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BY CARA ROBERTS MUREZ
For The Register-Guard
Appeared in print: Wednesday, Sep 1, 2010
Thomas Bruno Bollag’s passion is creating food that’s unique, fresh and perfectly cooked.
He puts his devotion to artful cuisine on the plate every night that he cooks for the diners at his south Eugene restaurant, Bruno’s Chef’s Kitchen.
The love of cooking was passed along to him by his father, a San Francisco Bay-area restaurateur. The world cuisine Bollag prepares at Chef’s Kitchen is influenced by summers spent in Switzerland, where both his parents were raised. At 13, he was an apprentice in his father’s restaurant, L’Auberge, and at 17, he was an apprentice at the Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich under a Parisian chef.
"The magic of the food happens at the moment when it's being cooked."
BRUNO’S CHEF’S KITCHEN
Chef’s Kitchen challenges the adage that location is everything. Tucked into a nook between Hilyard Street and West Amazon Drive, hidden behind a wall and nestled under leafy greenery next door to Jiffy Mart and a laundromat, the place is beyond cozy: It has just 30 seats, 20 more when the covered patio is open in warmer weather.
This is the studio where Chef Tom “Bruno” Bollag plies his culinary art. It is a family venture. Bessie, Bruno’s wife of nearly 25 years, manages the front. Four of their children—Charlie, Joe, Sam and Max—work in the kitchen or on the floor. The space is tight; service flows with the economy of dance.
It’s pretty, recently remodeled and repainted. The walls are now a shade of chartreuse, the curtains a deep burgundy, tables plain blond wood.
What started in 1994 as a fine-food drive-through and self-service restaurant has evolved into a semi-secret nook for area seekers of haute cuisine. The food that comes to the table in Chef’s Kitchen ranks with the best the Eugene area has to offer, at bargain prices for those who know fine dining beyond the Emerald Empire. There’s passion in the food, and the passion emerges from the kitchen.
Bruno Bollag was bred to fine food. Born in Santa Monica in 1951, he grew up in two worlds—in sunny Southern California, where his father operated a French restaurant, L’Auberge; and in Zurich, Switzerland. In that European nation, where Bollag has dual citizenship, he began his chef’s training at age 16 under “old school,” Escoffier-trained chefs in the great Hotel Baur au Lac restaurant. There Bollag learned to be “a safe person in the kitchen, safe for the public.”
But Bollag credits his heritage, especially his grandmother—“I used to sit as a boy and watch her cook”—with conveying the gift that’s “on the tongue.”
Years later, while attending the University of Denver (Bollag graduated in 1973 with degrees in business administration and hotel management), he worked at restaurants with other Swiss chefs, refining his skills and tuning his intuitive palate. He gained experience in San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel, two Oregon Coast hotels and Bend’s Inn at the Seventh Mountain before he quit the world of corporate hospitality.
In 1979, Bollag landed at Eugene’s La Primavera. With him, he brought his French-chef father’s concept of fresh food: “[My father said] the food was being grown right outside the door, the wine was from that city, the cows were producing milk. ... There was a magic to the food because it all fit together. It united itself because the plants and animals were drinking the same water, breathing the same air, living on the same spot. … When I moved to Eugene, I saw that here.”
From 1980 to 1984, Bruno’s Bistro (which occupied a space now held by Chanterelle) laid the groundwork for Chef’s Kitchen. Now, finally, Bollag can fully express his father’s lessons and his own vision for fine food. “When I put a piece of meat or cheese or fish in front of somebody, with my sauce on it, what I get when I look into their faces, that’s the best feeling in the world,” Bollag says.
Signature dishes? Bollag suggests opening with ahi sashimi kahuna ($10.95) or razor clams ($8.95). The essential entree, he says, is plum-curried halibut ($23.95), a fillet broiled with cassis yellow curry and shrimp, and served with plum chutney: “There’s something really special that happens on that plate,” he says.
The menu changes frequently, yet some favorites carry over. “Every menu I do something that’s never been done, by me or anyone else,” Bollag says. “There’s always one item that’s a totally new creation.” The wine list is modest—six whites, a dozen reds—priced fairly.
At last, Chef Bruno Bollag is where he was meant to be. “Even if I were the bloody richest man in the world, I’d still want to be here cooking,” he says. Surely, his grandmother would be pleased, but it’s his regular diners who leave enriched.
It’s the second night of the Oregon Wine Symposium and over 800 wine enthusiasts have descended on the Eugene area. For over a week now I have been asking everyone I meet: “Have you heard of Bruno’s Chefs Kitchen?” From Eugene locals, wine writers and general foodies, no one had heard of this place. I was beginning to get nervous; I found reference to the restaurant through Yelp.com and had since became very excited and talked it up to my coworkers. Before getting to Eugene I feared we may not get a table, half an hour before dinner I feared the restaurant may not be real! How can no one have heard of this place? I’ll tell you….
Bruno’s Chef's Kitchen is one of the best little gems I have found in a long while. Talk about food and service just for the love of the craft. Off the beaten path in Eugene, Oregon lies a little oasis lacking in pretention but thick with exotic flavors and warm service. Tom “Bruno” and Bessie Bollag opened Chef’s Kitchen over 15 years ago as an easy place for people to get high quality food quickly and affordably. It has evolved into a fine dining establishment with a great deal of soul.
We started our meal with an appetizer of seared tuna sashimi and some barbequed baby back ribs. WOW, both were delicious with our Evolution and be careful of that wasabi! HELLO! Next we had a lovely hearts of palm salad with red peppers, kalamata olives and feta. It was at this point in the meal that we got up to visit another table of wine workers from Anne Amie Winery to share and sample the wines we both brought. When we returned to our table the entrees had arrived: a beef tenderloin that was so tender I could have eaten it with a spoon and a chicken schnitzel that had the perfect texture balancing between the crispy coating and the juicy insides. What a match our bottle of Meditrina was. To finish it off we had flan and a decadent cheesecake!
Thank you to Bruno and Bess for a wonderful dinner and if you are ever in Eugene, take our word for it - this place is real and worth every bit of effort it takes to find it!
article by Michael Brown, Direct Sales Manager