WANDERLUST

by Joe Mannke and John DeMers


© 2006 Joe Mannke and John DeMers
264 pages

ISBN 0-9787371-0-6 (hard cover)

Price $28.95 ($4.50 S&H)
plus 8.25% tax if mailed within Texas.

The book can be purchased through
www.bistro-lecep.com

 

 

 
   

Joe Mannke:

The United States is an unique country, being the gathering place for people from all over the world, a place where hard work and dedication pays off. Joe Mannke is the epitome of that image and his story may appear to share the theme of many others but is truly exceptional, as is the man himself. Tall, calm and confident, he exudes competence, tempered with the warmth of his passions in life, food, wine, travel and his fair bride, all of which give him the impression of being much younger than his birth date would suggest.

Joe’s story begins before WWII in the almost forgotten land of Pomerania, divided in the 20th century between Germany, Poland and the free city of Danzig (Gdansk) and later between the invading Soviets and Poland. Part of the N. European plain, it is mainly agricultural lowland with sandy soil, now known as The Land of a Thousand Lakes. With his parents separated by the war and the Red army advancing, he, his bother and sister and his mother became refugees, eventually settling in Munich, far to the south, where with great fortune, they were reunited with his father.

As was common in war ravaged Germany Joe started work at a very early age, apprenticing at the famous Hotel Bayerishcher Hof in Munich from the age of fourteen and graduated from the culinary arts school there in 1956. Before the age of twenty-one when he arrived on American shores he had already worked in hotel kitchens in Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth in South Africa. During these formative years he developed a strong attachment with the culture of South Africa, and speaks fondly of the times in the grand old hotels, remnants of the British and Dutch empires that dot the major cities.

Starting a new life in New York at the Stork Club led to a position with Sonesta Hotels. While working there he was shuffled around between Puerto Rico, Bermuda and finally Boston. Then at the relatively tender age of twenty-five, he took the position of executive chef for Anthony’s Pier Four, turning it into the largest volume restaurant in the United States at that time, a stunning achievement. In 1971, when Disney planned the opening of The Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, Joe had become their choice as Executive Chef for the Contemporary Resort Hotel and Polynesian Village. They opened after a year of planning and set up, to rave reviews. With a staff of over 100 chefs, Joe was responsible for the production of over 20,000 meals every day. Working for “The Mouse” as Disney is often referred to, required a range of talents from Luaus on the beach to providing top quality fine dining in the Gulf Coast Room, a seafood specialty establishment. During this time he was also one of the innovators, helping establish the Disney School of Culinary Arts, necessary to provide for the Epcot expansion and to maintain a pool of human resources vital to the Disney organization. Still in existence the school has developed an enviable reputation for producing highly competent people in the hotel and convention food service industry.

Three years later Joe found himself in Houston working for the Hyatt Regency as Food and Beverage Director and Executive chef. With his rise through the ranks he found himself becoming less a chef and more a corporate entity, complete with the pinstripe suit and the endless meetings. Faced with a promotion that would completely sever his ties with the kitchen that he loves, in 1978 Joe Mannke took the big step away from corporate security, and opened his own restaurant.

Rotisserie for Beef and Bird, located at 2200 Wilcrest, could have been considered to be at the western edge of Houston when it first opened, but despite the apparent disadvantage of the location it had certain aspects that almost guaranteed eventual success. Of prime importance was the personal philosophy of Joe Mannke, “I listen to my customer’s needs.” Combined with the ability to instill an unusual level of staff loyalty and his unwillingness to get into debt from the beginning, his attitude provided the environment for slow and steady growth, a rarity in these days of multimillion-dollar openings. Hard work was an essential ingredient, with Joe donning the chef’s hat, or even parking customer’s cars if necessary, not something that many restaurant owners would consider doing nowadays.

The food was a combination of European elegant simplicity and the local Texas produce, cooked with the first indoor mesquite grill and rotisserie. The grill and rotisserie, in full view of the patrons in the main dining room, provides a focal point where Certified Angus steaks, lamb and a bewildering array of exotic game are prepared to perfection. The idea of an indoor grill was so revolutionary that the local contractors were scared that the whole place would go up in flames when it was first lit. Their trepidation aside, there has never been a fire, or even smoke in the dining room, thanks to a carefully designed ventilation system. Nowadays the practice of installing indoor grills is fairly common, both in restaurants and homes.

The restaurant itself had something of a bare bones appearance, with no linen tablecloths, plain china and a limited wine list. Bit by bit Joe Mannke improved everything, with at one time, only half the restaurant with table linens, later purchasing beautifully patterned plates in Europe and extending the wine list to become one of the best in the world. The menu has also developed in lockstep with the development of exotic game ranches in Texas, with a wide range of deer, antelope and wildfowl comprising a significant part of the superlative offerings.. The ranch owners have found that there is considerable advantage to farming exotics in addition to raising them for the pleasure of the hunters. Year round income from the processed meat and the considerable tax advantages have given Texas restaurants the opportunity to serve unusual game at surprisingly affordable prices.

As the years have gone by the restaurant has developed into a jewel of fine dining with the ambiance to match. Trophies adorn the walls as do commissioned paintings of historical scenes, each containing portraits of members of his family and staff. The soft linen tablecloths sport crystal wine glasses, suitable containers for contents of his cellar, and what a cellar it is. Other fine dining establishments have started business in fairly close proximity to Joe’s place over the years, but until recently there was little success, despite quite sizeable investments, none having Joe Mannke’s personal touch and concern for every detail.

Two of Joe’s great passions involve hunting, one for game and the other for great wines from anywhere on the globe and both indulge his love of travel. Every year he and his wife take a trip to an exotic location, where Joe immerses himself in the history, culture and of course, the local cuisine. Upon return he throws a theme dinner at the Rotisserie for Beef and Bird for some of his most loyal customers, at which he tries to recreate the experiences from the most recent trip and pair each course with a different wine from around the world. The invitation comes with a short description of the trip and a concise history of the area, bringing to the lucky few, not only the taste but also the texture of the culture.

Another specialty of the house is the Thanksgiving dinner, now well established as a Houston tradition. With the staff dressed as Indians and Pilgrims, Joe tries to recreate the style and presentation of the first Thanksgiving dinners served on this continent. The event has become so popular that it is rare that an empty place can be found in the five seatings served on Thanksgiving Day.

Along with the obvious loyalty of his customers, Joe apparently inspires a similar kind of loyalty in the staff of his operations. A number of his employees have been with him for over twenty years, most waiters over ten and a fact he obviously proud of, even dishwashers have an unprecedented longevity. Although unwilling to disclose the secret behind the faithfulness of the staff, brief conversations with a few of them made it obvious that they are dedicated to a common cause and fiercely protective of the good name of the restaurant and owner. The lack of a high staff turnover gives the restaurant a continuity for the customers, that feeling of being at home, known and loved that keeps people coming back.

At a time in most people’s life when they would be considering slowing down, or at least resting on well-deserved laurels, Joe Mannke has taken on another project. Long ago Joe had fallen in love with the French bistro style of food and the relaxed atmosphere prevalent in the small town cafes in France. He was inspired to establish an American version, named Bistro Le Cep, at 11112 Westheimer. Capturing the spirit if the true French Bistro, he has established a menu that changes to reflect the freshest of the seasonal produce. The authentic French bistro dishes are served with a delightful collection of wines from around the world, selected by Sommelier Vince Baker.

Old fashioned as the quality of service and the food may appear to be in Joe Mannke’s operations, he embraces innovative ideas to promote and improve his operations. Both his restaurants have their own domain names and slick web sites, complete with histories, menus, wine lists and even the ability to make reservations on-line. One aspect of the web sites that many businesses would be wise to emulate, is the address and telephone number at the top of each page, for those customers that prefer the personal touch and talking to a human being.

Joe Mannke’s operation has collected an impressive range of awards,
thereby earning the nickname “The Jewel of West Houston” and include an unprecedented fourteen consecutive years of the Wine Spectator, Grand Award, limited to only ninety five restaurants world wide.

L’Ordre Mondial
Travel Holiday Magazine
Wine Spectator
Nations Restaurant News
Restaurant Hospitality
Restaurant Hospitality
Restaurant Institution
ZAGAT Restaurant Survey
Travel Holiday Magazine
Houston Chronicle
Distinguish Restaurants of North
America
Neiman Marcus, My Table
Gourmet Magazine
Santé Magazine
Concours Mondial 1984 de la Carte Des Vins
Travel Holiday Award 1988-1990
Grand Award 1988 to the present
Fine Hall Dining, Hall of Fame Award 1990
Best International Wine List1994
Bronze Award 2002-2003
Ivy Award 1995 Award of Distinction
1995,1996,1997, 2001, 2002 rated –Extraordinary
Good Value Dining Award 1995
Top Ten Wine List Award 1984-1995
DiRoNA Award 1996-present
Culinary Award 1997
America’s Top Table Award 1997
Certificate of Achievement 1998
Best Sommelier 1999

For more information, visit  http://www.rotisserie-beef-bird.com and http://www.bistro-lecep.com

Joe Mannke
 

 


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