Günter Seeger reaches for a bottle of Vittel mineral water, empties it into a shiny pan and sets it on the stove. He calmly fills the glass insert of a transparent teapot with mysterious dried yellow flower heads.
“Chamomile,” he says to me. “Look … how beautiful.”
I have never seen more perfect chamomile flowers. I have never seen anyone pouring boiling water more tenderly.
“Infuse exactly five minutes or it’s no good!” he lectures.
He will sip one cup after another, reaching for the clear golden tisane throughout the feverishness of the kitchen rush as if it were a magic elixir and he had all the time in the world.
It is 6:30 and the first customers are tipping their flutes of champagne in the orderly dining room. All day long people have toiled, prepped, vacuumed, polished, arranged flowers and performed countless exacting tasks so these customers can have an exceptional dining experience.
Günter Seeger, the chef whose eponymous establishment was named Best New Restaurant in America by Esquire magazine last year, is fanatical about detail. His relentless pursuit of perfection – whether chamomile flowers or caviar – is what has catapulted him to the pinnacle of his profession. Arguably one of the best chefs in the world, not just America, Seeger appeared on the same page as Tom Cruise among the 1999 nominees for GQ’s Men of the Year. Every night, he’s found in chef’s whites, working side by side with his staff.
Tonight, he is impeccable in his crisp chef’s whites, although he’s been at the restaurant for eight hours before the first orders reach the kitchen, setting a chain reaction in motion. Seeger’s working kitchen, visible through portholes in an elegant paneled wall, is twice as big as the dining room. It is dominated by a bright red Morice stove, the largest of its kind in the United States. Except for a tiny grill there is no open flame. There is no mad rattling of pans. The eyes of the stove are closed, and everything glides smoothly on its polished metal surface.
Everyone knows the drill. The saucier keeps his pots at the right temperature. The garde manger in charge of the cold line molds a matjes herring tartar into a flat elliptical shape. The sauté chefs operate their pans. The grill supervisor flips the lamb chops. The chef de cuisine is making tomatoes into petals. The bread baker slices homemade brioche. The pastry chef, who will be busy later in the evening, goes around tasting her colleagues’ ingredients.
Günter Seeger may decide to pitch in anywhere. He runs some firm, woodsy cèpes mushrooms through a mandoline and fans the slices on a pristine white plate. He dips his fingers in fleur de sel and sends the tiny crystals flying on a tender young squab. He squeezes three perfect dots of sauce near a gorgeous piece of loup de mer. Like a traffic dispatcher, he keeps track of what everyone is doing. When the restaurant is especially busy, he wears a Madonna-style headset to stay in touch with his line cooks. His voice, urgent and imperative, issues from loudspeakers distributed strategically in the kitchen, and he is obeyed without delay.
He is the one who puts together the pieces of the puzzle and, hunched over in concentration, finalizes the plates, setting them just so on the counter where they are snatched by the waiters and borne away on gleaming silver trays.
When customers get their plates, they will receive an offering of Günter Seeger’s art; food prepared exactly the way he envisions it. The orchestration is complex, precise, carried out unwaveringly.
Günter Seeger has been called a tyrant, a misunderstood artist, an elitist. Guess what? He doesn’t care. He just wants to deliver the best dining experience possible – on his terms.
Esquire’s reviewer, John Mariani, is convinced that Seeger, the man he calls “cool and reserved” and whose “elongated ascetic look” reminds him of an El Greco figure, has, thanks to his very fine sense of taste, done something not just for Atlanta but for the entire United States. In 1996 Seeger received a distinguished award from the James Beard Foundation, the first Atlanta chef to be so honored.
It isn’t easy to get recognition from the national foodies in New York, and yet at home Seeger has endured more than his share of criticism. He’s been accused of charging too much, compromising too little, putting too little on the plate. “Who does he think he is?” detractors ask.
What Seeger’s critics do no realize is that a chef who will schedule a Cuvée Dom Perignon dinner at $350 a head (and fill all the seats and have people begging to be put on the waiting list) isn’t interested in local standards of fine dining. A typical dinner at Seeger’s, a five-or eight-course, fixed menu with hand-picked wines, may cost between $100 and $150 per person before tax or tip, but Seeger doesn’t compare his offerings to other high-end Atlanta restaurants. His counterparts are the world’s great chefs.
“People go to Alain Ducasse maybe once in their lives,” Seeger says, referring to one of France’s finest restaurants (three stars in the Michelin guide) without a hint of false modesty. “And they never forget!”
Seeger at times has wondered whether he should leave Atlanta. After all, this is a city that has responded more to his success than to his unique culinary gifts. But he has decided to stay here and pursue his vision.
Günter Seeger isn’t a typical self-promoting star culinarian. He doesn’t court the press. He doesn’t network or hustle, and he rarely appears on television. When he is in public, he is often perceived as aloof, mostly because of his rigid body language, the way he always sits at an angle from the people he speaks with, the European distance he maintains between himself and his conversation partners. He is clearly not a fellow you want to slap on the back.
Six-foot-two, rail-thin, devoted to Prada and Versace, he looks like an artist, and conveys the aura of isolation that comes with creative territory. Among friends such as the painter Paul Chelko, who was the best man at his wedding, or with Lucy and Clay Calhoun, whose farm has been a personal retreat for more than a decade, he loves to engage in conversation. Small talk is clearly alien to his nature. He can be intimidating to his colleagues, many of whom treat him with more respect than genuine warmth.
The highest compliment Seeger pays to another human being is, “He works really hard.” He is contemptuous of people who do not push themselves to the limit, and he knows exactly which chefs leave their kitchens by 9 p.m. “We are not here to screw around,” is something he holds as a higher truth.
He is serious. I have known Günter Seeger for 13 years. I recently spent 13 hours shadowing him through a typical workday (his day is longer than that; I had to leave early). I stuck to him like glue and I saw him laugh exactly twice. Once, he chuckled in the kitchen at a joke cracked by his young staff. And when he opened his mail, sitting on a cheap garden chair at a well-organized long wooden desk in the basement of Seeger’s, he laughed out load and handed me a typewritten sheet.
The short letter was from a man from an Atlanta suburb who reported that he had dined at Seeger’s with his wife and that she had found the food exquisite but that he, being much more sensitive in matters of taste, had detected a malodorous whiff of the cooler in his food, and offered some suggestions as to how the problem could be corrected.
“Can you believe it!” Seeger said with a guttural chortle. Patrons have accused him of such crimes as having no wines under $50 (he has 70 selections below that price) and refilling his bottles of mineral water from the faucet (which is, of course, nonsense). The mineral water provokes more outrage than any other detail at Seeger’s; he doesn’t serve tap water, and customers are charged $3 a bottle for mineral water. As a tiny concession, he now lists the charge on the menu.
He has barnyard names for some of his detractors. He calls some famous female chefs “housewives,” and most anyone who displeases him is branded as a “shoemaker.” As far as anyone can tell, that word isn’t an insult in German, but to Seeger it clearly implied crass boorishness.
Paul Chelko calls Seeger “a brilliant and gifted artist immersed in his art.” Chelko thinks Seeger is humble but aware of his gifts. “He is very sensitive to space and form,” says Chelko, who compares the blank spaces on Seeger’s plate to the intervals in Isaac Stern’s music.
On the cover of the menu for his 50th birthday celebration is a picture of the future chef sitting at a wooden desk, staring straight at the camera with slightly anxious and distant dark eyes. The collar of his checkered shirt is turned neatly over a hand knit sweater. A small bouquet of primroses lies by his left elbow. In front, a carefully lettered slate with a wooden frame says, in German: MY FIRST SCHOOL DAY, 1955.
He looks like a dreamer, and his face, framed by large, expressive ears, bears an unusually serious expression. We have all pored over the childhood snapshots or the yearbook pictures of celebrities, looking for something that set them apart from those who stayed behind. Why is it, we ask ourselves, that some little boy in Germany grows up to be a world-class chef?
He was born in Loffenau, a small town, barely bigger than a village, on one of the major sightseeing roads through the Black Forest. One of Seeger’s early memories is picking armfuls of wild yellow primroses and selling them to tourists for 25 pfennig a small bunch, a price he raised to one mark if they were Americans.
His early years were solitary. “It was the time after the war, people didn’t have a lot of time to spend with children,” he says matter-of-factly. When he did spend time with his father, a fruit broker, it was on trips to large auctions, where the finest produce in Germany changed hands. The old man was a devil, according to his son. “He would fight people, and you always knew he was there.” On his mother’s side, though, the genes were more intellectual and artistic; some ancestors painted churches and canvasses.
When Seeger left school at 14 (by his own admission he was a horrible student), he had no great ambition to be a chef. He became an apprentice in a restaurant, and, as he recalls, “It was just a job. ”
Seeger worked and trained at ever-higher levels until, at the age of 28, he opened his own restaurant in Pforzheim, a town at the edge of the Black Forest. There, he evolved a highly personal and refined cuisine and caught the attention of the famous Michelin reviewers, who awarded him one star. This may mean little in America, where five stars are bandied about, but, especially in a location other than France, this was a remarkable accomplishment.
The restaurant failed commercially, and Seeger, already married to his first wife with two young daughters, was recruited by an American company to become the dining room chef at the Regent Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Horst Schultze, a fellow German and then the general manager for The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, offered a top job to Seeger and gave him what he needed most: unconditional support. Peter Krehan, also a German and the maitre d’ in The Dining Room, may joke about what he calls “the World According to Günter,” but during the 11 exceptionally intense years of his work with Seeger, he has had the highest respect and admiration for a man whose vision, he says, “extends far beyond cuisine.” Seeger’s obsessive love of beauty and excellence, “at first created innumerable conflicts within the hotel’s hierarchy,” Krehan says in an understatement.
Seeger achieved acclaim at The Ritz, winning the American Express Best Chef in the Southeast Award given by the James Beard Foundation – and national recognition. Nevertheless, he wanted autonomy and left to start Seeger’s in 1998. It was a gamble, but it paid off, not through luck but through drive and hard work.
Every morning Seeger wakes up and practices a form of China kung fu known as Southern Praying Mantis. “It’s a whole system, not a style,” he explains. The discipline, he says, has a strong spiritual element and helps him to feel “more centered” and in touch with his power. He has a private teacher, an American, who comes to his home, but he also does a specific sequence of exercises and meditation on a daily basis.
He is an intensely physical man and throughout his life has had a passion for nature. Seeger, his second wife Laureen, pregnant with their second child, their young blond toddler, Angela, their dog and her cats just moved to a house that sits on four acres of woodland near Chastain.
“It’s like being on a vacation,” says Seeger of his new home in the woods. He is proud of the cherry tree that grows up to the bedroom window, and he loves the fact that the unpaved, steep driveway may keep people out. When he sits on the deck, he can’t see a soul. In the kitchen, Seeger has no professional stove or anything that reminds him or a restaurant.
All that zen serenity is balanced by an adoration of speed and technology. He loves cars, motorcycles, dirt bikes, and wouldn’t mind gunning a vintage Porsche on the Atlanta Speedway. When talking about performance, his own and that of the restaurant, he often compares it to a speed race, where everyone does his job and there is no room for mistakes.
His look is severe – in another era he might have seemed a Jesuit warrior; in the late 1990s he cuts a glamorous figure. He arrives to work in a late model red Porsche convertible. He loves skinny Versace jeans and black Prada sandals. He often wears black and white with an occasional splashy yellow jacket or even hand-painted trousers. He has the long eyelashes men have and women envy. At his wedding, he sported white pants tucked into high boots, and when he swims, it’s in a string bikini that is small even by European standards.
Laureen is tall and blond and willowy even in the later stages of pregnancy and always looks at her husband with an adoring smile. She is a litigator and partner in a top law firm. Since meeting Günter at The Ritz, she has been his “biggest fan.” She is younger; softer than he is and by all accounts has helped him mellow and connect with his spirituality.
Once, I listened to Günter Seeger reminiscing about his father’s birthdays and the choosing of the yearly pig, dragged squealing into the open before being slaughtered, gutted and cleaned for the feast. The conversation turned to graphic descriptions of uncoiled guts and boiled innards. With the rapturous smile and the tremulous voice she always assumes when speaking about her husband, Laureen turned to me and said, without a hint of sarcasm, “He is so sensitive.”
And he is a sensitive man, too, in love with the beauty of a moment and the intensity of nature. I watched him once in one of the fields of his friends, the Calhouns, who have a large farm near Conyers. He picked a small watermelon right off the vine, broke it on his thigh and buried his face in the flesh, letting the juice run onto his chest.
At the restaurant, Seeger’s control and calm prevail. His staff treat him almost as lord and master. They all call him “Chef,” a name they use even away from the restaurant in such sentences as “Chef says…” and “Chef wants…”
While some culinary stars brag about not doing any actual cooking and are content to act as conductors, impresarios and concept men, Seeger is 100 percent (or “hundred prozent,” in his undiminished German accent) involved at the most physical level.
One minute he is unpacking some superlative globe-shaped squash and fresh lambs’ quarters (a wild green with a carmine center) that stain his hands. Then, with his chef de cuisine, Daniel Porubiansky, he looks over a shipment of young morels. The two have worked side by side for 10 years; in a moment of nonverbal communication, they silently nod in unison over the mushrooms. The next moment, he is showing a young staffer exactly how he wants a baby chicken thigh boned and wrapped in a fine web of caul fat. Seeger touches all food with expert and delicate gestures, sometimes snapping a thin disposable glove onto his right hand when he is cooking. “You don’t want fingerprints on the food,” he explains.
During the day, he is everywhere. He examines the wooden floor in the dining room and, together with his manager, the very French Claude Guillaume, decides that they need a new coat of polyurethane. He poses for a crew of photographers from a national magazine. He meets with a German winemaker who works for a producer in the Hamptons, and both he and his young sommelier do a blitz tasting.
I never catch him actually running, but he does materialize in unsettling ways, heard two seconds later at the other end or on another floor of the restaurants. He talks on the phone a lot (“Ja, this is Günter…”), runs his meetings with brisk efficiency and assumes that everyone knows what he wants. When the first customers walk in, he is in the kitchen cooking side by side with his staff.
The young cooks gather around to see him do quick and mysterious things that may take them years to learn. There are spectacular moments of calm during the rush of dinner. I, for example, saw the entire staff flock to the windows to admire a double rainbow.
Seeger used to be a terror. He has always set the bar very high, and women are particularly susceptible to his criticism, but, regardless of their gender, the people he trains tend to be fiercely loyal. His former sous-chef Troy Thompson, now the chef at Fusebox, says in reverential tones, “I wanted to make him proud. He has been cooking for longer than I have been alive.” The most fervent of all, Shaun Doty of Mumbo Jumbo, also a former sous-chef, can channel Seeger in ways that are clearly unconscious, down to the point where he sometimes speaks with a trace of a German accent and uses some of the same expressive hand gestures as his former boss.
All his protégés agree: Günter Seeger is no longer the frustrated genius he used to be. Seeger’s is his home, the place where he can express himself more fully than ever before.
He controls the entire Seeger’s experience, right out to the parking lot. He refuses to offer valet service. He doesn’t want the typical valet – a young college student – to be the first person a patron encounters at Seeger’s. So on a rainy night like tonight, customers are left to fend for themselves, aided by a Seeger’s staffer in a dark suit who stands at the door with an enormous black umbrella.
The pace in the kitchen slows down; on rainy days people cancel because they know about the no-valet policy. It means losing hundreds of dollars, but Seeger doesn’t mind.
“Ja…” he says, looking out into the rainy evening
“I do it my way.”
Sampling Seeger’s: The eight-course menu, July 5, 1999
The menu at Seeger’s changes nightly; the chef offers five- and eight-course menus that vary depending on what is in season. Dining at Seeger’s, you will never have the same meal twice, but you will experience carefully selected ingredients artfully combined and exactly presented. Atlanta Magazine restaurant critic Christiane Lauterbach reviews one evening’s offerings:
(1) Beet terrine with fresh horseradish and lemon balm salad: The sweetness of the beets, the pungency of the horseradish and the distinctive taste of lemon balm treated as a micro-green take the palate on a sophisticated ride. (2) Tomato gelée and white tomato mousse with heirloom cherry tomatoes and shiso leaf: The most wonderful surprise about this dish is the intense flavor of tomato in the pure white mousse and gelée. (3) Flan with fresh morels and pecans: a delicate savory custard with a concentrated taste of wild mushroom. (4) Dover sole tempura on seaweed salad with soy cream: East meets West without fusion confusion in this perfectly orchestrated fish course. (5) Rabbit tournedos with fresh chanterelles mushrooms: a new take on a classic European preparation served in a gleaming individual casseroled. (6) Selection of French and American farm cheeses: includes superlative tastes such as Brindamour, Gratte-Paille, Edel de Cléron, Époisses, Gaperon d’Aubergne, fresh goat cheese from Mary Rigdon, petit Reblochon, petit Banon, Amram, and Fourme d’Ambert. (7) Kiwi marinated in lavender with goat yogurt sorbet: The sprig of lavender is purely decorative, but the wild sunny flavor of lavender is all over a dessert that has wit and aplomb. (8) Raspberry tart with caramel cream, raspberry sorbet and balsamico reduction: almonds, lemon zest and aged balsamic vinegar add an extra dimension to this ode to fresh raspberries.
Christiane Lauterbach, Atlanta Magazine’s restaurant critic, discovered Günter Seeger’s cooking at The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead in 1996. She took a forkful of red cabbage and thought, “Aha! A German who doesn’t cook like a German!”
This article originally appeared in our September 1999 issue.