Interview and Photos by Eric Rios
Chef Martin Schaub has been around the culinary block. Sometimes we don’t realize the expansive stories that these chef’s have. Chefs are not faceless robots just flipping burgers but evolving artists who are always learning and experiencing. I sat down with Chef Martin from The Pilsener Haus & Biergarten—a mountainous restaurant with a large Austro-Hungarian style beer hall, beer garden, and speak easy—in Hoboken, NJ. You can bar hop without ever leaving the building.
Chef Martin told me his background, all about his adventures learning cucina criollo in Puerto Rico, and how whipped cream still confuses him to this day.
Martin Schaub: So your last name is Rios where does that come from? Do you speak Spanish?
The Chef’s Connection: I don’t, I actually speak Portuguese. My grandfather is full Mexican and my dad is half.
MS: So where does the Portuguese come in?
TCC: I spent some time in Brazil for a while. In Curitiba, Brazil.
MS: I have a nephew who lives in Sao Paulo. I’ve never been to Brazil but I want to go, it must be amazing. Everything is available down there, I mean ingredient wise and culture wise. Everything.
TCC: They do have a lot of great food and culture. Where are you from?
MS: Switzerland. I was there until twenty-five and then I came to New York. And I also worked in Puerto Rico. Talking about language… I speak French. My wife is from the French part of Switzerland. And then I wanted to go to Puerto Rico to learn Spanish but everybody speaks English over there.
TCC: So did you pick up any Spanish?
MS: Two or three words. But I wanted to see something else than New York. At that time I had been over ten years in New York and I thought Puerto Rico is different. I wanted to go down there and I found a job down there.
TCC: Did you pick up any new ingredients or new ways of cooking living in Puerto Rico?
MS: Well the stuff that is down there, the platanos, the roots, you know all the different type of roots down there… we went out in the hills and we would dig them out. They were huge. Its called cucina criolla. The traditional cooking in Puerto Rico. Its very good. Kind of African type cooking.
I was very lucky down there, in the staff there was one guy down there who was a server and he was an artist and of course he was interested in food. He showed me some areas in San Juan where I would have never found. This place was just in a neighborhood where people live but we went there for lunch and they had the cucina criolla with a lot of rice and some meat—well not too much meat but everything is flavorful.
TCC: And everything with those roots and rice was probably fresh…
MS: Oh yeah everything grows right there. I went to a guys home—the only guy who didn’t speak English—I went to his home and it was a hut up in the hills, tin roof, and the sink in the kitchen was right next to the window. When they cook they peel stuff and take the seeds out and toss it out of the window and it grows right there. So everything is full of trees and bushes and fruits.
TCC: Some of the best food I’ve had has been in houses with tin roofs in Brazil… and also the soil is just so good.
MS: Yeah the soil is so fertile. The climate is subtropical. You can toss a seed out, whatever it is, and it grows.
TCC: Do you have plans to go back?
MS: Maybe when I retire. Not too cook though. Maybe to retire. I need to go to Brazil.
TCC: Yeah you definitely have to get down there. How many restaurants have you cooked in?
MS: Many restaurants. I worked for French restaurants mainly. And in Puerto Rico for example there was a guy he was an engineer, at restaurant Ali-oli, and he trained at a three star Michelin restaurant in France. In Paris you know. He trained there at Robuchon. I don’t know how he got in there but he was a pretty talented guy. He was adventurous with his cooking.
TCC: Do you keep in touch with him?
MS: No. I really didn’t. I looked for a job in Puerto Rico. I went down there and checked in a cheap hotel and gave myself like a month. Probably after 5 or 6 weeks and no job I would have come back to New York.
I didn’t find anything for 3 weeks. I was just hanging out, in probably the cheapest hotel in San Juan. It was incredible. It was amazing. I was down there by myself. That hotel was incredible. They just had a bed like a hammock. The central plaza was right there. I paid maybe ten bucks a night. But my hotel overlooked the plaza.
There were some great bars. Best I ever saw. You went in there and it was a dark but a busy night life. Only light coming from inside a glass door refrigerator. I was in Old San Juan and three weeks into it I had no job. And I talked to a guy down there and all of a sudden three jobs came available. Hotel jobs and one at Ali-oli restaurant.
I met a bartender guy and he talked about a place to live. Old building built in the 1600’s or 1700’s. He said “I fixed up a penthouse and its in old san Juan and its the highest place in San Juan. It has a wrap around terrace and you see the ocean and the bayside.” It was a small penthouse, just bare minimum. The owner didn’t use it anymore. I think he used it just too see his girlfriends. It was empty. I got the place for 600 bucks.
TCC: 600 bucks for a months rent or the year?
MS: A Month
TCC: Man, what a life.
MS: I would wake up and see cruise ships coming around. It was incredible. I would jog to where the restaurant was and then live in this penthouse.
And those guys showed me the creole cooking and they showed me where to find good food.
TCC: You said there are lots of good bars, are there a lot of good restaurants?
MS: They started to pop up. One of the guys I worked with would show me around and take me to the best spots. My boss was one of the pioneers in fusion cooking like French and creole cooking. He was very creative but had no time. He was about to open another restaurant and so he hired me.
I would cook anything that was fusion cooking. He didn’t have time. He said “make the menu.” And I would ask what he wanted and he just said “go ahead.” I had boar on the menu. He liked it. I also would do a lot of seafood. I knew a fish supplier and we would get everything in fresh. The scallops were always perfect.
TCC: Do you have any seafood dishes here at Pilsener Haus?
MS: Yes. But fish is so expensive in New York people watch the price. We have mussels always. We usually have oysters. Mussels. Squid. Fish ’n chips. I usually have a nice piece of fish as a special.
TCC: So you serve a lot more than pretzel’s and sausage. What is your favorite thing to cook on the menu here?
MS: It’s hard to say. Some dishes are more challenging than others. I like seafood cooking but we’re obviously not a seafood restaurant.
TCC: Would you ever want to be a sushi chef?
MS: I’ve done sushi before. I’m a chef instructor. I worked 15 years at the French culinary institute as an instructor. And I now work at Brooklyn Tech as a chef instructor. So I have over twenty years of teaching cooking. We had a restaurant at the French culinary institute. We did sushi. I’m not a sushi chef, but I know it a little.
TCC: So sounds like you can cook just about anything. Is there anything you can’t cook?
MS: I don’t know how good I would be compared to a sushi chef. If someone has done sushi for ten years there will be a difference between me doing it once a year. It takes more time. Meats, stews, and braises I do that all time. But I do have a background in cooking. I’ve cooked for 40 years.
TCC: So you just accumulate knowledge.
MS: Yeah you get the hang of it. You start to understand certain things. I don’t think I know everything. I still learn every day. A lot of times I’ll look at something and I don’t understand it. I have to ask and find out what is going on. Why certain issues… like whipped cream.
TCC: What is difficult about whipped cream?
MS: Just the different whipped cream.. regular and ultra pasteurized. I always wonder why one holds up. I understand what it means, that ultra pasteurized doesn’t go bad. But when you make whipped cream… why does it work better? Its new to me. And its always made differently and used for other things. Why do some whipped creams collapse? You just have to fluff it up. But when it is in a bag how does it hold up?
You learn and find out new things every day. Just one thing, even whipped cream.