A Plea for Good, Honest Cooking

Fifth-generation chef Horst Mager urges the food industry to shed its faddish, deceptive ways

HORST MAGER would like to see a little more truth in America's food business. The food industry reflects our society at large, says the culinary celebrity of Portland: too many fads and gimmicks. A fifth-generation chef who has opened seven restaurants and a culinary institute, Mager has witnessed the flux of the food industry since the late 1950s, when he emigrated from Germany.

``With constant changes and faddishness, people get bored fast,'' says Mager in an interview at Der Rhinelander, his first restaurant, which specializes in German fare. ``We're being bombarded with all kinds of changes and information: `Eggs are good for you,' `Eggs are not good for you.' The average person is confused,'' he says with a mellow German accent.

While everyone hears about ``new'' food products and information, ``there's nothing that new in food,'' states Mager. ``We have to constantly fill a niche or create a new niche. It's not bad, but we could be more productive,'' he says.

Take the health-consciousness craze, for example. ``Eating healthier is very good,'' he says, but ``eating healthy doesn't mean faddish foods.

``In the '50s and '60s it was giant hamburgers,'' he remembers. ``Rather than huge portions of foods, eat smaller portions of food. We overspend, we overeat. ... If we just get back to moderation we won't need all those faddish things.''

Take nonfat frozen yogurt, for example, as an alternative to ice cream. ``It disturbs me to say cream is bad for you when it's been with us for thousands of years,'' he says.

A round-faced man with blue eyes, Mager is far from being a pretentious culinary king, let alone someone who might try to sell you a diet book or a dish of mystery fish. From experience, he preaches honesty as naturally as he might crack an egg or add a pinch of salt. He's straightforward and at times jovial. ``I'm going to do something marvelous with rabbit, you wait and see,'' he says on the phone to someone coordinating a special event.

Mager emigrated from Weisbaden, Germany, to the United States in 1958. After serving as gardemanger (salad chef) in several hotels, he opened up Der Rhinelander in 1963 - the first of seven restaurants he would establish over the next 20 years, including the well-known Couch Street Fish House. In the late 1970s, Mager became a television celebrity with his cooking program called Koin Kitchen, which aired for nearly 10 years. He still appears regularly on A.M. Northwest, a local TV morning show.

``He's a neat character and an excellent chef - probably the best on-TV chef personality I've ever come across,'' says Nancy Bolton, senior producer of A.M. Northwest. Ms. Bolton praises Mager as a prominent community member of Portland, citing the Oktoberfest he helped throw for nearly 10,000 people in a nearby town. Behind the scenes, Mager is teased for saying ``shicken'' instead of ``chicken,'' she reveals.

Friend and fellow chef Louis Szathmary, who ran the well-known Bakery restaurant in Chicago until his retirement last year, describes Mager as not only a ``very, very good cook,'' but also ``very real and very honest, and with great knowledge. ... His knowledge is not only in cooking, but in education. He knows how to transfer his knowledge.''

Chef Louis adds: ``It's not enough to be a good cook. He can share; he doesn't keep secrets.''

In 1984, Mager founded the Horst Mager Culinary Institute, now known as The Western Culinary Institute. (He sold his interest in the school to his partner.)

When asked about his reputation for being extra tough on his students, Mager says that in order to excel, people must be responsible and disciplined. ``One of the problems nowadays in this country is lack of discipline,'' he says.

``Lots of young chefs graduate and are talented, yet they have little depth,'' says Mager. Many are too adventurous for their own good. ``Some young chefs think that unless you have five different ingredients from five different nationalities, it isn't great,'' he says. ``I've learned lessons myself.''

Mager reads aloud the names of several dishes on the menu of an eclectic California caf'e: ``Thai shrimp and papaya salad with Asian greens,'' he recites, frowning, then raising his eyebrows. Does ``Thai shrimp'' mean that it's a special kind of shrimp, or does it mean the shrimp are from Thailand? he wonders aloud.

``We try to create dishes,'' he says, speaking of chefs in general. ``And some are good. If a chef has depth, his products come out very good. ... With good, honest food, flavors are important.'' The chef who constantly mixes different cuisines is ``kind of like the band that makes the wildest music but has no audience,'' he says.

Cooking has a lot to do with culture, continues Mager. ``I believe if a young chef wants to cook Thai food, he should study under that chef. I refuse to cook Oriental food. If I want a good Thai dinner, I go to a Thai restaurant.''

Even if you buy Thai cookbooks and shop at Asian markets, your cooking wouldn't be nearly as good unless you studied the culture and worked under a Thai chef, he maintains. Rather than try to be everything to everybody, says Mager, chefs should try to preserve cuisines and keep them a ``little bit pure.''

``We have to be very careful we don't become a big kaleidoscope,'' he warns. ``I'm not a segregationist,'' he clarifies, ``but why not retain the really pure?''

In the end, ``you've got to think more of the customer.''

This brings up the topic of marketing. ``Some is dishonest,'' says Mager matter-of-factly. ``We have too many gimmicks. The word `sale' has become meaningless.''

Take the 2-for-1 coupons that some restaurants give out, for example. ``It's just a gimmick,'' he says. Never go into a restaurant that advertises in 2-for-1 coupon books, he says. ``You're going to pay for the guy next to you. Buy one, get one free? There is no free lunch.''

He takes out some balance sheets: ``There's a 6 to 12 percent profit in the restaurant industry: For every $1, we make about 10 cents.'' To give away meals, you have to hike up the price or make the portions smaller or of lower quality. ``I fought members of the Oregon Restaurant Association'' about this, he says. ``It can't be done honestly.''

EVER on the side of honesty, Mager shakes his head when asked if there is a ``Northwest cuisine''? To say there is a Northwestern cuisine is a ``bunch of hogwash,'' he says.

``The Pacific Northwest is the greatest place to live in the US,'' he says, mentioning the region's blueberries, hazelnuts, and seafood. ``But we don't have a `Northwestern cuisine.' People are creating something that's not there,'' he says. In his opinion, regional cuisine in America divides into Cajun, Southern (soul food), maybe Southwestern (with its Mexican influences), and New England (which has been around for hundreds of years).

After years of honest cooking and hard work, what's next for Horst Mager?

``Teaching my daughter how to run the restaurant so I can retire,'' he says with a wide grin.

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