Meet the Chefs: Dirk Schalle & Elizabeth Seckel of Gunk Haus
You might find yourself asking…are we in the Hudson Valley of Upstate NY or Bavaria, South East of Germany? When you drive the pastoral road to arrive at the Gunk Haus, a modern German Gastropub with spectacular mountain views, you’d swear it was the latter.
Chef Elizabeth Steckel and her husband Dirk Schalle, who manages all things front of house, chose the spot for their warm and welcoming restaurant 12 years ago specifically for the location and views – an homage to their familial German roots. Tucked away in the tiny hamlet of Clintondale in Ulster County, the Gunk Haus features locally-sourced German fare, a cozy atmosphere indoors and a large outdoor dining area and bier garden (did we mention the views?) during the warmer months. The rustic, old-world charm and inviting community vibe make you want to linger and sample everything on the menu, and the wine list, maybe more than once, especially with their friendly, gracious service and knowledgeable staff. Despite our delighted bellies full of comfort food, we found it entirely too difficult to leave without bringing home several delicious, homemade Bavarian pretzels and sweets from their in-house bakery–a little nook too tempting to bypass as you make your way to the dining room upon arrival.
We managed to catch up with a very busy Chef Liz to find out more about her journey to becoming a restaurateur and creative entrepreneur.
INSIDE+OUT: Tell us about yourself: Where were you born; how did you wind up in the Hudson Valley?
Chef Elizabeth: My husband is from Germany, as were my grandparents, so once we made the decision that we wanted to be restaurateurs, it was a foregone conclusion we would open a German restaurant. In Germany, restaurants have always been local and seasonal, (as you’ll find in much of Europe). That ethos fits perfectly with the style of the restaurant we wanted. And of course, the location and the view here, which we were so lucky to find, remind us every day of Bavaria. That was the real draw of the Hudson Valley for us. We also knew we wanted a neighborhood restaurant, very much in the Bavarian tradition of a Gasthaus, (what the French call a bistro). A Gasthaus really caters to regulars; they even have a special table set aside for regulars called the “stammtisch.”
What inspired you to become a chef? What was your journey?
I started working in restaurant kitchens when I was 16, still in high school. The money was good and I enjoyed the life so I didn’t pursue college until I was 25. I worked my way through school, still in restaurant kitchens, but by my senior year, I couldn’t wait to graduate and get out. I dreamt of being an office Betty: I wanted an office with a door that closed. I wanted email (which was relatively new, and really only businesses had at that time); I wanted a regular lunch hour, and nights and weekends off. I even wanted an office wardrobe. Or at least I thought I wanted those things. After graduation, I landed my dream job and went through the motions. I thought it would make me happy. It took ten years for me to realize office life wasn’t the right fit for me. I missed restaurant life. It’s taken me another fifteen years to really understand why.
What I love about being a chef is its focus on the Here and Now, it’s imperative to be present–in the moment. To that end, one of the best changes I’ve seen in the industry is a renewed focus on local and seasonal ingredients and cooking from scratch. Reheating pre-made food that’s come out of a box doesn’t just deny a chef the opportunity to be creative, it works against our temperament. We want to try something new every day, and to learn the process and craft of how things are made and how to make them better.
What was the best meal you’ve ever had and who made it?
My husband cooked naked for me on our first Valentine’s Day.
Can’t beat that! Your answer is a good segue to our next question: what makes a Chef tick? Is it the final result or the adventure of getting there?
Chefs are very process-oriented. You may think just the opposite would be true, that all we care about is the end result, that final plate. However, every successful restaurant knows the importance of consistency; a customer needs to be able to rely on getting the same dish they loved the last time they dined. A results-oriented chef would start to feel pretty thwarted by all that repetition. However, by focusing on the process and being in the moment you get into a groove, you hone your swing as my golf-loving stepfather used to say. You also get a runner’s high when everything is hitting just right. Hitting that chef’s high on a busy night is one huge thrill.
What is your favorite thing to eat/cook when you’re home alone or with your family?
We live above the restaurant, the restaurant kitchen is our home kitchen, so we just scrounge around and make kitchen-sink meals on our day off (or get sushi).
Times have changed in this profession. How has that impacted your style and company’s “culture?”
All chefs love accolades. But one of my younger chefs told me what she really finds rewarding is having a deep understanding of the role she plays in the success of the restaurant, and seeing how her contributions matter. I know everyone loves Anthony Bourdin, but he did a bit of a disservice to the industry. His descriptions of “rum, buggery, and the lash” made for great reading, very “Hollywood-esqe”. But it isn’t real and his imagery has done real harm to the industry. it affected our ability to recruit new chefs, particularly female chefs, and has warped the media’s idea of what makes a real chef and who is deserving of accolades. Fortunately, bro-culture does not prevail in every kitchen.
How do you inspire your staff?
Chefs are basically restless creatives. Recognizing what is the true spirit and temperament of a chef has allowed us to build a team of like-minded individuals. Everyone in our kitchen is welcome to pitch a new dish, to experiment with a new technique, to follow the germ of an idea down a rabbit hole, or to play with new and unusual ingredients. Every time we experiment the whole team gathers around to see what’s going on. We convene a sort of focus group to debate what we like and don’t like, and how can we make it better. I truly love to collaborate. I have never created a dish that wasn’t made better by getting the opinion of everyone in the kitchen. Bouncing wild and crazy ideas off each other is how we usually start the process of creating new plates.
What impact does your business have on your community?
Over the past 12 years, we’ve heard from many neighbors how much they appreciate that we have rehabbed this old building with their interests in mind, and not to create a tourist mecca for outsiders. It’s also been fun sharing modern German cuisine with this old Italian-American community. I was once told never to argue with someone over the way their Grandma made a dish, “don’t argue with memories of Grandma’s cooking.” That’s been a challenge at times. Germans have not preserved their food culture in amber; they’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what German cuisine means, including the influences of all the immigrants they’ve taken in for more than half a century. We try to incorporate those influences too because that’s a real presentation of German cuisine today. And also because it just doesn’t suit our temperament as chefs to be cooking the same way our grandparents did. As I said, chefs are restless creatives.
The restaurant industry has seen much change and disruption with Covid. How are you adapting?
Life is really just a series of experiments; you wake up and realize there’s something new you have to do today. It might be something trivial or it might not. I always tell myself it’s okay if it doesn’t work out, I’ll move on to the next thing, or as I told myself when I contemplated leaving my nicely compensated corporate job, I could always go back to publishing if the restaurant thing didn’t work out. And that’s how I ended up making a huge life change. I always tell my staff that no experiment is a failure; as long as an experiment ends with some kind of result you have something you can learn from. And we’re still learning every day how to get better at what we do.
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Read all of Inside+Out’s MEET THE CHEF SERIES
Chef Jesse Frederick | Butterfield Restaurant at Hasbrouck House | Stone Ridge NY
Chef Corwin Kave | Deer Mountain Inn | Tannerville NY
Chef Isaias Lira | Lis Bar | Kingston NY
Chef Alex Napolitano | Prospect at Scribners | Hunter NY
Chef Clare Hussain | Runa | New Paltz NY
Chef Christoper Weathered | Mill & Main | Kerhonkson NY
Chef Elizabeth Steckel and Dirk Schalle | The Gunk Haus | Highland NY