Like any hotshot young chef working in the heart of the entertainment industry, Maple Drive’s Eric Klein knows how to make all of the lighter, brighter dishes that are demanded by his clientele.
But Klein also has a secret weapon: choucroute, the very antithesis of light and bright. A steaming mass of long-simmered sauerkraut flavored with the mingled essences of half a dozen types of sausage and smoked meats, choucroute is the archetypal centerpiece of the Sunday family meal in Klein’s native Alsace.
Perhaps surprisingly, it and other rustic dishes from that French region have become favorites at the restaurant, which serves as a kind of unofficial cafeteria for a healthy portion of the Beverly Hills music and movie industry.
Maybe it will be a slab of tarte flambee, like a tissue-thin pizza topped with a smear of softly cooked onions, creme fraiche and a little bacon. Or maybe it will be a tiny bowl of split pea soup. Or Klein’s take on pickled herring, which he makes with buttery Spanish mackerel and serves atop warm sliced potatoes (so delicious regulars have started calling it “holy mackerel”).
When the weather and his mood are right, Klein will even roll out the big gun: choucroute royale. It’s all part of his plan to make diners feel like they’re a part of the family.
“Choucroute is something I grew up with,” Klein says. “It’s something very homey. The whole family would sit around on a Sunday and have a good meal.”
But Klein also has a deeper reason for serving such elemental dishes. Choucroute, which means “sauerkraut,” “is one of the most basic things ever, one of the oldest dishes ever,” he says. “But now the old stuff is again the new stuff. It seems like every 25 years or so we go back to the basics, then we evolve again. Sometimes we lose track of real flavors, but those are the first things a chef needs to learn.”
Like so much of Alsatian cooking, the dish seems more German than French. Little wonder. The mountainous region is on the border between the two countries and has been fought over since time immemorial. The regional dialect is essentially German with some French thrown in, the great grape is Riesling and, Klein’s wife, Tori, likes to tease, pork fat is regarded as a vegetable (she knows whereof she speaks, being from Arkansas).
“Alsatian cuisine is rustic, yes, and maybe a little bit heavy when it’s not prepared right,” Eric Klein says. “But there are good simple flavors there. I want to bring those back. I want to take the traditional cuisine and evolve it, make it clean and pure.”
Klein, just 30 years old, was raised in the Alsatian equivalent of a foodie family. His dad raises cattle on a 250-acre farm his family has owned for more than 600 years in the mountains above Colmar, the heart of the Alsatian wine country. His mom is a butcher. Growing up, he learned to help her make sausages. Both of his sisters work in restaurants.
Klein started working part-time in a local restaurant when he was 13. When he graduated from high school, he got a job for a couple of years at a small family place in Bergholtz.
“It was not high gastronomy; it was casual simple food,” Klein says. “But the chef had a lot of knowledge. He had worked at great restaurants and then decided he preferred to do something simple.”
Klein worked for a short time at Schillinger, a restaurant in Colmar with two stars in the Michelin guide, then, when mandatory military service intervened, he was assigned to cook for a French general and spent much of his time at his country house, located, ironically enough, in the German Black Forest.
“Everybody loved to come to our place because we had the best food,” Klein says. “Even the drivers ate well. We had everything: lobster, foie gras, everything. I went into the service weighing 155 pounds and came out weighing 200 pounds.”
At the end of his service, he went to work at Holtzschopf Gasthaus, a restaurant in Germany that is owned by a sister of Hans Rockenwagner, a well-known Southern California chef. On a visit home, Rockenwagner persuaded Klein to give California a try.
He moved to the U.S. in 1995 and worked first for Rockenwagner and then for Wolfgang Puck, starting at Chinois on Main, then moving on to ObaChine and finally Spago. In 2002, he won a competition for the outstanding sous chef in the country.
Just this August Klein took over the kitchen at Maple Drive, his first head chef position. By October he had earned the restaurant a three-star rating from Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila.
Given that background, it’s not surprising that he has come up with a couple of twists on the traditional choucroute. One of them is to cook everything in separate stages: braising the sauerkraut in wine; cooking the potatoes; poaching the sausages. That way, all of the elements can be prepared in advance, then combined and warmed through right before serving.
This also gives him a certain flexibility that is necessary when you’re cooking for customers, rather than family. “People in Los Angeles are always asking for things to be done a little different,” he says. “Maybe they don’t want the potatoes. No problem, we’ll leave them out.
“We even have Jewish customers who come in and want to eat choucroute. Can we make it without pork? Sure, no problem. We’ll use smoked chicken or turkey breast and veal sausages.”
When cooking at home, Klein is more likely to start from scratch, being willing to sacrifice ease and flexibility in return for the enhanced flavor that comes with long, mingled cooking.
As always with good cooks, Klein knows that the most important thing is paying attention to the small details, even (and perhaps especially) with a dish that seems so simple.
With choucroute, of course, it all begins with the sauerkraut, which he says should be labeled “all natural” and “uncooked.” Check the ingredient label, Klein says. A good one will be made from cabbage, salt, water or white wine and nothing more.
He likes Kreugermann’s brand, which he buys at European Deluxe Sausage Kitchen on Olympic Boulevard (his favorite spot for sausages). Kreugermann’s is made in Los Angeles and is widely available in the area. Klein also recommends the kraut made by Moessner Farms, which sells at the Santa Monica Wednesday farmers market.
The sauerkraut should be lightly rinsed and then very well drained so it will absorb the flavors during cooking. Klein sets his in a colander and then pushes down with his hand until every bit of liquid has been squeezed out.
The wine is important too, though you don’t need to splurge on a great bottle. Klein uses a big jug of Inglenook Chablis both at home and the restaurant. “You want something that’s a little sweet and has good acidity,” he says.
To the kraut and wine, Klein adds a sachet of seasonings. In a cheesecloth bundle he ties up mounds of whole caraway and coriander seeds, cloves, peppercorns, a bay leaf, juniper berries and several sprigs of fresh thyme.
“When this gets hot in the cooking liquid, it becomes a bomb,” he says. “It just explodes with flavor.”
While the kraut is cooking, Klein gets the urge to make his mother’s apple tart, another Sunday meal regular. In no time flat, he effortlessly tosses it together and sticks it in the oven to bake.
Once the sauerkraut base has been taken care of, it’s time to think about the sausages. At a minimum there should be two: a smoked sausage and a fresh garlic sausage. When Klein makes a choucroute, he may include five or six types.
There will almost certainly be a viennoise, which he compares to a hot dog (if so, this may be the way hot dogs are in heaven; it is much less salty and more subtly spiced). He may also have a weisswurst, which is a white pork and veal sausage, and a beer sausage, a smoked pork sausage.
He also includes a fresh sausage, preferably made from pork with a good hit of garlic. Klein usually adds his own homemade blood sausage as well, an extremely elegant version spiced with nutmeg, mace and ground apple.
Rich bacon stock
Sausages must be cooked carefully so they won’t burst. Klein covers them with cold water or stock and brings them to the boil. Then he reduces the heat to a mere simmer for exactly 15 minutes. Invariably, they are cooked through but still moist and beautiful, with the skins intact.
Smoked pork chops are also good to add, as are any other smoked parts of the pig. Slab bacon is particularly wonderful, buried in the kraut and cooked until it practically melts. “My mom always uses ham hocks too,” Klein says.
Don’t be afraid of using too many meats. It’s the combination of flavors that gives a great choucroute its depth and savor. In the Alsatian tradition, any leftover meat will be used later in the week in a variety of dishes.
All kinds of variations are possible. Perhaps the most seductive one (at least to a pork lover) is using a bacon stock to cook the potatoes and the sausages. To make it, Klein covers a good chunk of slab bacon with four fingers of water, adds an onion studded with cloves and poaches them until the bacon meat is almost falling apart. When the stock is done, he skims the fat. What’s left is an extremely delicious, subtly flavored liquid that is so extracted it gels when cooled.
It is hard to think of something that wouldn’t be improved by cooking in this stock. Klein uses it to simmer potatoes for potato salad and as a base for split pea soup. He likes it so much he freezes any that’s left over. You never know when a dish might call for a hint of smoky bacon flavor.
All of these steps might seem like a lot of trouble to go through for what is essentially a simple dish, but it’s the only way to get the best possible version. And Klein says that, in turn, is the only way to get customers to try new things.
“I know there are a lot of foods people will like to eat but they just don’t know it,” he says. “There are a lot of things people think they won’t like, but when they go to France, they don’t have any trouble eating them. That’s because they’ve been done the right way.
“I’d like to bring those things back. There’s no reason you should have to travel to enjoy them."*