The grafting gourmet: Putting the kitsch into kitchen
His dishes used ketchup, he could hardly boil an egg and he was sacked for accepting bribes. But 40 years on, the career of the world's first TV chef is being reheated. Tony Paterson reports
Friday 23 May 2008
"Toast Hawaii" – for Germans the culinary offering once sounded beguilingly exotic. It conjured up inevitable images of dusky maidens in hula-hula skirts sashaying rhythmically across palm-fringed beaches. How times have changed.
Nowadays Toast Hawaii raises a sneer and is served in only the most naff eateries. The dish consists of a slab of white sliced loaf covered with a piece of packet ham and topped with a disc of tinned pineapple. The concoction is then layered with processed cheese, stuck under the grill for about 90 seconds and usually plonked without ceremony in front of the customer. A maraschino cherry and a toothpick sprouting paper palm fronds are sometimes added to complete the "Hawaiian" touch.
Yet in the 1950s, the snack became a smash hit among those West Germans wealthy enough to own a television almost as soon as it was put together before their eyes on their black and white Grundig screens. It was fast food before the term existed, appearing in a war-ravaged Germany still untouched by the changes in eating habits that would occur a decade later with the mass immigration of nearly two million foreign "guest workers" from Italy, Yugoslavia and Turkey.
And its success was all down to one man, Germany's answer to the British television cook Fanny Cradock, a chubby and loquacious actor who sported a David Niven-style moustache but who is reputed never to have fried an egg before going onscreen. His name was Clemens Wilmenrod.
His bizarre culinary creations extended way beyond Toast Hawaii to include such offerings as the almost Pythonesque "Arabian Horseman's Delight" – which in reality was simply mincemeat with onions – and "Eggs Torero", an omelette with tomatoes. Many of his dishes included liberal doses of canned food and ketchup and as Wilmenrod cooked them up on screen, he regaled his audience with a torrent of flowery and often amusing banter which always began with an address to his audience which he referred to as "Dear honourable community of gourmets".
Wilmenrod developed the role of television chef before the likes of Jamie Oliver were even born. If he wasn't the world's first television chef, which he may well have been, he was certainly the first to make a success of the role. His first show was broadcast in February 1953 before Cradock started appearing with her buffoon-like partner, Johnnie, on British screens and almost a decade before Julia Child appeared on American television
Today, more than 40 years after his death, Germany's first television chef is being hailed as a seminal genius of modern television. The forgotten star of West German public broadcasting is the subject of a feature film entitled Wilmenrod: It's On The Tip Of My Tongue, which is being made for German television and due to be screened early next year. The production coincides with a new-found interest in the 1950s and 60s after decades of preoccupation with the Nazi era. While the student protests, sexual liberation and seeds of militant extremism that characterised the Sixties have been thoroughly raked over, the Fifties have remained largely untouched.
It was the era of the legendary Wirtschaftswunder or "Economic miracle" during which capitalist West Germany turned itself into Europe's economic powerhouse. With the help of copious cash injections supplied under the American Marshall Plan, West Germany was able to rebuild its industry and create a consumer society that was arguably better off than Britain, which was still getting used to life without ration cards.
It was a period in which many former Nazis were still in or re-elected to government but one in which the evils of the Nazi era were conveniently forgotten. Instead the former members of Hitler's Master Race listened to Elvis, bought washing machines and kidney-shaped tables and took driving holidays in southern Europe in VW Beetles made in factories rebuilt with the help of British subsidies.
Wilmenrod masterfully exploited the trends of the era and kept up a TV cooking show that ran without a break for 11 years until it was ignominiously and abruptly axed in 1964.
Born in 1906, the son of a miller from the western Westerwald region, his real name was Carl Clemens Hahn.
After setting out on an acting career in Düsseldorf in the early 1930s, he dispensed with the surname, which in German means "cock", and replaced it with the pseudonym Wilmenrod, the name of the village in which he was born. He then secured a job as a full-time actor at theatres in Wiesbaden and Dresden before being drafted into the German army during the closing stages of the Second World War. After the war, during which he suffered which an ear wound, he resumed his acting career and by the early 1950s he had managed to obtain a few minor film parts.
The breakthrough came in February 1953. Wilmenrod approached the head of Northwest German Television, a public broadcasting network that was then in its infancy, and managed to persuade Werner Pleister, its director, that television needed a cooking show to complement its rather turgid diet of films and current affairs programmes.
Wilmenrod is reputed to have hit on the idea after watching an early television documentary which featured a zoologist toying with a python's tooth. He remarked to his wife, Erika: "Just imagine if somebody was talking about an omelette rather than that tooth."
His first show, entitled Dinner will be served in ten minutes – the art of cooking for gourmets in a hurry, was broadcast on 20 February of that year. Wilmenrod had himself kitted out for the occasion with a yellow plastic apron with a caricature of his face drawn on its front that had been specially composed by a cartoonist from the famous pre-war German satirical magazine Simplicissimus.
At that time the only European broadcaster to have attempted something similar was the BBC, which made a series of test programmes about cooking before the Second World War.
Wilmenrod became a hit almost overnight. His show attracted a loyal audience of about three million comprised mainly of German hausfrauen who craved culinary excitement with a foreign touch. Wilmenrod gave them what they wanted.
By 1959, even Time magazine considered him enough of a phenomenon to warrant an article. "Swiss pineapple cheese cream scarcely sounds like a dish designed to go with German schinken and kartoffel (ham and potatoes)," the magazine noted on 3 August 1953. "But forewarned by trade journals, wise West German grocers are busily stocking up on the ingredients.
"After Clemens Wilmenrod, the Television Cook, tells the hausfrauen how to make it, Swiss cream is sure to be a favourite dessert – and Clemens plans to pass the word on soon," Time added, noting that his was the "oldest and most popular show" on West German TV.
Wilmenrod stuffed strawberries with almonds, invented recipes named after obscure Austrian actresses and is even credited with introducing the Christmas turkey to a country which for centuries had known only the yuletide goose. When "Don Clemente" as he was often referred to, dished up cod on TV, there was a run on cod at fishmongers throughout Germany.
The same went for many of the fancy kitchen gadgets that the Economic Miracle's manufacturers queued up to get on his show. Wilmenrod used an outlandish device, that might be considered the Fifties forerunner of the ubiquitous microwave on his programme. It was a high-speed grill-cum-oven called the Heinzelkocher. Another was a sophisticated vegetable cutter called the Schneidboy. Not long after Wilmenrod introduced the product by casually chopping up a few carrots on his programme, sales of Schneidboy leapt to 1.5 million.
Throughout his shows, Don Clemente, who had earned himself sufficient cash to buy a villa in Majorca, kept up an incessant patter designed to impress his largely female audience. Here is an example of the way he introduced one of his concoctions, a dessert called Rum Pot, which consists of fruit soused – believe it or not – in rum: "The fruit preserved in rum spreads its aroma of warmth and fidelity throughout the house," he began. "When you make the occasional foray into the cellar to perform some terribly mundane chore, there the fruit is, standing in the corner in its colourful earthen jug, beckoning like an old friend. How could anyone even think of leaving the cellar without having greeted that silent, delectable companion, waiting patiently in its dark corner?"
Yet recipes like Rum Pot eventually led to Wilmenrod's fall from grace. It did not go unnoticed that the Flensburg Rum importers who produced the German brand Pott Rhum had made a significant contribution to the creation of Wilmenrod's dessert. After he began accepting large backhanders for praising specific products during his publicly funded shows, the media started to take notice.
In 1959, Der Spiegel magazine ran a 10-page cover story about Wilmenrod which dismissed him as a charlatan. "The Pretend Chef" was its title. Don Clemente never recovered. Although his show continued for another five years, the ratings gradually declined. By 1964, Wilmenrod's wife, Erika, had left him and his show had been taken off air for good. In 1967 the ex-TV chef was admitted to a Munich clinic where doctors diagnosed stomach cancer. A few weeks later Wilmenrod shot himself dead.
The chef recommends...
Fry 1lb mincemeat
Add 1 cauliflower, cooked until soft, grated cheese,a large portion of tinned cream and four tomato halves. Grill until golden.
Wilmenrod said: "Next to the golden baked cauliflower, the tomato halves look like large red nails."
One slice of toast
Fry the toast on one side, spread the other with a layer of potted meat paste. Cover the paste with a lettuce leaf, followed by sliced tomato and onion rings. Spice with paprika powder. Slip a fried egg on top: Olé!
Wilmenrod said the recipe was given to him by a hot-blooded Mexican lady with "glowing eyes".
Take a slice of white bread, top with a slice of packet ham. Add a circle of tinned pineapple and top with a slice of processed cheese. Grill for 90 seconds. Top with a cocktail cherry, if desired.
Wilmenrod's views on Toast Hawaii are not recorded but food critic Gudrun Rothaug said he had "collected the yearnings of an epoch on a few square centimetres of bread."
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