Willy Coln’s Chalet
Gretna: 2505 Whitney Avenue
In the early 1970s, many of the European chefs that big New Orleans hotels liked to hire to run their kitchens began to behave strangely. The typical career path for such chefs was to move from hotel to hotel every few years, often as part of the opening team for new hotels wherever in the world they were opening.
But a lot of those chefs got hooked by the uniquely funky appeal of New Orleans, and its familiar European look. And instead of leaving for another assignment, they stayed and opened their own little restaurants.
Willy Coln was the executive chef for the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the early 1970s. He built New Orleans’s first Sunday brunch buffet at Begue’s, the hotel’s continental-plush gourmet room (where it still goes on). He had very good help–his chef de cuisine was Gerard Crozier.
Willy and Gerard left the Sonesta in the summer of 1976, with separate but similar goals. By the fall, they were both operating new bistros of their own in the New Orleans suburbs.
A native of Cologne (Koln, in German), Willy thought New Orleans needed a first-class German restaurant. He didn’t consider Kolb’s as filling that need. By that time the big old downtown restaurant was declining badly and serving cartoon German food. And there was nothing else.
Nobody told Willy that German food was a hard sell in New Orleans, because it is perceived as heavy and not suited to the climate. So he went ahead and assembled a brilliant menu of marvelously delicate dishes that nevertheless had the stamp of authenticity. His pre-New Orleans career had taken him to enough other places that he had a few non-German dishes in his repertoire, too.
It was good enough for Willy Coln’s to become instantly popular. The West Bank, at that time, was home to quite a few gourmet places, so it wasn’t perceived as an expedition to go there.
And the premises were pleasant. It was a renovated house with a cathedral ceiling, big openings in the wall separating the vestibule from the dining room, and other devices that made the small space seem expansive. (Footnote: the building was owned by another famous Gretna restaurateur, Warren Leruth.)
Willy cooked up some great food. Not all of it was German. the chef also included dishes he’s served at some of his intermediate restaurant postings around the world. His long-time Sonesta sous chef Cecil Palmer (who, many years later, would open a Jamaican restaurant here) worked with him to cook the Caribbean dishes. The Bahamian seafood chowder, spicy and light, was a must-order. Willy Coln’s was, strangely, the first New Orleans restaurant to my knowledge that ever served ceviche, the Latin-American cold, marinated fish. He made good baked oysters in a little casserole, topped with gruyere cheese and onions.
The menu had relatively few German cliches. He had wiener schnitzel, beef rouladen, and a sausage and sauerkraut platter–all excellent, fresh, and light. But from there he went Continental (which is what we called generic French-inspired food back then). The steak au poivre, made with red pepper instead of peppercorns, was as good as it was different. Willy also knew that New Orleans people would lose control at the prospect of having fish topped with shrimp, crawfish, and shrimp. So that was available.
Of all the dishes I remember from the early days at Willy Coln’s, the one that stands out most in my mind was beef Stroganoff. Not German; not even what most people would consider a gourmet dish. But it was here. The sauce had, in addition to sour cream, little matchsticks of pickles. It soon fell off the menu, but I still remember that idea and use it now and then at home.
As time went on, new dishes appeared. The jaeger (hunter’s) schnitzel was a particularly good one. It started with sauteed veal medallions, covered with a light sauce with five different wild mushrooms. In the 1970s, that was quite an achievement; exotic mushrooms were very hard to come by.
The dish that made Willy Coln’s famous was the veal shank. This was the same cut of meat used for osso buco, but it was the whole shank, not cross-cut. It was enough for two people (at least), and came out with the meat falling off the bone in absurdly lip-smacking goodness and tenderness. The sauce, if you could call it that, was not much more than some of the natural outflowings from the thing, and it soaked the assortment of vegetables that surrounded the shank on its plate. It was wonderful.
It also taught a lesson to the chef. For a long time, he ran the veal shank as an off-the-menu special. Then, since he had it every night, he added it to the menu on its next printing. Sales of the thing plummeted. Apparently it was better to be described verbally than to be written about. So he reprinted the menu without it.
The restaurant was successful enough that Willy added on to the building in 1981 and gave it a more distinctly German look and name: Willy Coln’s Chalet, it was now. He’d already added an Oktoberfest celebration, featuring the wild music of Helmut Fricker, heavy decorations, and a special menu that filled the place even more than usual. After Willy closed the restaurant and became executive chef of the Inter-Continental Hotel, he took his whole Oktoberfest act with him and kept it going for over a decade.
He tried to keep from closing Willy Coln’s Chalet, but the forces were against him. Like many fine dining establishments on the West Bank, when the oil bust of the early 1980s hit, Willy Coln’s saw a great dropoff in business. The appearance of dozens of hip bistros in the Uptown section–from which many of his customers came–also hit him hard. The food was as good as ever, and he tried all sorts of promotions, but nothing worked. He sold out and went to work for the hotel, where he stayed until early 2005, when he retired completely.
The chalet Willy Coln built is now Clementine’s Belgian Bistro, and looks much the same as it did when Willy and his then-wife Erna filled it with gemutlichkeit.