In Legacy’s “Recipe Vault” series, chefs and food lovers share how meals connect us to those we’ve lost.
UPDATE: Oct. 29, 2018—Chef Kurt Michael Friese, a friend of the Recipe Vault, died Friday, October 26. His death at 54 was a shock to his friends and family, and to the huge community of foodies in which he was a bright light. Friese always had his spoon in multiple pots, and in addition to cooking and writing about food, he had recently been elected to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and was an advocate for the underprivileged in his community. So it’s no surprise that Feed Iowa First, an organization dedicated to supporting farmers and providing fresh food to all, was at the top of the list of suggested memorial donations in his honor.
To learn more about Friese’s heart for helping others, you can read his obituary, penned by a friend. And for a glimpse at the childhood that forged him into one of the Midwest’s top chefs, continue below to read the thoughts he shared with Legacy.com for our Recipe Vault in 2016.
Born and raised in the Heartland, chef Kurt Michael Friese has been chef and owner of the Iowa City restaurant & bar Devotay for 20 years. Devotay is a community leader in sustainable cuisine as well as in supporting local farmers and food artisans. In 2006, Friese founded and still publishes Edible Iowa River Valley magazine. He’s written two books: “A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland” and “Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail” (co-authored with Kraig Kraft and Gary Nabhan).
We talked to Friese about the recipe for his father’s traditional German apfelpfannkuchen, or apple pancakes, and heard a cherished childhood story about a camping trip when making pancakes turned into an adventure.
How did you first get interested in cooking?
It goes back to very young childhood, 3 and 4 years old. My mom and my dad would put a little stool next to the stove. My earliest memory is stirring a raisin sauce for the Easter ham – so I felt like I made the stuff. Really, all I did was stir it.
Do you remember what the first thing you made all by yourself was?
I think it was probably tossed salad. I used to get a kick out of doing that when I was very small. But the first things I did where I was actually cooking were grilled cheese sandwiches, I’d imagine. It all started when I was very young.
Was it your parents who taught you to cook?
Yes. I think I might be a member of the last generation to actually learn how to cook at his mother’s apron strings.
What’s your favorite thing about cooking?
It is the single most tangible way to show our love to our friends and our family. It’s a very powerful thing. People sometimes mistake cooking for some kind of a chore, you know, something to be avoided if you can help it, like washing the outside of your windows or something, and only done grudgingly when you absolutely have to. But really, cooking is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We’re the only creature we know of that applies heat to its food.
We prepare food for our families for a very specific purpose. The old cliché, “You are what you eat,” became a cliché because it’s literally true. That means that your children are what you feed them. These days, we feed our children, far too often, the same way we feed our cars, and often the same ingredients. But the passion and love that you put into the cooking will manifest itself in the dish, and in the people who are eating it. I believe that firmly.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what brought you to cooking as a profession?
It’s not as romantic, I’m afraid. It was my first job – I lied about my age to get a job washing dishes at a pizza place. Then I worked my way up there, was a driver for a little bit until I got held up, and I didn’t like that anymore, so I went to cooking. I worked through high school with a dear friend of mine who was a great cook and always had more talent than I have.
I worked through college the same way because dad always taught me that a liberal arts education was a valid end in and of itself, so I went through college and got my liberal arts education. And then I needed a job that I could make a living at. I enjoy it enough, and there’s an exciting camaraderie in a professional kitchen that I enjoy. Sort of a hard work ethic, with no small amount of braggadocio behind it. And it’s served me well for at least three and a half decades now.
When and how did you decide to open your own restaurant?
I think it might have been when I decided I didn’t want to be in hotels anymore. Hotels, magnificent as they are, they never close. Not for Christmas, not for anything. They are always open, and they’re constantly going. Much as I like hard work, I need to be able to see my children once in a while. So, silly me, I thought that owning my own place would make that possible. Eventually, actually, it did, but at first, it was just as much work and more as the 18-hour days I’d been putting in at the hotels.
Let’s talk about a recipe that reminds you of a loved one you’ve lost. You mentioned to me that you have a recipe that reminds you of your dad. What is it?
Well, one of his favorites – he was a big breakfast guy. Being of German descent, one of his favorites was apfelpfannkuchen, which is apple pancakes. I went to a summer camp in North Carolina, where near the end of the season, we had a father-son hike, and my father came down to go with us on the hike. Just a three-day thing, fairly tame compared to most of the hikes we did there, in Pisgah National Forest. We had to go through the general safety rules and such, stuff that I’d heard a thousand times, but all the dads had to listen.
They were talking about how to pack food, safety precautions with the food because there were bears down there. So we’d put all the strong-smelling stuff in a specific kind of bag that we’d hang up, 10 feet up, 6 feet from any tree, so it was protected from the bears. But I don’t think my father heard very much of that because he was just sitting there wide-eyed at the word “bears.”
When we were out there on the first night, we discovered a wild apple tree near where we were camping, so he resolved that the next morning, for breakfast, we were going to make apple pancakes. Dad didn’t sleep that well that night, because he was peering through the plastic tarp at every little sound he heard, afraid that he heard a bear. At one point, it turned out to be just me, snoring – I’d completely turned myself upside-down in my sleeping bag, my head down where my feet go. I was snoring down there – he figured that out, and he was able to get a couple more hours of shut-eye.
Then when he got up, I was up in the apple tree trying to pick some apples, and they discovered, by the droppings and the footprints and such, that a bear had been outside that night. Perfectly harmless, didn’t bother anybody, just wandered through.
Dad’s over there fixing the pancake batter, while all of us are looking for the brown sugar and nobody could find it. Somebody came and asked me, and I climbed down out of the apple tree and dutifully went over to our tent, into my backpack, and pulled the brown sugar out. I’ve never seen his eyes get so big. And he would not let me forget about that until his dying day.
Did you make the pancakes?
Oh, yeah! They were fantastic. In cast iron that one of the camp counselors insisted on carrying with him even though it weighed an extra 10 pounds on his back. Over a campfire, with what he called scrambled bacon. It was just a cheater’s way of making it, instead of laying it all out and trying to make nice, flat rashers, he’d just put the bacon in there and stir it around until it was done.
That’s the best coffee in the world, too, campfire coffee.
Do you still make these apple pancakes regularly?
When I get a chance. I gave away my cast-iron skillet to my daughter – I need to get a new one.
Do you think of your father when you make them? Are there other special food memories you have of him?
Oh, of course. I guess the other primary breakfast thing would be the nosh he would put together on Sunday mornings. There was a bagel shop between our church in Columbus and home, and we always stopped there and got a bunch of bagels and all the fixings. Various salamis and smoked salmon and such. Then we’d get home, and mom would fix that stuff up on plates, and dad would make bloody marys, and sit on the back porch, and drink bloody marys, and read The New York Times, and eat bagels.
If someone is going to be remembering you, many years from now, for one particular recipe, what recipe do you think it will be?
Oh, it’ll be barbecue. (Laughs) It’ll probably be Lambapalooza, which is this annual event I do for my staff. It’s coming up in a couple weeks – I do a whole spit-roasted lamb.
For my kids, it would probably be the roast chicken.
Is that something you make for the family frequently, or as a special meal?
Yeah, pretty often. I rub it down the night before and stuff sprigs of thyme and garlic under the skin, then roast at a very high temperature at first, then turn it down. Breast-down. And then carve it up and serve it, usually just by itself, sometimes with mushroom cream in wintertime.
Apfelpfannkuchen aka Apple Pancakes
This recipe makes 4 large or 8 medium pancakes.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 1/4 cups milk
1 egg, separated
4 tablespoons butter
4 Granny Smith or Gala apples – cored, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch slices, and sprinkled with 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
Make the batter by sifting together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Whip the egg white to medium peak and set aside. Beat the yolk, mix with the milk, and whip this combination into the flour mixture. Do not overmix.
In a cast-iron skillet over medium heat, melt the butter until bubbly and add the apples. Sauté lightly and add the brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Cook until tender, then remove from the pan.
In the same pan, return small scoops of the apples and flatten according to the size pancakes you want, with more butter if needed. Fold the egg white into the batter and ladle batter onto the apples. Cook until large bubbles appear on the top of the cakes, then turn and cook a minute or two more, to the desired doneness.