"German food is a really interesting perspective that is sort of knitted underneath American culture," says Tim Wiechmann, the chef and owner of Bronywn, a German restaurant in Somerville, Massachusetts that has earned national praise since opening last year. Then he adds the kicker: "But it’s not really prominent. And it’s not organized."
Yes. German food in America is not prominent, nor is there any movement afoot, the way there is with Korean or Vietnamese or Israeli cuisine. This German-American chef is out to change that with Bronywn, which takes the usual cues from German cuisine — the pretzels, the beer, the sausages — and adds culinary flourishes and of-the-moment touches like a German and Baltic wine list, handmade mustards and more. If the glowing reviews and Weichmann's enthusiasm are to be believed, we've found the portal to German food becoming a template for exciting cooking in America.
Here, Wiechmann tells us how he came to start Bronwyn, and where he's going with it.
How did you come to love German cuisine?
Well, both my parents are German. I grew up in the United States, mostly, and in Europe, and I just loved sausage. I started cooking sausage when I was little, and then I started making it a lot. I ended up learning how to cook in France, and then I opened a French restaurant. But then kind of halfway through, I realized I wanted to explore something that was kind of part of my past — but get me into the future. And the German food is a really interesting perspective that is sort of knitted underneath American culture. But it’s not really prominent. And it’s not organized.
Yeah, why is that?
I don’t know (laughs). I don’t know, and I talk to people about it a lot. And certainly on the East and West coasts, there’s not as many Germans as there is through the central belt. But I don’t know whether people didn’t cook it right, or it became stodgy or because of World War II. I mean, I have no idea. But that’s essentially why I saw the opportunity to create something that was fun and different.
How does it go over in Somerville, in Boston?
Well the restaurant is extremely well-received. And German beer, that’s easy to sell. That’s like trying to sell a German car: You don’t have to convince anybody that it’s good. And then, we just created a really fun environment which is not German, not American, but it’s me — it’s half-half. I’m able to reach what’s going on in the U.S., and particularly here. We have a hamburger, we have a hot dog! Those things – it’s hard to retire those things because you know like the hamburger was [created by a] German guy in Connecticut, and the hot dog is from Oscar Meyer, [who created] all that German food that ended up as part of our culture. So we have that in our culture. But it’s fun to put a little spin on it, put sauerkraut on it. Make sauerbraten chili. Not limit myself to what grandmother Germans cooked.
What are some of the kind of standout German dishes that have become fixtures on the Bronwyn menu?
Schnitzel and spaetzle — those are two big, big sellers. Everybody loves schnitzel and spaetzle. And our schnitzel is different. It’s not pushed through a whole pan. It’s a more traditional mountain cut of a large, hand-cut noodle. [Check out Bronywn’s Schnitzel and Biscuits With Bratwurst Gravy Recipe.] And the other big one is handmade sausage. Fresh sausage. Not charcuterie. I really wanted to create sausages that essentially come straight through the back door. We do all the butchery. That’s a big part of our restaurant.
Do you make your own bratwurst?
We make bratwurst, yeah. We make classic German sausages and then we also take them as springboards. People like spicy sausages and there’s no spicy sausage [in German cuisine], but we do it with spicy Bierwurst. It’s a German sausage but it’s not German anymore.
Who is the audience for your restaurant? Are you getting a lot of people of German heritage, or are they just regular diners, looking to change up what they’re eating?
People from the age of 20 to 35.
Do you think the main draw is for people who have German heritage, who grew up eating German food?
A lot of people I talk to have an aunt or a grandmother that used to make one thing that they loved, like the potato salad. It’s a potato salad, it doesn’t have mayonnaise, it just has bacon and mustard and onions. And people are like oh, my grandmother used to make that. Or schmaltz. Which is pork fat. And people are like oh yeah, I’ve had schmaltz. It brings some nostalgia. And also there’s a novelty effect, that there’s no other place to get it.
Yeah I mean, in New York for instance, I’m in the middle of Manhattan, and I’m trying to find a good German restaurant to go to and it’s actually very difficult.
You have a good Austrian chef there, I know that.
Yeah, but I’m trying to keep it German — because Kurt Gutenbrunner is Austrian, and he did cook in Munich, but a lot of his dishes are very tied to his Austrian heritage.
If you could capture one thing about me and the restaurant, it’s that: a lot of German restaurants, all the women are dressed up in dirndls. And they don’t have the ability to stray from their own nationality. Because I’m American, and I cooked French, and I worked in a Cuban restaurant, [so my] German restaurant has an edge that makes it totally different. And it’s not a hundred percent German. We have pierogies, and we have habanero pot cheese. My wife grew up on pot cheese, and I was like, well, why don’t we make it spicy, ’cause everyone likes spicy cheese.
Hmm, tell me more about the pot cheese.
It’s a habanero pot cheese. And pot cheese is like — something that people ate a long time ago. And we do have certain Germans that come in and say, “This is not German,” and I’m like, well, you’re right. It’s not for you.
What do you think about the future of German food in America? Do you think that there’s a place for it to become a sort of platform to experiment the way you’ve done? Do you see other chefs eventually catching onto this?
Yeah. I do. I definitely do. It’s like Korean food. Or Vietnamese food. Pretty soon everyone’s gonna be serving schmaltz, or putting a spin on something and then it’ll become part of mainstream America. That is what happens here.
What do you think needs to happen first though? Do you think that some of the German stereotypes need to go away? Like the women in the dirndls, and the big mugs of beer? That’s not really what you’re doing and it’s not what you would say is contemporary German, right?
Yeah, definitely. We serve a lot of house liters of beer, because that is fine German culture. But there are also sipping beers that are not supposed to be in a liter. And there are ways that we can take sausage and not make it so heavy, and – there are salads [where] cabbage can be used in different ways: German heirloom cabbages and parsnips, and German vegetables. [People say] English food is terrible, or German food is terrible. It’s not true. You just have to find it.
When you talk about beer, are you serving standard German beers there? Or are you trying to find more obscure stuff?
We have both. My personal preference, for house beer, is Weihenstephaner. And my personal preference is breweries that have been doing things for five, six, seven hundred years. They generally perfect the one thing that they’re doing. But then we sell tons of these – you know, Germany is intelligent, and they’re brewing IPA-style beers.
You’re going so non-traditional you’re even serving brunch now, right?
Yeah, we just started. It’s a really interesting menu, because we have an American concept, but we put these interesting things on there that fit into that. All in all, it’s really fun. That’s what it is. It’s loose, and light-hearted, and casual, and not pretentious, and not trying to say this is the way things are.