R.I.P., Walter Kaufmann – Fort Worth Weekly
Nobody will ever adequately praise Walter Kaufmann. It is impossible. The cinematic life of the legendary chef, restaurateur, pioneer, historian and connoisseur ended peacefully on Tuesday, September 22nd, at the age of 91. He was surrounded by loved ones.
When his wife, Glenda Kaufmann, checked him into the hospital last week, she said she was in a rush to see the doctor to see how Walter was feeling. The doctor assured her that he was comfortable and “flirting with the nurses” in the room where he slipped into this great kitchen in the sky. Walter exuded irresistible charm even on the doorstep of death.
Glenda said that in his final moments, Walter thought of the restaurant he owned for 30 years. Since his youth in Lucerne, Walter dreamed of opening a restaurant like the Old Swiss House, a restaurant that he passed on every day on the way to school. After answering an advertisement in a Swiss newspaper, Kaufmann came to America, eventually making his way to Fort Worth and working in the Colonial and Ridglea country clubs before realizing his dream in 1964.
The European-style restaurant has shaped Fort Worth’s palates for years to come. When his old Swiss home opened, there weren’t many nice restaurants for people celebrating special occasions. In the sophisticated surroundings of his restaurant, people from all walks of life indulged in exotic dishes such as fillet goulash and veal Oscar. Walter’s sociability was as indecisive as the food. The charismatic cook, who was always the showman, stepped through the dining room, greeted the guests and occasionally sat at a table with friends for a quick sip of wine. Walter was a local celebrity chef before this common convention existed today.
After his restaurant was closed in 1993, Walter withdrew for about seven minutes, until Louise Lamensdorf lured him back to the business of her namesake Bistro Louise, where he ran the dining room. I met Walter there. As a hungry waiter (and then as a student), I was drawn to Walter’s youthful energy, adaptable wit, and breadth of knowledge. He wasn’t just a washed-out mascot that attracted the nostalgic gray-haired crowd. He knew his shit. And oh my god, he had stories.
In Bistro Louise, Walter reconnected with old friends and patrons of the Swiss house. He could also reach legions of second generation fans. I can’t tell you how many times I see a variation of “The first white tablecloth restaurant I ever went to was the old Swiss house” or “My parents took me to your restaurant for my seventh birthday, and now I am I “heard. I am a cook. “These comments usually opened the door to Walter’s story time – and almost always ended with a toast. The man could work on a room.
He and I met selected other bistro staff every Monday for standing happy hour in a local cigar bar. The stories flowed like the many bottles of wine we killed each week. Walter was never more in his element than when he was surrounded by restaurant people exchanging war stories and filthy jokes. Nobody could beat his. Of course, the festivities were constantly interrupted by random fans of Walter who stopped by to kiss the ring. Although he pretended otherwise, those interactions meant the world to him. I had imagined hanging out with Walter in a cigar shop mostly frequented by older Fort Worth men when I was visiting Abbey Road with John Lennon.
After nine years at Bistro Louise, Walter worked at Fresh Point Dallas, a high-end grocer. He was their ambassador as head chef, which basically gave him a free hand to check into local restaurants. His legend grew with every young chef, waiter, and prep cook he met. Through his appearance at Fresh Point – and his leadership role in various cooking and restaurant associations – Walter’s legacy shifted from culinary icon to mentor. There was nothing insincere about his interactions in restaurants. He took care of the busboys and dishwashers as well as the cooks and owners.
Walter and I stayed in contact over the years, occasionally going to lunch or drinking a glass of wine at happy hour, against the orders of his doctor, of course. As a journalist, I wrote a few stories about him – not because I wanted to keep his legend alive, but because he just kept doing meaningful, current things.
Over the last decade of his life, Walter set out to preserve the history of Fort Worth dining by founding the Culinary Library of Texas, an extensive collection of restaurant menus and cookbooks by local authors housed in the Tarrant Area Food Bank. It’s one of roughly half a dozen charitable activities he’s been associated with. He has received too many awards to list, but I know he was very proud to have the Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award named after him. He was also the first recipient of the award in 2015.
There is no question that our current restaurant scene would not have flourished without Walter’s influence. Restaurant people in this town have a sense of camaraderie and support for one another like I’ve never seen before. I think this is Walter’s greatest legacy. It wasn’t enough for him to be a great cook, restaurateur, manager and ambassador. He formed a community and kept the door open for those behind him.