When my wife and I made our first trip to Santa Fe in 1991, the city was literally crawling with foodie celebrities, and everyone was giddy over the level of extreme cooking. (Jalapeño sorbet—so hot, how did it keep from melting itself?) It all seemed so new that it never occurred to us that it was, in fact, history repeating.
Until we discovered the saga of Chef Konrad, Santa Fe's first foodie hero.
He was the chef at the "new" La Fonda just after it was dramatically expanded by the Fred Harvey Company at the beginning of the Depression. And he ran what was considered one of the world's most creative kitchens there for nearly 25 years.
He was, in the words of one Harvey family member who grew up devouring his food, America's first "fusion chef," bringing together Americana cooking, the indigenous dishes of the Southwest and a new form of bi-Continental cuisine that died when he did during the homogenized-food '50s and took more than three decades to be "rediscovered."
A German immigrant who was said to resemble actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.—except for a faint scar down his forehead and across the bridge of his nose, which he never explained how he got—Konrad Allgaier had a story made for the movies. He had cooked for the enemy in WWI (he was on the kitchen staff in Kaiser Wilhelm's residence, and later cooked on German U-boats and subs) and came to America in 1922 where, after a few jobs in the East, he and his wife moved to Marceline, Mo.—Walt Disney's home town, and a railroad crew stop—from which he worked as a Fred Harvey dining car chef on the Santa Fe Railway.
For several years, he cooked for the railroad's premiere fast train, The Chief, on which the first generation of stars traveled from Chicago to Hollywood. In 1930, he moved—with his wife, Maria and their 6-year-old daughter, Barbara—to Santa Fe, where he took over the kitchens at La Fonda.
The hotel had just been reimagined by Harvey Company design guru Mary Colter and cresting local architect John Gaw Meem: it was the epicenter of life in town, as well as the launching pad for the first generation of tourists pouring into the Southwest—via Fred Harvey/Santa Fe resort hotels in Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Gallup, Winslow and the Grand Canyon—to see the big sky, "touch Indians" and participate in what one Saturday Evening Post writer called "roughing it, deluxe."
While there were great chefs at many Fred Harvey locations, Chef Konrad had the most freedom, primarily because he didn't have to serve any tourists rushing to get back on a train.
He introduced several generations to what became tried and true "New Mexican" cuisine, and his versions of guacamole, chiles rellenos, frijoles refritos, empanadas and sopapillas became the standards of what this food was supposed to taste like. He brought a Southwestern slant to the traditional roast-meat-and-ice-sculpture banquet: for the April 1934 "Artists Ball" at La Fonda, the dining room was turned into a "jungle fairyland" with a buffet table decorated with Chef Konrad's frozen renditions of an alligator, a monkey and a bat.
He also added local ingredients to traditional Continental cuisine from Europe—like Pollo Lucrecio, a chicken breast dish with a buttery gravy infused with such exotic spices as chile, cumin and oregano (which was identified in the original recipe—when it was shared with newspaper readers across the country in the fall of 1937—as "a Mexican herb.")
He was also a celebrity outside of the kitchen.
The push during the early 1940s to allow him to become a US citizen made front page news all over the West (he was finally granted citizenship in 1943, after the US Attorney General decided he could be taken off the "alien enemies") as did the day in 1950 when he, general manager Monte Chavez and bus boy Jimmy Garcia claimed to see two UFOs hovering over the Española valley. Allgaier also cooked all the meals you read about in histories of the Manhattan Project, when the physicists from "the Hill" came down to La Fonda to drown their scientific sorrows and, later, celebrate their explosive breakthroughs.
I became fascinated with Chef Konrad while writing Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time (Bantam 2010), the first full-length biography of Harvey and his revolutionary family business (and an excuse for my wife, Diane, and I to visit the Southwest as often as possible).
Like the Harvey saga, Chef Konrad's story still has some holes: aside from the dozen or so recipes he shared with reporters over the years, many of his recipes remain missing. I'm in the process of compiling The Harvey Girls Cookbook, a compendium of the best recipes from Harvey chefs—especially from the 1880s-1940s, when the Fred Harvey Company was the dominant food-service business in America—along with new renditions by everyone from top restaurant chefs (including Lane Warner at La Fonda) to home cooks to Fred Harvey's actual descendents. (We post one recipe a day at harveygirlscookbook.com.)
A lot of people in the Santa Fe area worked for Chef Konrad or knew people who did.
I'm still hoping that one of these days I'll get a call or email from someone who just found, in an old trunk, a copy of his recipe book. If we're lucky, it will include the favorite dessert of J. Stewart Harvey, Jr. (whose father ran La Fonda during much of the Chef Konrad era.) Because the way he described it to me in a recent email sounded amazing:
"Konrad created a cinnamon parfait which was layers of Fred Harvey vanilla ice cream with sugar crystals, barely dabs of chocolate syrup and heavy layers of cinnamon served in tall glasses with those long handled narrow spoons. Deee-licious!"
Stephen Fried: How Fred Harvey Civilized New Mexico (lecture & book signing)
7 pm Tuesday, Oct. 23
Burris Hall, New Mexico Highlands University
903 National Ave., Las Vegas
If you find Konrad's recipe book (or want to try cooking for the cookbook), you can contact Stephen Fried through his website, stephenfried.com
"Thrilling Mexican Dishes 'Discovered' in Southwest" A Mexican lunch menu by La Fonda chef Konrad Allgaier, published in newspapers across the country on November 11, 1937:
Huacomole con Tostadas
Arroz con Chile Verde
A favorite salad consists of romaine, chicory and tomatoes. Wash the greens and leave in ice water a few minutes, then shake off the excess water and place in a wire basket in the refrigerator until dry. Mix romaine, chicory and tomatoes, cut into eighths. In a wooden salad bowl, toss together with Spanish olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, and serve with toasted croutons rubbed with garlic.
ARROZ CON CHILI VERDE
1/2 pound rice
1 small onion
4 green cbili peppers
5 cups meat stock
Chop onion fine and saute in butter until golden brown. Add rice, stirring constantly until light brown and coated with fat. Then add meat stock, diced tomato, peeled and chopped green peppers. Cover casserole and bake in moderate oven 30 minutes. Immediately before serving, stir grated cheese into the hot rice
1 3-pound routing chicken
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon comlno seed
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon powdered chill
1/2 cup olive oil
½ glass white wine
4 cups water
Clean and quarter chicken and fry in the oil until golden brown. Mince together garlic, comino seed and oregano (a Mexican herb) and sprinkle over chicken. Then add chili. Fry a little more, and add white wine and water. Simmer 1 hour. When ready to serve, sprinkle chicken with toasted, shredded almonds.
1/2 small onion
3 drops tabasco sauce
Juice of 1 lemon
Peel and dice avocado, add finely minced onion, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and tabasco sauce. Mix well and serve on crisp leaves of lettuce or romaine, as an appetizer,
EMPANADAS (FRIED PIES)
2 cups flour
1-2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup milk
1 cup lard
1 teaspoon baking powder
Mincemeat or finely chopped apples
Sift dry ingredients, cut in lard and add milk. Roll to 1/8 inch thickness and cut into 4-inch circles. Fill with mincemeat, finely chopped, apple to which sugar and spice have been added or any fruit. Moisten edges with cold water, fold over and press edges together. Fry in deep, hot fat until brown, and drain on brown paper.