Remembering a culinary visionary

by Derrick Knutson

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My first interaction with Klaus Mitterhauser was over the telephone.
I was sitting at my desk on a late spring morning about three years ago and my phone rang. I picked it up, and on the other end was a man I could tell right away wasn’t a Minnesota native. He had an accent that I placed as German (Klaus was actually from Austria). Right away, he began telling me of his “amazing friend” who had escaped an oppressive communist regime in Romania by swimming across the Danube River and into the former Yugoslavia. He told me his friend settled in the North Branch area, where he practices a unique artistic craft with walnuts; Klaus noted his friend also had a plethora of rock gardens on his property that he had spent countless hours building.
I figured his friend, Albert Tanko, sounded like an interesting gentleman to profile for a feature story, so I accepted Klaus’ story pitch and interviewed Albert. Klaus was right; Albert had an amazing story. Over the course of the past three years, I ended up doing a trio of stories about Albert — one about his journey to America and his unique walnut artwork, one about the 200 or so rock gardens he’s built on his property and one that detailed how the rock gardens were constructed and how well they work to grow a myriad of produce.
I also met Klaus a few times, and through Albert I found out Klaus was a world-renowned chef whose abilities had taken him all over the world. I wanted to do a story on him, but his response was, “I’ve had tons of stories done on me; I’ve written books and articles — let’s do another story about Albert.”
So we gathered at Albert’s house on a late summer evening a few months after I had met Klaus and Albert. I told Klaus I wanted to hear his story, but we could incorporate Albert into the article as well. All he was really interested in was gaining more exposure for his friend. Klaus told me his life story, much of which is recounted in the feature story I wrote for this week’s paper, so I’m not going to rehash it here.
Instead, I’ll offer two memories I have of him, the first being of that evening at Albert’s house.
Albert grew black currants in his gardens, which are kind of like blueberries, but they’re more tart and higher in antioxidants. Klaus used these berries to create a dessert he called a black currant schaum torte.
In the first story I wrote about Klaus, I attempted to come up with a way to describe the dessert. Here’s what I settled on: “Taking a bite of Klaus Mitterhauser’s Viennese black currant schaum torte is an adventure for the palate. First, there’s a sweet layer of meringue topping, followed by a tart middle of black currants, with a finishing layer of dense cookie dough crust. The flavors intermingle in perfect harmony, creating a dessert that’s a memorable culinary experience.”
I’d never eaten anything like that before. Everything was made from scratch, and it was evident Klaus thoroughly enjoyed having me, Albert and other guests at Albert’s home that night eating his creation. Sharing good food with people brings them together, and I think Klaus knew that far better than most.
The second time Klaus made food for me was at his North Branch home. I had come there to check out a rock garden Albert had built for him. Klaus made salad with a homemade dressing and venison shish kabobs that he had marinated in a blend of spices and red wine.
Klaus asked me how I’d like my kabob grilled, and I told him medium rare would be good. He grilled it to perfection, in my opinion; the meat wasn’t tough at all.
Albert, Klaus, a guy who was doing work on Klaus’ home and I sat out on Klaus’ patio and ate lunch in the sunshine. Curious, I asked who had shot the deer that we were eating. Klaus and Albert looked at each other briefly before Klaus said, “Nobody.” Albert explained that the deer had been hit by a car in front of his home and had died instantly. Not wanting good venison to go to waste, he told Klaus about it and he came over to Albert’s house to help him butcher the animal.
I remember thinking to myself, “So … I’m technically eating road kill.” But then I thought about the taste. It struck me that the meat wasn’t bruised, and it was flavorful and tender. Klaus knew was he was doing. I finished my kabob, and he sent me home with another.
I shared it with my wife after she got home from work, without telling her initially where the meat came from. But she had the same question I did: “Who shot the deer?” she asked.
I gave her the same answer Klaus gave me: “Nobody.”
Her chewing slowed.
“I’m eating road kill?” she asked.
I explained to her that, yes, she technically was, but I told her Klaus was a retired chef and an expert at butchering meat, so it was really no different than eating a deer someone had shot.
She didn’t buy my argument, though; I finished her kabob. I still laugh to myself when I think back about that afternoon. I haven’t eaten other road kill since then, but I doubt anybody could prepare it as well as Klaus.
I’m glad I got to know Klaus before he died, and I’ve been able to learn more about the extraordinary life he lived since his passing. Like all of us, he had his faults and regrets, but I think Albert encompassed who Klaus Mitterhauser was when he told me, “He had a very good heart.”

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