Chef Walter Staib Is Making History Delicious
Chef Walter Staib, the winner of the Historic Hotels of America 2017 Historian of the Year Award, has been in the hospitality business since he was four years old, peeling garlic in his family’s restaurant in Germany. Through his Emmy-winning PBS show A Taste of History and his historically accurate cuisine at City Tavern, a recreation of an 18th-century building located inside Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, Chef Staib has devoted much of his career to making history accessible and delicious. We chatted with him to learn more about the open-hearth style of cooking that he demonstrates on A Taste of History, and how the farm-to-table “trend” is actually as old as our country itself.
[Note: interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Can you tell me about where the recipes for the food that you serve at City Tavern come from?
Believe it or not, it’s easier than most people think, because there were only a couple of very important books written that [everyone in] the 18th century followed. Most of my recipes have come from Hannah Glasse’s book [The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy]. She’s my main source.
When I first got involved [at City Tavern], this was 22 years ago, I researched the era. Part of her book was a dining guide, if you will, meaning she would recommend what you would serve any time of the year—January, February, March, et cetera. And what I found was that the only thing that was different, a little bit, was the adaptation here, because we had different seafood, off the Delaware, and we had a lot more spices and citrus and other ingredients that come from the West Indies straight into Philadelphia.
So, with the combination of her book and what we knew came into the harbor, and a lot of documentation from the National Park Service, which owns the historical park and the City Tavern, we were able to develop the recipes.
You must remember, the City Tavern was the ultimate place in the 18th century. When it first opened in 1773, it was kind of the final moment before the Revolution came about. Everything was plotted here: Lafayette met Washington here on August 5, 1777, shortly before the British invaded Philadelphia. In 1774, [Washington] met John Adams here; he actually lived here in the building for some time, he controlled the Continental Army out of here. And then later, when he was president, before everything moved to D.C., a lot of entertaining was taking place here.
All of the recipes we have are all researched, they are all specced out exactly, and we work exactly like the 18th century—short of, obviously, being a modern kitchen, because of the high volume.
What sparked your interest in early American cuisine?
Honestly, it came about when I got involved in this particular restaurant. I did a lot of work in historic hotels, per se, but I didn’t really have much of an idea about the 18th century until such a time came that I filled out an RFP, a Request For Proposal, to operate this place, which was 24 years ago. And as I did the research, I just could not believe the sophistication. Dining in those days was really a happening, it wasn’t just a quick in-and-out, like what happens now. It was much more of a social event. It would take hours. They would eat at 3 o’clock and maybe have, you know, three or four hours of eating, relaxed, with many different courses, many different intervals, a sweet table. So I got really involved with this project here, and then later wrote my first cookbook. Right now I’m working on my seventh book.
A television show came along nine years ago because I just needed to tell the world more about what happened. After the Revolution, I think the Americans didn’t, in my opinion, want to be second fiddle to the Europeans. Many of the chefs of the 18th century were actually trained in Europe. Thomas Jefferson, who is my personal favorite, took his chef all the way to Paris to teach him how to make crème brulee, crème caramel, sauce béarnaise. A lot of that tied right back into the same era that we do here.
What is this next cookbook that you’re working on?
It’s a companion book, and the name of the book is going to be A Taste of History. It’s giving you the recipes from the first eight seasons. So basically, if you are a fan of the show, it gives you the chance to find a recipe you might want to make at home, but all the recipes have been adapted for home cooking.
What do you want people to take away from A Taste of History when they watch it?
Oh, I tell you, you should be here to talk to all the hundreds and hundreds of people that come to what I call the "18th-century culinary mecca” here. It’s unbelievable. We have people from all walks of life, from all over the country. We have a huge audience, and it brings many people to Philadelphia, not just because of the show and me, but also to see some more of the history that Philadelphia has to offer.
I think it’s fun to see big meals being prepared with no modern equipment, no nothing. The only modern thing in the entire show is me and my knives. Everything else is exactly how it was, and the kitchen I cook in was built in 1704. Everything is the same. There’s a big fire, it’s hot like crazy. It gets people excited. It’s like a different twist on understanding history.
So just to pivot to your background a little bit—you grew up in Germany, in a family that owned a restaurant.
Correct. I’ve been in the restaurant business since I could walk, if you will. Doing odd jobs from the beginning. I was the go-to guy, “Get me that, get me that,” and then I did a formal apprentice program. I was in the kitchen from, I’m not kidding you, four years old, maybe peeling garlic and playing a little bit, and then getting more serious and more serious, and then I worked in France and Italy and Switzerland, and I came to Chicago just for one year. Most people decide to pack their bags and come to America. I just wanted to come and see what it was all about in a very fancy private club in Chicago, and I’ve been here ever since. It was never planned this way, though.
What were some important lessons about hospitality or the culinary industry that you learned in your childhood?
I tell people all the time, you have to be born to be in this business. Where I come from, especially with the background that my family has, being that we are from France and transplanted after the first World War—gastronomy was very important to us, and still is today. In the Black Forest you still find many, many three-star Michelin restaurants, you find many chefs that travel the world and come back home afterwards, which was my plan as well, except I decided to come to Chicago for a year, and I met my wife Chloe and never went back.
But, yeah. I think you learn gastronomy early on and hospitality early on, and it sticks with you, and you make it a profession.
How did it feel to be recognized by Historic Hotels of America for your work?
The award was a great honor. Definitely. After all, I’m still a chef, and always will be a chef. So it really meant a lot. By default, I think, I maybe became the authority on the [food of the] 18th century, and mainly because we did the research.
I have tremendous respect for the people in the past. George Washington’s chef was an enslaved person right here, in Philadelphia, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what they had to produce, because you have no modern conveniences.
People [today] are into farm-to-fork, fresh versus frozen, so we feed right into that. We get a lot of Californians that really love the show because I never use anything powdered. No spices are ever coming out of a jar. It doesn’t exist. And I bring vegetables back from the past that are kind of forgotten, because I don’t open a bag from the freezer. It’s even a bit challenging for me, as many shows as I have out there, it’s challenging sometimes to bring up new starches and new proteins.
But I think I’ll be retired before I run out of subject matter for the show. There’s just so much more to be covered, and so many more opportunities.