Chef Manfred Zettle with a bowl of his famous French Onion Soup.
photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
April 11, 2012Even decades after its disappearance from local menus, his French Onion Soup remains a gastronomic benchmark. The consistency of chowder, loaded with onions, and with Swiss cheese so thickly melted atop the nearly bowl-size crouton, it practically needed to be cut with a knife. This was the soup St. Louisans revered.
Have a bowl of French Onion Soup today, and someone will likely proclaim: "Not as good as Famous-Barr's."
Chef Manfred Zettl's own French Onion Soup was served at Famous-Barr only from the mid-1960s to the mid-'70s.
So why do we still remember it?
"Because it was the best," said vigorous, ever-food-adoring Zettl, an Austrian native and Central West End resident.
A self-described "70 years young," Zettl has been cozily ensconced for 21 years in one of four condo units. He shares the space with such memorabilia as a photo of his 105-year-old great-grandfather and boxes containing 5,000 slides documenting his lifetime travels.
Zettl bought one of the units and then, when the others became available, the remaining three. One of his four children, Peter, and Peter's wife, Stephanie, live next door and run a photo studio in back. Divorced, Zettl has four grandchildren, one in Columbia, Mo., and three in Springfield, Mo.
Always adept with finances, the elder Zettl confides he was a 7-year-old in Salzburg, Austria, able intuitively not only to fix a neighbor's short-circuited appliance, but also to ask: "Where's my money?"
If no money was offered, Zettl would say, "Well, next time you can find somebody else." If the amount given was too meager, he'd inform the customer, "That's not enough."
"I always had money," Zettl said. "I was very frugal."
Very hungry, too. His dad, an electrical engineer for a radio station in Salzburg, lost his job when Hitler incorporated Austria into the Third Reich.
"Because my father was Jewish on his mother's side, I thought the Nazis were going to kill him," Zettl said.
From the American soldiers who came to Austria during World War II, Zettl remembers receiving a ladle of soup and also some bread. Many times, that was the only thing he had to eat.
When young Manfred contracted tuberculosis at age 8, an American major, with whom Zettl long stayed in touch, got him to a hospital.
While European sons traditionally took up the professions of their fathers, young Zettl left home at age 14 after completing eight years of education. Hunger and a wish to eventually settle in America drove his career choice.
Though the youngest of his classmates, he enrolled at the Austrian Hotel School where he spent three years learning to cook, and to speak English and French. Graduating at the top of his class, he joined the cooking staff of the famed Hotel Goldener Hirsch in Salzburg, whose patrons included stars Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.
"I was cooking for them, talking with them. It was fabulous," Zettl said.
This same zest for life and cuisine led him to work three years aboard Holland American cruise ships, where 600-gallon kettles and orders for 2,000 lobsters were commonplace.
Once he had saved enough money, he bought his own ticket and traveled as a Holland American passenger to New York. "I always had pride," he said.
Making contact with the father-in-law of his friend, the American major who saved his life, Zettl settled eventually in St. Louis, where he worked for Marilyn and Jack Chapnick at Schober's, a German-themed restaurant. There, he introduced his own versions of family dinners, apple strudel and onion soup. As his mother did in Salzburg when wartime food provisions were scant, he thickened the soup with flour.
Thanks to his input, Schober's sales doubled from $1,500 to $3,000 weekly. Soon he was hired by Morton D. (Buster) May, whose merchandising-minded grandfather had started Famous-Barr and what became its parent company, May Department Stores.
Like a steamroller, Zettl revamped Famous-Barr's kitchen. To the French Onion Soup that became the stores' signature dish, he added not only a bit of flour, but as many ounces of peeled and sliced onions as there were ounces of beef stock. He bought Swiss cheese ends from Kraft Foods, pieces too small for slicing but filled with flavor.
His soup, closer in consistency to the thick chowders Zettl Americans relish than to the thinner onion soups typically served in France, was an immediate hit. So were the French breads, cheeses, wines and made-on-site French pastries Zettl introduced.
At Famous-Barr's Clayton store alone, food-product sales skyrocketed from $400,000 to $1 million annually. As always, he was having "a fabulous time." But with company leadership changing and new bosses anxious to increase food sophistication – and decrease portion sizes, Zettl said he saw – the writing on the wall.
He left Famous-Barr and formed Slimmery International and the Slimmery, Trimmery, Thinnery Corp. He joined forces with Sandy and Joe Folender, owners of the Weight Watchers franchise in Missouri. Zettl's mission was to produce what he considers some of the tastiest and healthiest low-cal treats and foods available commercially. His Skinny Dip ice-cream bar, dipped in a thin layer of fine chocolate and served on a stick, had just 99 calories. In 16 years, Zettl had nearly seven dozen products, 32 franchise owners and nine lawyers.
"When you franchise, if they do well, they sue you to get out of the contract. If they don't do well, they sue you because you didn't do enough," Zettle said.
Spending more time in the courtroom than in the kitchen, he shuttered the business. His last full-time career was working 10 years at the Saint Louis Woman's Club in the Central West End. In 1995 the facility was named Best Private Club in the U.S., receiving a coveted Five Diamond Award from the American Academy of Restaurants and Hospitality Science.
He left the club in 1999, then spent 10 years traveling back and forth to Salzburg doing his best to brighten his mother's last decade. His mother and sister both suffered complications of diabetes. His father had already died.
Though retired for 12 years, Zettl still cooks daily for family, friends and also because it's a guaranteed mood booster. "If I ever feel a little down, I cook myself something. That makes me happy," Zettl said.
At 5-foot-11, he exercises three times weekly at a gym, limits his sugar, salt and fats, and weighs just 188 pounds, down from his previous norm of 205 to 215 pounds. He also spends part of each year in his native Austria, where he has ridden his bicycle on thousands of miles of designated trails.
"Not only that, but everywhere there's these little inns. You have a cup of soup, a little dumpling, whatever. Then you mix the wine with seltzer so you have half and half. And then you go on your bike," Zettl said.
For Zettl, the Central West End plus Austria make the perfect recipe for a fabulous life.
CHEF MANFRED ZETTL'S FRENCH ONION SOUP
8 cups onions, peeled and sliced
2 ounces olive oil
2 ounces butter
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons coarse ground black pepper (or 1 tablespoon of fine-ground black pepper). You may wish to grind your own pepper. Be sure to choose a coarse setting.
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 quarts beef stock
1 cup, optional, red or white wine
2 tablespoons Kitchen Bouquet liquid
16 slices, 1/4 inch apiece, French bread
2 cups grated Swiss cheese
Loaf of French bread as accompaniment
Peel onions, cut in half, then in half again, then in 1/8th-inch slices. In large sauce pot, heat olive oil and butter. Add and sauté onions over medium heat, until translucent. Approximately 15 to 20 minutes.
Add all seasonings except Kitchen Bouquet. Blend well. Add flour, stirring constantly. Immediately add beef stock. Add wine, optional.
Bring to a boil, check for taste. Add kitchen bouquet for color. Simmer slowly for 20 minutes, when soup is ready to serve.
Use oven-proof bowls or the traditional brown crock. Bowls should hold at least 8 ounces. Place 6 ounces of soup in bowl, top with two slices of French bread and 1/4 cup grated Swiss cheese. Place in 450-degree oven, top shelf, for 10 minutes, until cheese starts to brown and soup bubbles. Be very careful when serving. Will be very hot.
French bread, as typically sold here, is white on the inside and "way underbaked." Put loaf of store-bought French bread on rack in 350-degree oven, about 10 minutes. Bread should have "a beautiful crust," brown enough that "you can hear when you slice it."