Cooking his way to freedom

You may know Erich Dahl as the creator of the most legendary French Onion Soup in St. Louis, but you probably didn’t know that he trained as a pastry chef in Nazi Germany. During a recent afternoon with Dahl, I learned about the incredible, convoluted series of events that culminated in his role as Director of Food Services at the old Famous-Barr.

Born in a small town outside of Aachen, Germany, Dahl began his training as a pastry chef when he was 14 years old.  The year was 1934.

“I really wanted to go to Israel and work on a kibbutz,” he said.  “But I knew I would need a skill in order to move there. There was a bakery next door to my home, and it appealed to me. There were not many Jews in trades back then. Fortunate for me, my uncle was a regular customer at Esser Konditerei, a café in Aachen. He spoke to the owner about me, I went in for an interview, and they hired me as a pastry chef’s apprentice.”

For three and a half years, Dahl worked alongside some of the region’s best pastry chefs.  When I asked what kinds of pastries he made, Dahl’s eyes lit up.

“I haven’t thought about these things in a very long time,” he said.

And then, the memories started flowing: “I learned how to make Danish pastry from a yeast dough using only the richest butter. We made baba au rhum, which are miniature yeast cakes enriched with butter and eggs and soaked in rum, and we made beautiful genoise cakes, which are a French version of sponge cakes layered with buttercreams and fruit jams. Sometimes we baked the cakes in large, flat pans, filled them with jelly and lemon cream, and rolled them up. We made Berliner Pfannkuchen, which are similar to iced doughnuts filled with jelly.”

And the memories kept coming: “We made fancy butter cookies and chocolates.  For the Easter holiday, we made chocolate Easter eggs. Some were solid chocolate, and some had a cream filling, For Christmas, we made the traditional German Christmas stollens. My favorite pastry, though, was a tart we made from shortbread dough that was filled with frangipane, which is a sweet almond paste. After we took them out of the oven and let them cool, we topped them with a nougat paste made from marzipan. Once the nougat hardened, we coated the marzipan in hot caramel.” He smiled at the memory. “The result was delicious.”

With Dahl’s experience and passion for pastry, he would likely have continued as a German pastry chef, perhaps with his own bakery one day. But with the restrictions put on Jews through the Nuremberg Laws in Germany, Dahl’s future, like those of millions of other Jews living in Europe, was no longer predictable.  For Dahl, pastry dreams were suddenly overshadowed by reality. He knew one thing: he needed to get out of Germany.

He decided that his best hope for a new home was the United States. Though he promptly applied for American citizenship, he understood that his application might take years to process. While waiting, he found a cooking internship at a Jewish-style restaurant in Essen, Germany. By that time, Jews were prohibited from entering stores and businesses and could no longer eat in restaurants.  Dahl knew that his internship days were numbered.

Just a few days before Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish pograms that began on November 9, 1938, Dahl received a letter telling him to report to the American Consulate in Stuttgart, Germany. Amid the ensuing chaos, he went from Stuttgart to Cologne and, with tickets and transit visa in hand, traveled to Holland, where he boarded a ship to South Hampton, England. From there, he set off for the United States and arrived in New York City on Thanksgiving Day, 1938. He was just 18.

“I had an uncle in Kansas City,” Dahl explained, “and he was able to find a family to sponsor me. When I got there, I found a job at a bakery working with other immigrants.  I spoke no English, so much of the language I learned was from listening to my co-workers. In fact, I used to speak English with a Mexican accent!”

Dahl’s sister, who was on that same ship from England to the United States, had settled in St. Louis. When Dahl paid her a visit that first year, he realized there were more opportunities for him here. He moved to St. Louis in 1939 and got his first job as a line cook at the old Roosevelt Hotel.

A year later, he was hired as a pastry chef at the Jefferson Hotel. The hotel was then German-owned, and many of the people working there were members of the German American Bund.  Dahl was, to put it mildly, uncomfortable at the hotel and decided to look for other work.  Because of his pastry experience, he got a job as a “swing cook” at the Park Plaza Hotel, which required him to bake one day each week and cook the rest of the time.

“I made pâte à choux for Éclairs and cream puffs and classic Puff Pastry,” Dahl said. “And for breakfast, I baked Parker House rolls.”

In October 1941, Dahl was drafted into the U.S. Army. After a stint in the Army’s culinary school, he served as a Mess Sergeant in the Pacific until the war ended in 1945.

Back in St. Louis, Dahl returned to work at the Park Plaza Hotel.  A year later, he became Executive Chef at Saint Louis Country Club. In 1948, he accepted an offer from the May Company to become the Director of Food Services at the soon-to-open Famous-Barr in Clayton, where he remained until retirement.

At 91, Dahl still cooks for himself. “But I keep it pretty simple these days,” he said. “The last elaborate meal I cooked was many years ago when I made a curry chicken dish for friends.”

Incredibly, Dahl works out six days a week at the “J”-jogging, swimming, weight lifting and doing a variety of calisthenics, and he has a room full of Senior Olympics medals to show for it. Besides keeping him in shape, his workouts give him an opportunity to see friends and schmooze about baseball and family.

He has a regular Saturday date for coffee and sweets with various combinations of his family, including his daughter Jackie Kleban and her family, and his son Eddie and his family.  He is the proud grandfather of five and great-grandfather of one.

Looking back, Dahl sometimes regrets not pursuing a baking career.

“It never got boring,” he said, “because we made so many different things.  In Europe, bakers take great pride in their pastries.  Recipes were never shared, and we always wanted to be better than the next guy.  If you really wanted to insult someone, you called him a “baker” rather than a “pastry chef.” The title of “pastry chef” was reserved for the head pastry man. He was the true maestro! Unfortunately, in this country I had a better chance to make a living as a cook.”

 

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