Bud Kennedy

March 29, 2014

At 85, a full plate for Fort Worth chef Walter Kaufmann

The city’s culinary patriarch talks about 50 years of food and wine history leading up to a festival.

At 85, chef Walter Kaufmann is having the weekend of his dreams.

“When I came to Fort Worth, the restaurants were all steak, steak, steak,” said the Swiss-born patriarch of local fine dining.

“Now, we compare to any city. People come here for the food.”

On this premiere weekend of the fledgling Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival, Kaufmann is like a proud parent.

Years ago, the late Star-Telegram travel columnist Jerry Flemmons wrote that Fort Worth diners were devoted to all three major food groups: “barbecue, chili and fried.”

Lately, even a lifelong adventurer such as Kaufmann, for 30 years owner of the former Old Swiss House, is amazed at what’s on his plate.

“Bone marrow? And braised beef tongue?” Kaufmann said Friday before the festival’s Grand Tasting.

He laughed.

“Imagine years ago if I had gone out to a table and said, ‘Hello. Tonight for you I have some very nice braised tongue.’ ”

Happy and still busy, Kaufmann is every bit the personality he was at the Old Swiss House from 1964 to 1994, serving Dover sole and bananas Foster for generations of birthdays, prom nights and rehearsal dinners.

He came to Texas at 28 in 1956 from Lucerne, Switzerland, after a stint at the Grosvenor House in London.

“I poured a little wine once for Sir Winston Churchill,” he said. “The head waiter took his order.”

Kaufmann moved to Houston in the fall and decided right away that he didn’t want to stay for summer.

He moved to Ridglea Country Club and then to the Green family’s famous old Western Hills Hotel before opening his own restaurant at 5412 Camp Bowie Blvd., since wiped out for highway expansion.

D Magazine’s 1983 review: “You will be coddled all evening. The lamb chops and the cherries jubilee are awe-inspiring, and the veal Oscar and King Edward broil are quite good.”

That’s a far cry from the dishes served this weekend, such as Jon Bonnell’s rabbit-andouille jambalaya and Grace/Little Red Wasp chef Blaine Staniford’s bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo.

Now, chefs like Bonnell buy from nearby farmers, mills, dairies and cheesemakers.

“It never dawned on me to buy food from anybody but the food company,” Kaufmann said.

Of course, Fort Worth still has burgers.

“But our chefs have even made burgers an art,” Kaufmann said.

“And something else — 50 years ago, who would have dreamed Fort Worth would be covered with sushi?”

Back then, he said, customers were more likely to stop in after work for beer or whiskey than for a latte.

He still visits restaurants daily and planned to make all the festival events through a lunch tasting today at a downtown hotel.

“I’m going all weekend,” he said.

“I can’t wait to see what’s next.”

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