“The Chef” tells his stories of pork schnitzel, thyme-roasted salmon, and the troubles of foster kids.
From: Country Lifestyle
Standing 6-foot, at 250 pounds, Chef Elmar Prambs wears a crisp, double-breasted chef’s shirt, black trousers and an earnest look. After all, he’s talking about food.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 15,” he says, “and I haven’t stopped. If I had it to do over again, I would do it the same.”
The executive chef of Four Seasons Hotel Austin, Prambs is known simply as, “Chef” around town. There might as well be a “The” in front, emphasis on the capital “t.” This guy knows food, and everyone around him knows that, too. He is one of the featured chefs at the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival.
But don’t misunderstand. This 49-year-old connoisseur of cooking has an unassuming way that is peppered with the word “hell” like the salt side of his neatly trimmed hair. Prambs donates time and energy in his humble manner to the Austin Children’s Shelter, wins a citywide award for his volunteerism and presents the hotel restaurant’s future dinnerware. And that’s all in one day.
The likes of grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and carrots, and fruit salad are served up every Wednesday at 5 p.m. (note the punctuality) to up to 30 kids at a secret residential area. Secret, because these kids are being protected from those who are supposed to protect them – their parents.
About the food he serves: “Those kids have been through enough. They need some stability.”
“Meals are a really important time for these kids,” says shelter Executive Director Gena VanOsselaer. “They haven’t had regular meals. They may not have even known where their next meal might come from.” For example, she says that recently, a sister, 13, and a brother, 10, were found eating condiments out of a dumpster. Kids here hoard food, even toilet paper.
There’s a crying baby in the small-children’s area when Prambs arrives one afternoon. “Somebody’s crying there,” Prambs says. “Food’s coming. See you in a minute,” as he runs back to his small SUV Honda for a second load of Wednesday night dinner. He used to hang out with the kids, but now he runs in and out. He was getting them too wired for the volunteers, he admits.
Earlier in the day, Prambs wins a special award from the Austin Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. And it’s in the works to nominate him for another award.
“I don’t do it myself,” says Prambs, to a cluster of adoring fans. “It takes a lot of people, a lot of money. It’s such a supportive cast.”
Indeed. The Four Seasons hosts the shelter’s events, and it’s a boon for the non-profit’s business, says VanOsselaer.
“We do a lot of events at Four Seasons, and people want to come because he’s there. That makes our events so much more marketable,” she says.
So what is it about The Chef that brings the diner back?
To hear him talk, it’s the pork schnitzel, with a little spaetzle (German-style pasta) and cabbage. And you’ll have a hard time finding escargot at Four Seasons’ The Café.
“If I don’t like something, it’s not on the menu,” he says. “No snails, escargot. How can I justify not liking something and having it on the menu? If I don’t want to eat it, why should I expect you to eat it?”
So what does Prambs eat? In two words: at home.
“I do a lot on the grill, maybe a nice salmon.” He loves a family meal, he says. Fresh vegetables. Simple cooking. After all, that’s what his kids – a daughter, 19, a son, 20 – like.
Once every couple of weeks, he takes the wife and daughter out (his son is at Texas A&M). Where do they go?
“Chuys. They have great margaritas. I’ve never had a bad meal there. My kids love it; my wife likes it,” he says.
But: “I wouldn’t take my wife there for an anniversary,” he notes. “It’s like driving a car. When you drive a Chevy, you don’t expect 100 percent. If you’re driving a Lexus, your expectations are totally different.”
Still, Prambs checks out the competition. He talks about recently ordering a medium steak at one restaurant that is similarly priced to The Café. It came out rare. The service wasn’t too bad. Then the bill came.
“Some chefs go to a restaurant and nit-pick. I don’t do that,” he says. But, really, bad is bad.
The Café, with a name change in the works, is overhauling the look and feel of the restaurant. That’s along with the hotel’s planned expanded spa. The rooms are already spectacular, with suites that can be had for up to $1,950. The windows overlook Town Lake or Austin, and leave you with a sense of blissful peace. Packages will be available in the summer that will cater to clients such as University of Texas prospects, with parents in tow.
In the restaurant, from some menu changes to new flatware, the Four Seasons is looking to bring in new clientele, says Public Relations Director Kerri Holden.
It’s a challenge to keep up with all the new restaurants in downtown Austin, Prambs says. Hotels fight the perception that hotel food is bland, he says. “Hopefully, we’re going to draw a different crowd,” he says of the overhaul.
So, how’s the food? Quite simply, it’s good eating.
Jesus Torres has been working next to Prambs for 15 years, and he runs through some sweet potato dough with chipotle peppers, squeezing them into inch by ½-inch rectangles. Later, they’re served, and they’re scrumptious, with a sweetness that whispers spicy. They’re alongside a key-lime pie that’s surrounded by cream, lemon and raspberry accents; a thyme-roasted fillet of salmon; and an asparagus and artichoke-hearts side.
In the back, Prambs is conducting an orchestra, calling out orders, cleaning the lips of plates and spooning out the ingredients of gumbo.
“Chef is a working chef,” says Sous – or second – Chef Bryan Beneke. “He’s right next to you all the time. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”
Earlier, Prambs has his armchair of a station where he can watch everything, as he slides a knife into marbled beef that will become Sunday brunch’s ragu, braised and served with shintake, button and crimini mushrooms.
“It keeps you sharp,” he says simply. “I learn from everybody else. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses.”