Flame and fortune
Long before Jamie, Gordon and Nigella, a controversial German television chef had housewives smitten, reports Tony Paterson Many of Wilmenrod’s dishes included liberal doses of canned food and ketchup
OAST Hawaii. For Germans, the culinary offering once sounded beguilingly exotic. It conjured up inevitable images of dusky maidens in 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. He was 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 omelet 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 that always began with an address to his audience which he referred to as dear honourable community of gourmets’’.
Wilmenrod developed the role of TV chef before the likes of Jamie Oliver were even born. 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 screens in the US.
Today, more than 40 years after his death, Germany’s first television chef is being hailed as a seminal genius of modern TV. The forgotten star of West German public broadcasting is the subject of a feature film entitled Wilmenrod:It’sontheTipofmyTongue , which is being made for German television and due to be screened early this 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 60s have been thoroughly raked over, the 50s 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 Volkswagen Beetles made in factories rebuilt with the help of British subsidies.
Stirred, not shaken: Clemens Wilmenrod, Germany’s first TV chef, whips up a dish in 1955
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 Dusseldorf in the early 30s, 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 World War II.
After the war, during which he suffered an ear wound, he resumed his acting career and by the early 50s 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 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 programs.
Wilmenrod is reputed to have hit on the idea after watching an early TV documentary that featured a zoologist toying with a python’s tooth. He remarked to his wife, Erika: Just imagine if somebody was talking about an omelet rather than that tooth.’’
His first show, DinnerwillbeServedinTenMinutes: The Art of Cooking for Gourmets in a Hurry , was broadcast on February 20 of that year. Wilmenrod had himself kitted out for the occasion in a yellow plastic apron with a caricature of his face drawn on its front that had been composed by a cartoonist from the famous prewar 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 programs about cooking before World War II.
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.
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 August 3, 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 that 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 manufacturers queued up to get on his show. Wilmenrod used an outlandish device, which might be considered the 50s forerunner of the ubiquitous microwave, on his program. It was a high-speed grillcum-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 program, sales of Schneidboy leapt to 1.5 million.
Throughout his shows, Wilmenrod, 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, consisting 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 that dismissed him as a charlatan. The Pretend Chef was its title. Wilmenrod never recovered. Although his show continued for another five years, the ratings gradually declined. By 1964, his wife, Erika, had left him and his show had been taken off air for good. In 1967 the former TV chef was admitted to a Munich clinic where doctors diagnosed stomach cancer. A few weeks later Wilmenrod shot himself dead. The Independent
The lard yards: On the road with Clarissa Dickson Wright, left, and Jennifer Paterson of TwoFatLadies
‘ One for the chef’: Keith Floyd
FLICK on the television these days and you’ll be hard pressed not to bump into a chef whipping up their latest culinary offering. But before these days of gastro-porn, only a handful of stalwart telly cooks, including Germany’s hapless Clemens Wilmenrod (left), graced our screens.
had the first television cooking program on British TV, starting in 1946 on the BBC and, of course, broadcast in black and white. He often used his personal rations (Britain was on war rations until about 1954) as ingredients. Harben showed his audience how to cook with what was available, and he was famous for his chips and steak and kidney pie. A former seaman, who was the spitting image of Falstaff, Shakespeare’s gluttonous anti-hero, Harben sported a marvellous beard, a fruity BBC accent and always wore a striped apron over his stout belly.
His no-nonsense approach assumed his audience had never boiled an egg, much less whisked up a cinnamon and calvados souffle.
In the early 1950s, ‘‘ and her third husband, monocled and drink-sodden ‘‘ quickly established themselves as Britain’s leading experts on all things culinary. Fanny, with her evening gown, dangling earrings, pearls and bouffant hair, introduced gourmet cooking, including the prawn cocktail and green mashed potato, to TV.
Johnnie was her stooge; she ferociously chased him around the studio and verbally lacerated him with cries of ‘‘ Come on, Johnnie, hurry up.’’ Fanny was the first to present food as a ritualised form of TV entertainment. A still repeated line from one of the episodes is the immortal: ‘‘ I hope all your doughnuts turn out like Fanny’s.’’
TheGallopingGourmet was known for its light-hearted humour and tomfoolery and the copious use of clarified butter, cream and fat. This was the late ’ 60s, after all, when unbridled selfindulgence was not only tolerated but compulsory. His most famous line on the show was his response to someone’s criticism of his cooking: ‘‘ Madam, you could go outside and get run over by a bus and just think what you would have missed.’’
It is said that Kerr and his wife have spent the past 20 years embracing a virtuous lifestyle they call ‘‘ outdulgence’’, wherein the Kerrs preach the transforming details of a good life that trades
Ferocious: Fanny Cradock constant consumption and self-serving for creative simplicity and healthy self-denial.
hosted a five-minute television show called ComeandGetIt, which aired on the ABC for nine years during the ’ 80s, and was famous for his giggles, trademark ‘‘ G’day’’ and happy-go-lucky larrikin style. Now he’s a YouTube sensation after a blooper tape of the series appeared on the site. In one scene he is making scotch eggs, smiling and giggling as he explains the recipe: ‘‘ Hard boil and shell them, roll them in flour, press sausage meat and vegetables around them and brush them with a beaten egg, cover them with breadcrumbs and f - - - ing fry the c - - - s until they go black, you prick.’’ TwoFatLadies was a TV sensation in the mid ’ 90s.
and travelled around Britain on a Triumph Thunderbird, erratically driven by Paterson. Wright squeezed her ample frame in the sidecar as they travelled to army camps, monasteries, rowing clubs, rugby clubs, Women’s Institute fetes, country estates and girls schools, where they would prepare large meals, often with unusual ingredients and a fondness for rendered fat and dripping.
Paterson, who died of lung cancer in 1999, was buried with her favourite motorcycle crash helmet.
once a failing restaurateur turned radio chef, continues to pop up on our screens, but his shabby drunken act is often tedious. Floyd was, however, the first TV chef whose demonstrations didn’t insist on telling you— to the nearest gram— how much flour was required. And his ‘‘ one for the pot and one for the chef’’ is still great advice. No TV chef has fried reindeer hocks in butter in the Scandinavian tundra while pickling himself with a vat of vodka with such enthusiasm as the wonderfully preposterous Floyd.