In both his Manhattan fine dining restaurant and his recent cookbook, Gabriel Kreuther: The Spirit of Alsace, the chef brings together past and present, Europe and the United States. Just as he grew up on a farm in Alsace and now cooks at the top level in New York, a meal at his eponymous restaurant might begin with a supremely homey tarte flambée and progress to a modern delicate sturgeon tart served under a wineglass filled with smoke. For this story, Kreuther offers four dishes from his childhood. They have the ease of making for home cooks, underscored by the knowledge and precision of a world-class chef.
Regardless of the venue or complexity of a dish, Kreuther’s guiding ethic is that flavor comes first: “The tendency of a cook without much experience is to present plates that are pristine but lack taste. I focus on the taste first and then comes the presentation, not the other way around. Delicious food is remembered by how it tastes, not how it looks. When both combine, it’s amazing. In home cooking, when people lick their fingers, it’s not because it looks the greatest, it’s because it tastes amazing.”
From a young age, Kreuther preferred food preparation on the farm to field work. His family put up sausages and hams, baked, dried fruit and cooked farmer quantities for every meal. On top of that, some relatives, especially one uncle, were in the food business. As a teenager, he entered the apprentice system but was repulsed by the cruelty. His uncle Michel took him as an apprentice at his country inn and his formal education began. Like a French haute-cuisine version of the Karate Kid, he started out with the mundane, especially endless cleaning. In his free time, he read Escoffier and Larousse and practiced technique.
When he finished his apprenticeship, the academy informed him that he had qualified to compete as best apprentice in eastern France. Competing against apprentices who’d learned under the most decorated chefs in the region was daunting but, as the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. He went on to the national competition and won. He was an unknown, working at an obscure inn. And he was 18.
He took his first airplane trip, to Morocco, and then a job in Washington, D.C. After fulfilling military service back home, he worked around Europe cooking and butchering, then landed a job at old-school La Caravelle in New York. Soon after, fellow Alsatian transplant to New York Jean-Georges Vongerichten called, and Kreuther’s ascendancy began. He was headhunted to run the new Atelier at the Ritz-Carlton, and then Danny Meyer wooed him to open The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art. Both were hits.
The opening of Gabriel Kreuther Restaurant in 2015 gave full expression to his personal vision. Kreuther’s food is deeply rooted in Alsace. The northeastern France region borders Germany, and it shares the culture of both nations. “What is Alsatian food? I bumped my head many times on how to explain it,” he begins. “We went back and forth between Germany and France so many times, and the Hungarian Empire, so the way I explain it is we have the rusticity of the Germans and the sophistication of the French.” For him, it’s where hints of sweetness or acid counter weight and savoriness.
Spice is crucial for flourish and depth. And while the specific spices are known, every chef and charcutier keeps the quantities to themselves. “The spices are always the secret that isn’t shared,” Kreuther says. “It’s kind of like the monks at Chartreuse. Nobody knows exactly what’s in it. That’s the hallmark.”
It’s one of Kreuther’s hallmarks as well, and you’ll find his ratios and tricks in these recipes. But the theme he returns to is how the core of cooking is frugality for sustenance: “Everything has a use in cooking, in every culture. Over time we are losing that. Nobody learns to use leftovers and cook from scratch. We’ve lost how to cook efficiently without breaking the bank. And two generations have been cooking less by hand. So now there’s a huge interest in discovering the flavors of where you came from, or of places.”
The following recipes are excerpted from the new book Gabriel Kreuther: The Spirit of Alsace (published by Abrams), which includes a brief autobiography followed by sections offering fairly simple dishes from the chef’s childhood and restaurant recipes for more ambitious cooks.
Text copyright © 2021 by Gabriel Kreuther. Photography by Evan Sung.
"When you grow up on a farm you have chickens, and it takes a pristine liver to make a terrine or you get a metallic taste. And you have pigs, and if you get lucky you get bacon; if you’re not so lucky you get fatback. So I make the terrine with fatback, but you can refine it by replacing it with butter."
- 14 ounces pork fatback, very cold, even partially frozen for easy dicing
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 18 ounces chicken livers, halved and cleaned of any veins and fat
- 2 eggs, beaten
- Scant ¼ cup Port wine
- 1 to 2 tablespoons kirsch
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 30 grinds pepper, or to taste
- 20 gratings nutmeg, or to taste
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 2 fresh bay leaves, halved
1. Put the terrine mold you’re using in a roasting pan (we use a standard 1 ½-quart terrine mold), and fill the pan with water to come three-quarters of the way up the mold. Remove the terrine mold and put the roasting pan in the oven; preheat oven to 250° F.
2. Small dice the fatback. Combine half of it with the cream in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Just before it comes to a simmer, remove the pan from the heat.
3. Puree the other half of the fatback in a food processor until it’s smooth, then pass it through a tamis or sieve. In the same processor bowl (no need to clean it), puree the livers. Pass them through a tamis or sieve. Combine the liver and fatback in a mixing bowl. Mix together well with a whisk, and then add the warm cream with the poached diced fat to the liver mixture. Stir again, then add the beaten eggs, Port, kirsch, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Mix very well with a whisk and double-check the seasoning, adjusting as necessary.
4. Line the terrine mold with plastic wrap. (Try to make sure to smooth out as many of the wrinkles as possible. The best way to do this is to roll out one piece of plastic wrap on your kitchen counter, then roll out a second layer of the same size to place on top; smooth out any bubbles or wrinkles with a dry paper towel. This method reduces the static.) Add the liver mixture. Smooth it out with a small spatula. Decorate the top with the thyme and bay leaves. Cover the terrine. Place it in the water bath in the 250° F oven for 1 ¹/2 hours.
5. Remove the terrine from the water bath. When it’s cool enough to handle, refrigerate it until thoroughly chilled. It’s best if it rests for a couple of days before you unmold, slice and serve it. Leftovers can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for up to a week. Makes 10 to 15 portions
Marc Kreydenweiss La Fontaine Aux Enfants 2018
It’s Pinot Blanc from the northern part of Alsace. With the chicken liver and the pretzels, I want something bright and fresh, but this particular Pinot Blanc has a fairly yeasty note to it as well that goes really nicely with the pretzels. With the chicken liver, I key [in] on that creamy texture. —Aukai Bell, head sommelier
Wine Spectator Alternates
Marcel Deiss Alsace Complantation 2018 (91, $29)
The pretzel is such a part of the region that every year whoever is worthy of the distinction gets the bretzel d’or, or golden pretzel. It can be a politician, a CEO, a chef. So the pretzel is really a synonym of Alsace, a heritage."
For the Pretzel Dough
- ½ cup warm water
- ½ cup warm milk
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 4 teaspoons fresh yeast or 1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup butter, melted
- Fleur de sel or any large coarse salt
For the Dipping Liquid
- 1 ½ quarts water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup baking soda
For the Baking-soda Dipped Pretzels
- 1 egg yolk, mixed with 1 tablespoon milk
1. Combine the water, milk and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook. Sprinkle (or crumble) the yeast on top and mix it in. Allow the yeast to multiply, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the flour, salt and butter, and mix on low speed until well-combined. Change to medium speed and let the machine knead the dough until it is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, 8 to 10 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let it double in size, about an hour.
2. Preheat oven to 425° F.
3. Prepare the dipping liquid by combining all the ingredients and bringing them to a simmer, then turn off the heat. (Kreuther uses 2 quarts of water with 2 tablespoons food grade lye, which can burn. If you do that, wear gloves.)
4. As the dipping liquid is coming to a boil, turn the dough out onto a work surface (you should have about 30 ounces of dough). Divide it into 10 equal pieces—so 10 3-ounce pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into about a 2-foot rope.
5. For a pretzel shape, make a horseshoe shape, bottom toward you. Cross the two ends once and then twice, leaving about an inch or two of tip above the curl. Pull the tips toward you, and press down on the bottom of the “horseshoe.” Adjust the shape to your liking, and place it on a Silpat-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the other pieces.
6. Once the pretzels are made, you can freeze them; this way they are easier to handle when it comes time to dip them into the lye or baking soda solution. It also gives you the option to make extra and keep some frozen for an alternate day.
7. Using a large, flat, slotted spatula, carefully place each pretzel into the hot dipping water (15 seconds for the lye solution; 30 seconds for the baking soda solution). If they’re not fully submerged, flip them. Return them to the lined baking sheet and repeat the process for the remaining pretzels. If you are using baking soda, brush the pretzels with the egg wash for a deeper color. Sprinkle with coarse salt.
8. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until golden brown and starting to show the hallmark signs of pretzel crackling. Remove the pretzels from the oven, then use the flat spatula to transfer them from the baking sheet to a cooling rack. Let cool for about 5 minutes, then enjoy them with the dip. Makes 10 medium-size pretzels
Horseradish Mustard Dip
- Generous ¾ cup sour cream
- 3 tablespoons freshly grated horseradish, or more to taste
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- Salt and a few grinds pepper
In a medium bowl, whisk all the ingredients together and chill in the refrigerator until needed. Makes about 1 cup
The onion is really an interesting thing. It’s cheap. It can have so many layers of flavor depending on how you cook it. You can bring out the sweetness or the oniony flavor. When you steam the onions and put them in the flan, you bring out the sweetness when they bind with the eggs.
For the Dough
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon cold butter, diced
- 1/3 cup cold water
For the Filling
- 3 ½ to 4 pounds onions
- 4 ounces apple wood-smoked slab bacon, cut into thin strips
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 50 grinds pepper, or to taste
- 30 gratings nutmeg, or to taste
- 3 ounces grated gruyère (or enough to sprinkle liberally over the tart)
To make the dough
Blend together the flour, butter and salt in a mixing bowl with your fingertips, just until the mixture resembles coarse meal with some roughly pea-sized lumps. Add most of the 1/3 cup of water and mix until the dough comes together, adding more water as needed. Work the dough until it is smooth and not sticky. Wrap in plastic and let it rest in the refrigerator 30 minutes while you prepare the taste appareil, or filling.
To make the filling
1. Put about three-quarters of the onions in a steamer for 1 hour or until completely tender; you can also wrap them in foil and roast them at 350° F for the same time, or until tender. Puree them in a blender until completely smooth.
2. With the other onions, halve each one lengthwise. Take one half and put it on a cutting board. Make a slice through the middle just to the core so that it stays together and the slices are short. Slice the onion as thinly as possible, starting at the top and moving down to the core. Repeat with the remaining onions. This can be also done on a mandoline. Put the sliced onions into a bowl, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and toss to distribute the salt.
3. Preheat oven to 325° F.
4. When the dough has rested, roll it out and line an 11- or 12-inch tart pan with it. Poke holes in the bottom with a fork. Fill the tart with beans on parchment or foil, or use pie weights to hold the dough down, and blind bake it for 20 minutes.
5. Sauté the bacon in a saucepan over medium heat until cooked, lightly colored but not crispy. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the bacon pieces to cool in the pan.
6. Raise oven temperature to 375° F.
7. Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl. Whisk in the cream, milk, onion puree, sliced onion, parsley and 1 tablespoon salt. Add the pepper and nutmeg to taste.
8. Pour the onion mixture into the tart shell. Sprinkle the grated cheese over the top. Sprinkle the bacon evenly over the top (feel free to drizzle any rendered bacon fat over the tart as well) and bake the tart for about 40 minutes, until just set (it should jiggle but not appear liquidy). Allow it to cool for 15 minutes before serving warm, or allow it to cool completely to serve at room temperature. This will keep well wrapped in the fridge for several days.
Serves 6 to 8
Valentin Zusslin Riesling Pfingstberg 2004
"For the onion tart I want something more savory and mouthfilling. Zusslin Rieslings are very precise, powerful wines. The 2004 is old enough that you’re getting herbaceous qualities and also enough acid to stand up to that age."
Wine Spectator Alternates
White Wine Mousse
"It’s one of those recipes that when your grandfather is doing it, and serves it with a ladyfinger, you don’t really think of it. And then you figure out that it’s actually a great trick to do a different kind of sabayon that is so much easier to handle. People would see me making it and say, “What are you doing?” And then they kept eating it. It’s a no-brainer way to make a sabayon. Nothing is wasted. If you grow up on a farm and you open a bottle of wine, it’s to drink, not cook with. But if you have some leftover wine, you pour it in the dessert."
- 4 eggs, separated
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch or 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, sifted
- 2 cups Alsatian Muscat
- Fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or blackberries, for serving (optional)
1. Combine the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch and whip them until the mixture is pale and very fluffy, about 5 minutes.
2. Bring the wine to a simmer over high heat. Add a quarter of the wine to the egg yolk mixture while whipping it. Over medium-high heat, add the egg-wine mixture to the hot wine. Bring the mixture to a simmer, whisking, so that it thickens. Remove from the heat and allow the mixture to cool.
3. Whip the egg whites to soft peaks. Gently fold them into the egg yolk–wine mixture until they are completely incorporated.
4. Serve in cups or ramekins, with berries if using. Serves 6 to 8
Trimbach Pinot Gris SGN 2005
"When you’re talking about desserts you want something that’s at least as sweet as the dish, right? This is a simple sabayon and the 2005 is a very candied, powerful style. That late-harvest decadence plays to the creaminess of the dish. I like the Pinot Gris for the butterscotch, caramel notes it gets with age, but if you wanted more fruit you could try the Gewürztraminers."
Wine Spectator Alternates
Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé 2018 (93, $44/375ml)