citizen now, and coming soon, he promises, is a real American-style cheesecake. He laughs. “I need to keep my American citizenship,” he says. “So, lobster rolls and cheesecake. We are heading in the right direction.”