Interview: Christine Berl, Viennese Pastry Chef and Cookbook Author
The Baking and Dessert category is one of Cookbook Village's most popular categories with our customers. We are excited for you to read our interview with Pastry Chef Christine Berl, author of 'The Classic Art of Viennese Pastry.' We knew she would be the perfect subject for our interview series on chefs and cookbook collectors and were fortunate to catch Berl just prior to the release of her second cookbook, 'The Home Baker’s Classic Art of Viennese Pastry.' Berl's unique talent as a Viennese pastry chef brought her all the way from New York to Austria and Tuscany. On that journey she shared her fine strudels and other pastries with some of the world's most acclaimed culinary schools and restaurants, including the Café des Artistes in Manhattan. Berl's talent extends far beyond her cookbooks. Read on to find out why. ...
Tell us about the cookbook(s) you have produced.
My first book, 'The Classic Art of Viennese Pastry,' provides American pastry chefs with recipes and techniques for authentic Viennese pastry. Home bakers can benefit from the training provided in the cookbook though the techniques are primarily geared toward a professional skill level. This all changes with my new cookbook, 'The Home Baker's Classic Art of Viennese Pastry.' The book takes a unique approach, emphasizing best practices in pastry baking that reflect Viennese tradition. Particular attention is given to the purity of dough production. Techniques from the past, like strudel-dough-throwing, are also revived. Recipes follow a health-conscious approach, calling for fresh fruit and nuts as a substitute for flour. Many, which are butterless and flourless, reflect the traditional way of preparing formal tortes. The nut influence comes from nearby Turkey; making Viennese pastry different from the pastry of Western Europe ... it’s that Eastern influence.
Do you specialize in a specific type of cuisine?
I only produce Viennese pastry professionally. It is my heritage. I started baking with my mother, a Viennese pastry chef, when I was four or five.
So were you born and raised in Vienna?
No, I was actually born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where my mother (who was Austrian) ran a Viennese pastry catering business. I was in Vienna many times with her, both when my grandmother was still living there and again after her death. My father refused to return there because of the Holocaust. I now live in Tuscany where I supply pastries to Italian pasticcerias of distinction in Parma and Rome. I also run the International School of Viennese Pastry.
Are you a cookbook author or chef who authors cookbooks?
Definitely the latter. I have provided Viennese pastry for The Austrian Embassy in Washington D.C., Café des Artistes, and have taught at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.
What is your favorite cookbook and why?
I like 'Notebook of Michel Bras: Desserts' a lot. He lives in a rather wild part of France, as I do in Italy, and collects unusual natural ingredients, which grow wild in the Massif-Central. I try to do the same here in Tuscany because I love natural ingredients and encourage students taking my classes to use the fruits, nuts, and chestnuts that grow here.
Which chef do you admire most and why?
I admire Giuliano Bugialli because he brought back purity to Florentine cuisine. That’s what I try to do for Viennese pastry.
Do you have any special experiences to share with our audience such as famous chefs and/or restaurants you've worked with in a professional capacity?
I met legendary chef George Lang at the Upper West Side Café des Artistes, which he owned. I was very nervous because I had brought him a rather esoteric Sour Cream Strudel (Milchrahm Strudel) to taste, that was a revival from an earlier time. Being so scared about this meeting that I didn’t even taste the strudel beforehand to make sure it was acceptable, I left the outcome up to fate. Although Chef Lang was in a different room when sampling my recipe, to keep me from interfering with his judgment, when he came out, he just said, without smiling: 'It is excellent. I am putting it on the menu.'
About Christine Berl
Christine Berl is a professional pastry chef, cookbook author, and American composer. Her roots in the arts were passed down from her parents. Berl's father, a conductor, pianist, and composer, was the longtime accompanist of legendary Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles. Her mother was a pastry chef and Viennese couturiere. Berl received intensive training as a pastry chef and composer, studying with both of her parents, until she attended the Mannes College of Music at age eighteen.
In 1995, Berl's career as a professional pastry chef was put into motion when she began discussing her mother's recipes with publishing house, Van Nostrand Rheinhold. She knew most of the recipes by heart from assisting her mother in her catering business.
Throughout the 1990s, Berl followed in her her mother's footsteps running a catering business from her Upper West Side childhood home on Broadway and 85th Street. She also catered for several Barnes & Noble bookstores, the Café Mozart near West 72nd Street, and the famed Café des Artistes. After the release of her cookbook, 'The Classic Art of Viennese Pastry,' Berl was invited to make her chocolate torte for a large reception at the Austrian Embassy in Washington DC. In that same period she also demonstrated the technique of stretching strudel dough at the Pittsburgh Culinary Institute, where she was photographed and reviewed by the Pittsburgh Star Gazette. Berl also taught classes at Peter Kump’s, New York Institute of Culinary Education, Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Massachusetts. She was also a guest chef on FoodNetwork TV. In the late 1990s in New York, Berl prepared her Vanillekipferln for the wife of a cousin of the great Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein; and in addition, a granddaughter of the Viennese philosopher, Edmund Husserl.
By the year 2000, Berl had purchased a house in Tuscany where she runs the International School of Viennese Pastry. In the years following (until very recently) Berl provided Viennese pastry for Pasticceria Torino, Pasticceria Biaggi in Parma (high end pastry shops in Northern Italy) and Dolce Roma in Rome. This spring, Berl will be teaching at the Culinary Institute of Switzerland near Montreux and Culinaria, a cooking school in Vienna. Her second book on classic Viennese pastry for the home baker will be released in early 2013.