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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Peter Gebauer’s Career in Cooking

Witty reflections in ‘Omnivore’s Travel’

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When sitting down to a delicious meal at an upscale restaurant, it’s often easy to overlook the extent to which the culinary process is driven not just by creative recipes and skillful execution, but also by passion, determination and really, really long hours.

The reality of a career in professional cooking is exposed in Peter Gebauer’s freshman endeavor, Omnivore’s Travel: Career and Legacy of a Chef. Gebauer is the executive chef at Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Bingo Casino, where he oversees all culinary operations at the thriving entertainment destination, a domain that encompasses 12 food venues, including the casino’s catering department and the award-winning Dream Dance Steak restaurant.

Omnivore’s Travel is equal parts professional memoir and travelogue, with a good measure of valuable career advice for would-be chefs. The narrative follows Gebauer from his native Germany, where he developed a passion for cooking at an early age while helping his grandmother, also a chef, prepare Bavaria’s local specialties. Gebauer details his unique upbringing, in which he “learned to butcher livestock and was soon recognized for preparing the family’s Sunday lunch feast on his own while still in elementary school.” There was never any doubt in his mind that one day he would become a professional chef.

Compiling much of the book’s content from personal journals and photographs that span his nearly 40-year career, Gebauer is a witty and vivid writer who has a gift for endearing himself to the reader. In a similar vein as bad-boy chef, author and food-show celebrity Anthony Bourdain, Gebauer is delightfully honest, recalling how, when he was working for Royal Viking Line, he was busted by management for preparing a Balinese omelet made with “magic mushrooms” for the entire culinary team, including the cruise ship’s executive chef.

Like most foodies, Gebauer’s memories are laced with all things edible. His deep appreciation of food, and the people who prepare it, is displayed in his exquisite descriptions of the different styles of food he encountered at worldwide ports of call while working onboard luxury cruise lines and as a chef in Hong Kong, the Middle East, Germany, Singapore and the Caribbean. Readers are given a mouth-watering account of bienenstich, “a layer cake filled with whipped cream and topped with caramelized sliced almonds,” in Germany, som tam, “a tangle of crisp, unripe papaya, peanuts and dried shrimp, tossed in a lip-tingling dressing of fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice,” in Thailand, and calza, “a piquant dish made of boiled and crushed potatoes, lime juice, ajichile paste and seasonings, often topped with stewed octopus,” in Peru. Gebauer also includes elaborate menus from a few of his most memorable meals.

Omnivore’s Travel develops a superbly detailed picture of what life is like in hotel, resort, cruise line, theme park, and even airline catering kitchens. Gebauer offers insightful commentary and humorous anecdotes on the cooking industry, as well as helpful suggestions for those eager to make the leap from home cooking to the professional trade.

After relocating to Milwaukee to join Potawatomi Bingo Casino in 2006, Gebauer founded the PBC Culinary Academy to offer culinary courses for all team members.

“Mentoring, in my opinion, is just as important as a good formal education or training,” Gebauer explained in an interview. “I didn’t have a mentor; that’s why I make it so important [at Potawatomi].”

Gebauer, who earned the title of Master in Culinary Arts in 1986, is in the editing phase of his next book, Culinary Academy: The Comprehensive Guide, a textbook that explains culinary fundamentals and basic cooking methods based on courses he has taught.

While Omnivore’s Travel isn’t immune to the occasional typo and awkward phrasing that sometimes occur when self-publishing, it certainly doesn’t subtract from the overall reading experience. The lessons, experiences and information Gebauer has collected in Omnivore’s Travel make the book very satisfying for many readers, from people who like to cook to people who love to eat.

Omnivore’s Travel can be purchased as a paperback book or for the Kindle at Amazon.com.n