- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Six days a week, Elmar Prambs arrives at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin at 6 a.m.
“Everything is clean and fresh, and you have the kitchen to yourself,” says Prambs, who has been the hotel’s chef for its entire history in downtown Austin. “Of course, it’s a 24-hour kitchen, including a night cook. In 30 years, it has never closed.”
Prambs, 60, a German native who learned English in the United Kingdom and joined the Four Seasons team in Vancouver, B.C., has produced more than his share of carefully curated meals. He has cooked for royalty and presidents, movie stars and sports legends. Along the way, he has seen local dining tastes change radically. The hotel’s signature restaurant, for instance, has gone through several makeovers and is ready for another.
It has made Prambs a lodestar on the local culinary scene.
“Elmar has been a consistent welcoming and positive force in Austin for so long it’s easy to forget he’s not from here,” says chef Shawn Cirkiel, founder of Parkside, Backspace, Olive & June and Bullfight. “He has always been a champion of anyone in the kitchen at any level. His impact in education and as a philanthropist set the expectation that the rest of us try to emulate.”
Meanwhile, Prambs’ squad can serve up to 1,000 guests at a time in the hotel’s banquet halls, and at such a high level of quality and service that all similar Austin operations are compared with it.
“Elmar is the rare chef who can make a charity dinner for 1,000 feel and taste like a dinner party for 10,” says host and social advocate Carla McDonald, founder and editor of the digital magazine Salonniere. “His menus brim with thoughtfulness, creativity and the most delectable combination of fresh and inventive flavors. His deep commitment to Austin may well be his secret ingredient — he’s one of the most gracious and generous members of our city’s culinary community.”
Climbing the ladder
The story of Prambs’ rise resembles in some ways that of Jacques Pepin, whose charming memoir, “The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen,” relates early flashes of talent but also years of grunt work in hotels and restaurants.
In Palling, Germany, near Munich in the foothills of the Alps, Prambs’ father drove trucks while his mother raised four boys. His siblings became a cooking instructor, an electrical engineer and a chemical engineer.
“So, two smart ones and two creative ones,” Prambs jokes. “Mother cooked a lot. We always ate at home. I think the first time I went to a restaurant, I was 10 years old. She cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner: potatoes, cabbage, pork, pasta. It was very expensive to buy fresh produce in the winter, so we picked them up from farmers: turnips, carrots. From the pig, we used everything.”
He started helping out in the kitchen at age 9.
“I got to clean up a lot,” he says. “You learn from the ground up.”
Outside the kitchen, his youth seemed pretty normal. He played outside. The Prambs family didn’t own a TV until he was 15. In school, he remembers being an average student.
“I never really liked it,” he admits. “I didn’t mind going, but couldn’t wait to get out. In Germany, you only go nine years. After that, you choose a trade or higher education. So I trained as a cook in a three-year program, apprenticed in a hotel. You’d work five days a week, and one day you’d go to school.”
His first supervising chef was only 25 years old, just 10 years his senior.
“He took us under his wing,” Prambs says. “There were two apprentices and two cooks for a 90-room hotel with one dining room. Since it was such a small hotel, you got to do everything. You’d clean the oven, clean the hood. I don’t have to do that anymore, but I know who does it, and I make sure it is done.”
Besides a strong work ethic, his first chef nurtured in Prambs an urge to leave Germany and see the world. He landed at the Hilton Hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K., where 26 cooks served countless after-theater suppers.
“It was quite an experience,” he says. “Back then, British cuisine wasn’t all that great. But I learned a lot, and I learned English, too.”
He headed to Canada next. At the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, he worked alongside 150 other cooks.
“It was like a factory,” he says. “A totally different style: 3,000 shrimp cocktails, buffets for 4,000 people. It was interesting, but not what I wanted.”
In 1977, he and a friend headed out to Edmonton, Alberta, on a road trip, but he ended up instead at the Hyatt Hotel in Vancouver. A couple of weeks later, he joined the Four Seasons there. Five years later, he helped open the Four Seasons in Edmonton. After making a name for himself, he moved his family to the Dallas area and cooked at the posh Mandalay Hotel.
He had married Mary Prambs from Northern Ireland. They have a son, who serves in the Austin Police Department, and a daughter, who works as a teacher in Katy.
“Dallas was very fast in the ’80s,” Prambs remembers. “Not a family town. We came here for a visit. I thought: If they ever open a Four Seasons in Austin, I want to be here.”
The move to Austin
Thirty years ago, the developers of what would become the Four Seasons picked a spot high above what would become Lady Bird Lake in a historically Hispanic neighborhood of rental homes. There, Matt’s El Rancho had attracted a loyal following; it moved to bigger digs on South Lamar Boulevard to make way for the construction.
While settling his family in the Northwest Hills, where he and his wife still live, Prambs wondered why the hotel was located in such a transitional area, not yet minutely landscaped. It took a couple of years to attract diners who weren’t already staying there.
“People went out to dine, not to eat,” Prambs distinguishes. “At the Riverside Cafe, our first restaurant, I cooked European or French cuisine with an American slant. Ingredients determined what we did, so we had a Southwestern flavor. I had never seen cilantro before!”
Other fine-dining restaurants — Fonda San Miguel, Jeffrey’s, Hudson’s on the Bend, for instance — had set a fresh tone during the previous years. But Prambs didn’t sit still. The Riverside Cafe eventually became the highly rated Cafe at the Four Seasons and then, in 2007, the less starchy Trio.
“It used to be fine dining or destination dining,” he says. “Now it’s casual elegant. People are in and out. They still want great service, great food, but none of the pretension. Instead of tableware, flatware. In the past, if you didn’t come in a jacket, people would look at you. Now, everybody comes in jeans.”
Self-described as “kind of an introvert,” Prambs now leads a kitchen staff of 36 that includes pastry chef Amanda Pallagi Naim, supplemented by 18 rigorously trained stewards.
Example: During a daytime interview at the bar in the Four Seasons lobby, this reporter looked up to find his iced-tea glass filled.
Reporter: “When did this happen?”
Prambs: “They are good. They are all very good.”
Trio can seat 127 inside and 66 outside. The main banquet room serves 550, but if nearby spaces are added, Prambs and the staff, which includes ace director of catering Steve Marley, can seat 1,000 for a special event. The kitchen’s other duties include serving the folks who live in the Four Seasons Residences next door as well as handling around-the-clock room service in the hotel.
How does the Four Seasons rate such a proficient staff?
“It pays off if you treat them right,” he says. “It’s difficult to find staff these days, there are so many new restaurants and hotels. And I am demanding, in my way, since my chef was demanding of me. So I’m looking for a great attitude. In my kitchen, after two years, you should know everything.”
Since he works six days a week, Prambs doesn’t want to come downtown on his days off.
“I’ve found some good new places in the Domain, such as (Second Bar and Kitchen),” he says “Like the one downtown, it serves good food and it’s not too stuffy. Some of the new concepts out there will work, some won’t. Maybe I’m too old for some of them.”
The Four Seasons’ leadership has asked him three times to move up to another hotel in the chain, which has grown from 12 venues to 105 during his time with the company.
“No,” Prambs tells them. “I’m still here.”
The passing scene
Prambs credits former General Manager John Indrieri for making the Four Seasons concept work in Austin, despite a tight opening, too few ready employees and a constant need to expand. The leadership often asked: Why do you need more?
“To achieve a normal life,” Prambs told them. “You can work 80 hours a week, but you need to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
It is easy to forget that the Four Seasons was one of the first luxury hotels of its type in Austin. Locals didn’t know exactly how to respond. And a real estate bust hit the state hard during the mid-1980s.
“Then the town picked up,” Prambs says. “And everything else picked up. Eventually, we made a huge change in the kitchen to produce dishes faster and at a much more consistent level. We doubled our business.”
The hotel recently went through another round of updates and renovations.
“It’s just like a house,” Prambs says. “You want to keep it up. The flip side: It’s always a pain in the neck during construction. You just work around it. When creating Trio, we moved the restaurant upstairs. Being in hotel, you can’t say, ‘Our restaurant is closed.’ We had to run up and down the stairs for three months.”
Some memories stand out from Prambs’ 30 years at the hotel.
“Queen Elizabeth brought her own ham and tea,” she says. “That was exciting. I also cooked for three presidents. George W. Bush was a very simple eater. We gave him a steak. Bill Clinton was little more sophisticated, and he would eat anything, but a couple of years ago, we cooked for him again and it was all vegetables, no butter.”
His third diner-in-chief was President Barack Obama.
Prambs and Marley’s crew often caters off-site, too, for benefits such as the Wildflower Gala for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Red, Hot & Soul for Zach Theatre. Even on-site, it’s hard to get 500 lobsters served simultaneously at the right texture and temperature, not to mention all the hard-to-predict vegetarian, vegan and allergy-based alternatives.
“You have to be organized,” he says. “I check everything myself. One time we left a major piece behind. It’s stressful enough that you want to make sure you have it down in advance.”
It makes him proud that other hotel operations are constantly compared with his.
“You have to bring your best game every day,” he says. “We can’t relax. That doesn’t work. It’s difficult to keep the staff on that high level. It’s human nature to relax. That’s when mistakes happen. I’m always on edge. Most of them know me well enough to accept that. At the end of the day, it’s my name. If anybody makes a mistake, it’s my mistake. So I want to make sure it’s actually mine.”
Trio’s planned changes will keep the name but add more vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian choices to the menu.
“The beauty of the Four Seasons is that they put a lot of trust in me,” Prambs says. “People ask, ‘Why not open your own restaurant?’ Why would I? I’ve got the best team here. Sure, there’s a general manager over me, but he trusts me and I trust him. And the paycheck never bounces.”