Momie Hilde is gone.....
Our restaurant godmother, Hildegarde Kalmus, passed on to the next sphere tonight at 8pm. I cannot muster any real sense of sadness: Momie had wanted to go for a long time. The great love of her life, The Chef, had passed on twenty years ago…..and none of her remaining friends, from her generation, or mine, or even my kids….could really muster up to her standards. She was alone, and lonely…and over the whole thing. Her fierce pride somehow kept her trapped in the house that had become the museum of the vast skills and knowledge that she and The Chef accumulated in a lifetime. She didn’t teach, she didn’t visit…..we were not worthy. She was absolutely right. We are not……they broke the mold two generations ago for people like Momie…..and the world will never recover. They say when an old person dies, we lose a library. Well, tonight we lost the Alexandria library all over again….
Hilde was the first woman chef in Germany. Her father owned an old castle on an island in the Elbe River in Germany that they ran as a day-trip establishment between the wars…..Boats would come out from Berlin with revelers…..Hilde trained there from the time she could walk in all aspects of hospitality. They had great food, great music…think Strauss waltzes….big ballroom…all that stuff. They had only a few rooms: for the well to do and reasonably sober, there was Heaven…nice rooms up above….For the broke and drunk, there was Hell…..a big room in the basement to sleep it off till the next boat.
She told us stories about their walk-in: a big tunnel in the rock basement. In the winter they would go down to the river and cut ice, and stack big blocks floor to ceiling in the back of the cave. By spring the tunnel would be full, and the walk-in would be really close to the kitchen. By the end of winter……well, it gives the term “walk-in” a whole new meaning. You were really walking in…..
Her parents had split up early on……Dad was the classic restaurant guy: incredible hard work…even more incredible hard play. Momie went to Berlin to live with her Mom from time to time, and Dad’s connections got her jobs at the city’s elite kitchens…..Vier Jahre Zeit (the Four Seasons). She was the ultimate salade/garde manger person. She and her Dad wound up running their day spa.
When the war broke out she was in love with a dashing Luftwaffe pilot. Oops. He lasted months. Dad’s life style took him out at the same time. Momie told me the ultimate restaurant HR move: “Micah……I needed a chef…..so I married one!” Her Chef was Werner Kalmus, certainly one of the most skilled and intelligent chefs of the last century. Together they worked in Berlin, in Sao Paolo, New York, Minnesota, and finally, Carmel. They worked as a team at the Highlands Inn in the Ramsey era, then opened with Walter Becker the famous Marquis, the San Souci, the Petite Marmite, and finally Fernand’s in Carmel Valley Village (where the Corkscrew is now).
The Chef deserves a whole other book: suffice it to say that he was drafted into the German Army, captured in Poland, and interned in Russia until 1949. Momie was bombed out, and moved into Berlin…..she kept her whole neighborhood alive. She walked miles every day into the Tiergarten for firewood….and we won’t talk about how she used her kitchen skills (Tiergarten means zoo in German). When the Russians finally came, she took her infant son up to the roof of her building as the Mongols charged the block. They murdered and raped all the old women and girls in the building but never got to the roof, where Momie stood with Gerhard….poised on the precipice, ready to toss the baby, and jump after.
When I first met Momie and The Chef, in 1976 they took me in as the idiot I was (I spoke French in the job interview…in Carmel Valley Village in 1976….never realizing they were German. Hey, everybody speaks French in kitchens, right?) The Chef was already fading…..the Russians used to break the prisoners’ knees with rifle butts to keep them from escaping: it was cheaper than wire. And the cesspool was the drinking water, so parasites took a kidney, his spleen and most of his intestines and stomach. Werner leaned on one arm on the line, and cooked his beautiful, perfect food with one hand. He was the master of prep, and would set everything up for Momie, and fade at 6pm. She would then put on her wig, greet the guests, buss, do all the dishes….oh, and cook the food. With one waiter, two on Saturdays, we would knock out 50-60 covers. There was never a hair out of place, and the food was always perfect, and she always smiled, and took care of everyone. She was Momie.
The Chef did not do well with retirement. His incapacity fascinated and frustrated him. The skin of his fingers and hands went soft like a baby’s. He tried to cut his own throat, out by the pear tree he used for his pear schnapps: he was too shaky to adequately sharpen the straight razor, and too shaky to adequately cut the right veins and arteries. I carried him into his deathbed from the car when he got out of the hospital……He weighed nothing.This is the place for Robinson Jeffers (see the next post)……..only I was too much the pussy to actually give him the release he sought.
Even in retirement, Momie was too brutal for prime time. Well, brutal and loving. She loved us, but it was clear we were disorganized, lazy, and……well, disorganized and lazy are capital crimes. One day she had all the caterers come over to do yardwork. We busted ass: digging, hauling…..sawing pine branches amongst the powerlines. When we bitched about the current running down the saw, through us and into the ladder, she scoffed. At lunchtime we had salmon and saffron soup, salad with Momie’s dressing, rouladen, and parfait Souchard au rhum in silver cups. Beer, white wine, champagne and schnapps, of course. We staggered out to the lawn and collapsed like dogs after. Momie looked at us in amazement: “We are only halfway, mensch! Let’s go!! I FIRE you!!”
We brought Momie out to The Store for brunch last winter. This was a state occasion, mensch. I hired one of the crackheads to come in at 6am and help me remop the whole place to get it to her standards. Of course, this was the day that the temperature went to 10 degrees, and the waterlines froze. No water to mop, and the place was not Momie proofed. What to do? We built a fire under the waterlines. We emptied the ice machine and boiled the ice and mopped with that. When Momie got there, we were not quite finished. She walked into the kitchen, looked into the stockpots on the stove full of melting ice: “Ach! Eis suppe. Very good. In Berlin in the war, we made STONE soup!!” As brutal as she was, she never lost her sense of humor…a true Berliner.
I hope that she found it in her heart to be a little proud of us, lazy and disorganized as we are. We are already working on the THIRD generation of kitchen people. I got the torch first, but I am already getting like The Chef….I notice how soft my fingers and hands are getting (when the shakes start, I am going for the razor EARLY!). Brendan has his own place in Prague, and is working for the kitchen gods in Spain….Ollie can hang tough now (You must vip it, Ollie! You cannot tickle ze hollandaise!)….and now the little girls at the Store: “Mensch!! You can VIPE ze plate…..but iss it CLEAN?” We repeat this mantra with every plate.
No, Momie…… but we do our best. We miss you and love you, and are so happy you are back with The Chef and your Dad.
Do I have to speak French for our next job interview? And why do I feel like you finally DID fire me?