Enjoy this serving from our archive, originally published in our Holiday 2012 digital issue.
GUEST CHEF: WALTER STAIB We take a trip back in time with chef Walter Staib Philadelphia's City tavern.
Dennis Mayer | December 11, 2013
WALTER STAIB; PHOTO CREDIT: THE CITY TAVERN
WALTER STAIB | THE CITY TAVERN
Chef Walter Staib grew up
in (and worked in) his family’s restaurant in Germany, and spent nearly a
decade apprenticing in kitchens around Europe before rising to the elite ranks
of his profession. Still, he hadn’t thought much about culinary history until
July 1994, when he took over the kitchen at Philadelphia’s City Tavern, a
recreated Colonial-era bar and restaurant commissioned by Congress to
authentically reproduce the food and tavern experience of revolutionary
America. That focus has defined his career ever since. Not only does Staib oversee
a kitchen that serves carefully researched renditions of 1770s-era American
cuisine (and beer -- including a recipe from George Washington himself), he’s
also the host of “A Taste of History,” an Emmy-winning, James Beard
Award-nominated television show airing on PBS that explores the Colonial
culinary world for the viewing audience. Staib talked with Food Loves Beer
about his career, the food and beer of 1770s America, and the surprising
existence of tofu in the era.
us about your earliest culinary memories and the dishes you loved to eat as a
it’s very simple, actually. I grew up in a restaurant family , so I’ve been
around beer and food and wine all my life, since I can remember, and I’ve been
drinking wine and beer ever since I can remember. We would say it was good,
wholesome family fare. It was very well-known for high-quality food and good
portions. We had a butcher on-site. We were close to the city, but you could
almost call it a country kitchen... good dishes available, with some Black
Forest influence. It was a good experience.
did you start cooking?
I worked in the restaurant (called Gasthaus zum Buckenberg, and owned by
Staib’s aunt and uncle), schlepping things up from the cellar, things like
that, and then I went off to do my apprenticeship in Europe.
was your first food job and what did it teach you?
you go to school in Europe, you get an appreciation of beer and wine –– which unfortunately,
we don’t have in this country, because we don’t have the apprenticeship system.
But back then, in the early days of my career, food was more clustered. You go
to different regions, and you learn different foods. You’ve got Germany, and
then you go to Bavaria, it’s not really like German food, and then Switzerland
is different... so it depends on the kind of food you want to produce and what
system you want to go to. Now, everything can be found inside a city.
in Europe, if you didn’t travel a lot, it was looked upon badly. If you had a
resume with one job for four years, it wouldn’t help you. You’d want to have
four jobs a year –– different for the summer, winter, fall and spring season.
It’s completely different than cooking here now... you would experience
different things, you would work with different chefs. Now, it’s different.
was your biggest culinary influence, and which chefs influence you now?
think pretty much... when I grew up, we were classically trained, and Escoffier
(Auguste Escoffier, 1846-1945, a French chef renowned for standardizing and
modernizing French cuisine) would be the biggest guy I would have looked up
to when I was a young guy starting out... so many things, he standardized
around Europe. People don’t realize how easy it is to go (working as a stranger)
into bigger kitchens, but you have a common language, because you have the
common kitchen language. You don’t even have to speak the same language of the
menus shed a lot of light on how Americans ate in the late 1700s. Can you tell
us anything about the things they drank, and specifically, the beers?
was one of the most intriguing parts... I went back and did the research and
found out George Washington, physically, brewed his own beer, and the New York Public
Library had a recipe on file, so we went up and paid for our permit and brewed
it. Jefferson had a recipe as well. Ben Franklin, while he was in France, they
made a spruce ale that he fell in love with, and Alexander Hamilton liked a
simple pale ale that was common in Philadelphia. So that’s the four beers we
have on tap. We call the menu “ales of the Revolution.” We carry one modern
beer –– Sam Adams Light –– but no modern beers are sold otherwise.
brewing company (Philadelphia-based Yards Brewing) uses a small setup in
a garage, using bottom-up fermentation, and we’ve been brewing with them for 18
years. The beers aren’t available exclusively to me, or it’d be too small an
operation, so other people are benefiting as well. And five years ago, we were
able to put them in bottles, because people were wondering why they couldn’t
take home a six-pack from the restaurant. Also, I was the first in town to do a
beer sampler. Everybody copied me. Everyone copies everything I do.
is your approach to matching food to beer?
my food demonstrations, I usually ask people to guess what kind of wine people
drank in the 18th century with their meals. They have all sorts of different
guesses, and I have to disappoint them and say, none! Ale. Ale was served. After
the meal, claret and wine and Madeira was served, but ale was the drink with
meals of the 18th century. Everyone made ale, though it wasn’t as fancy as
Thomas Jefferson’s. He brought lemon and honey in his second fermentation, and
lemon didn’t grow in this country till the 1850s... so he had to import it. He
had expensive tastes. But people would drink whatever they brewed themselves.
weren’t worried about matching beer to the taste of food. The water available
was all bad, so ale was the drink. People all drank ale –– ale, and cider, and
rum with cider, and when it gets colder, maybe the hot spiced wines and the
eggnog. All those drinks were 18th-century related. We started selling shrubs,
as well, which are vinegar-based drinks that you top with simple syrup and
beer or beers do you think deserve more attention in restaurants?
us, we try to stick with our beers. A lot of the people that come in here, they
don’t know craft beer. They look for Budweiser or Miller Life, and there’s
nothing wrong with those beers, but that’s not who we are. We just stick to our
beers, and I think by now we have it down to a science. Me, I’m a lager guy, so
I like a Stella or a Leffe (which we could actually serve, since it’s been
brewed for hundreds of years.)
would you describe your cooking style?
basically –– it’s kind of cliché, but here it works. “From the farm to the
table.” For a lot of people, it’s freezer to the table, but what we do here is
really work at that. Everything’s fresh, no canned goods except for a few
things that aren’t available. We bake everything here completely, we’re
completely self-contained. We have a produce guy, a meat guy, a cheese guy, a
fish guy... we work it like they did in the old days.
say it’s gourmet, but that’s what it is. Early 18th century, people were eating
fantastically. Lobster pie, meat pie... Martha Washington’s favorite was turkey
pot pie... but a lot of things that people cooked were cooked to a mush because
of people’s poor dental hygiene. We use a lot less salt in our dishes now,
because with refrigeration we don’t have to preserve things like they did, and
we use a lot less sugar, because people back then had a real sweet tooth, but
we try to cut back on it. But think about the city at the time. The Delaware
River was right there, and it was clean, so you had crab and fish, and the city
was only 10 blocks deep, so the forest was right there on the other side, and
they had turkey, fowl, deer... and since hunting was allowed, there was a lot
of game eaten.
there a dish or technique that intimidates people but is actually quite easy?
thing of it is, in my cookbook, I made my recipes so you can make them easily
at home, and you don’t lose any of the authenticity... but frankly, it’s no
different than if you went to any continental/international restaurant, you
would find similar recipes. Cooking is a lot easier now than it was back
then... open-hearth cooking, those people had to know what they were doing.
You had to know the temperature of the oven; you had to have a lot of
strength, because those pots, empty, weighed 30-40 pounds. But they made it
happen. They had a huge staff, and they never let the fire stop. Now, it’s 10
times easier to cook. The biggest challenge for me is to make sure the recipes
don’t change, because we’ve been around for so long now that people expect the
same thing every time they come in, 365 days a year.
is your favorite thing to cook for the pure joy of it?
is difficult. Favorite favorite? The ultimate favorite thing to cook? I
do a lot of Caribbean cooking, so it doesn’t count... a lot of West Indian and
Asian cooking, so it’s very difficult to say. I’d say anything marinated or
braised... ale-braised sausage is one of my favorite things. I’d say any 18th-
century recipe, I really enjoy.
the ultimate meal, with beer pairings, at City Tavern.
dish that people go crazy over... it’s not my own personal choice, but the duck
with mango chutney is fantastic. Also, the lobster pie, I’d say is unique,
because it’s got lobster and scallops, and it’s a dish that was served at all the
fancier places in the 18th century. There’s such a nice variety on the menu,
though. But lots of people go with the pepper pot soup, the lobster pie, or the
duck. The Jefferson Ale, I would recommend with the duck, and it really pairs
extremely well. It pairs extremely well with any seafood, too.
HONEY-GLAZED ROASTED DUCKLING
Try Chef Walter Staib’s Americana-inspired duckling recipe.
HAVE A SEAT AT OUR TABLE
FOOD LOVES BEER is a free email magazine featuring the latest, greatest, tastiest and coolest stuff for food and beer enthusiasts like you. Be our guest. Get on the list!