Wiener Schnitzel, an Austrian Family Favorite with Dietmar Kohler
Butter and goose fat spooned generously into the hot pan rapidly transforms from clear shiny gloss to a frothy sizzling foam, Dietmar Kohler gently places in two breaded cutlets and begins frying.
With focused dexterity, he uses a simple salad fork serving as his guide while maneuvering the pan, tilting the cutlets up the sides gently ‘bathing’ the tops, until the outer crust evenly bubbles up to a crisp, golden browned color, the first batch of his signature dish, Wiener Schnitzel.
The national dish of his Austrian homeland and Dietmar’s favorite family recipe since his childhood, Wiener Schnitzel consists of thinly pounded veal cutlets dipped in flour, eggs, and parsleyed bread crumbs then generously ‘bathed’ in clarified butter or schmaltz. As a child growing up in Salzburg during World War II, a time when prime meats were pricey and limited, Wiener Schnitzel was only served at the family table on the most special of occasions throughout the year.
Dietmar’s first exposure to the United States those many years ago now, was through the American soldiers that lived in his apartment building. “Everything about them seemed so large,” he said. “I always had a big imagination and envisioned this (America) as a country where everything was big, big fancy cars, Hollywood glitz, golden highways, and money rolling down the streets.”
Even with an imagination and big dreams, Dietmar could never have envisioned the twist of fate through a closely held family secret of his father’s that would someday alter the future of his life in America.
During the time of the occupation, daily homemade food prepared by Dietmar’s mother comprised of hearty, rustic dishes, some ingredients were in limited supply during wartime. Common dishes shared at the Kohler family table included stuffed cabbages, polenta, or goulash, foods which Kohler now admits that as a child he had always assumed were all native dishes of Austria. “We lived in the section called Maxglan, and our local cuisine also included a variety of dumplings made with bread, potatoes filled with ground beef or pork, farina dough which is similar to a matzo ball cooked in beef bouillon and served as a soup, pork chops and sauerkraut, and of course, there were always lots of different types of sausages.”
At the time, blue collar trades were most common among the people of Salzburg, including the section where the Kohler’s resided and workers with specialty trades were especially needed surrounding war and toward rebuilding the country of Austria once peace had been restored. Following the required 8th grade- plus, of formal education, Dietmar Kohler, as most of the other young men of his stature, began an internship. Dietmar took on work as a coppersmith. Daily working up a big appetite Dietmar chuckles out loud sharing “I ate a lot, a whole lot of liverwurst in those days!”
Years went on, Dietmar continuing in his trade, developing his craft. Dietmar’s father, a captured prisoner of war in Siberia for ten years had long since returned home a broken man in every way. Still, Dietmar continued with his own dreams and ongoing reflections particularly as he daily inspected his own hardened, work-roughened hands.
One day while kicking a soccer ball along the street in the town center a stranger appeared to Dietmar. Fate began to unravel. The man presented a photograph to Dietmar inquiring about a specific man, the man was Dietmar’s father. “People were very circumspect (suspicious) in those days so I told him to wait in the square and ran home to find my father who couldn’t imagine an older man that might be looking for him.” Dietmar said.
The man had once before searched unsuccessfully for the elder Mr. Kohler not knowing his capture had him sent to Siberia during the war, for ten toiling, suffering, long years before being returned to his Austrian homeland.
A former judge in Stuttgart, Germany, the man had again resumed his search inquiring to find his whereabouts. The man came to express his gratitude, to repay a life debt to Mr. Kohler who even at great risk had saved the life of his Jewish friend those many years before, assisting his escape from Germany, and passage to the United States.
Following the death of Dietmar’s father, his son’s future was put in the hands of this man who brought Dietmar to the United States and became his foster father. The life debt had come full circle through Dietmar, the son of a true friend. “It was Fait Accompli,” Dietmar says tenderly.
The streets weren’t paved with gold, nor was money rolling down the streets, but within the dish, a new recipe had been written for Dietmar Kohler, once an unknown dream only in his imagination the thread of the new fate led to a good education, a beautiful wife and family, a solid career, good friends, and a gift of his favorite dish from the Austrian homeland, being able to prepare Wiener Schnitzel any time he wished.
A big thanks to Jen Foreman and Kevin Burke of Blue Bell’s Finest Magazine for the introduction to Dietmar through his wife, Elpida!