Confessions of a Cafe Select schnitzel chef
"I have to be honest, I have no passion for the schnitzel," were the first words out of executive chef Stan Matusevich's mouth when I stepped into the kitchen at Café Select, the Swiss-themed restaurant on Lafayette Street in Soho.
While stuffing and tying brook trout for dinner service, he tried to explain his aversion: "I grew up in Russia and to me, it's like something you have at home. It's a home dish."
Soft-spoken, with dark close-cropped hair and a goatee, Matusevich—who is leaving Café Select this week to open up a new restaurant called Fish Tag—explained that he's simply had enough.
"It's our biggest seller, but when you make something a lot you just don't like it that much anymore," he said. (He can't eat hamburgers anymore either: "I consulted with Stand Burger in Union Square for a few months. I had so many that I was done. Never again.")
Then again, as a chef, he has different expectations than the average paying customer.
"When I go out to a restaurant I want the sweetbreads, the brains and the sea urchins," he said.
Café Select is a comfort-food restaurant in fancy clothes, a fashionable place for fashionable people whose menu is nevertheless designed to evoke a Central European canteen.
"I think that's why we make the schnitzel, and I think that's why it sells so well here," he said.
"To make this, you don't have to be a good cook," he said. When told that people praise his schnitzel as one of the city's best, he demurred.
"I think Wallsé has the best schnitzel," he said of Kurt Gutenbrunner's West Village-Austrian institution. "But ours is pretty good."
Appropriately, there are no deep secrets to the schnitzel of Café Select. Freshness is key, as is the temperature of the fat when the cutlet is fried.
It starts with a decent cut of meat. Describing the menu-building process he went through with Swiss consulting chef Jo Herde, Matusevich recalled some difficulty figuring out where to procure veal that was consistently good.
"We tried sourcing several types of veal in the beginning," he said. "We found that grass-fed veal is just really tough."
The other issue with veal, he said, is price.
"Veal is expensive—there's no going around it," he said. "It costs more than beef, which always bothered me because, to me, beef takes more time and costs more money to produce."
Gesturing toward a hulking piece of meat sitting on the counter in front of us—a top round bought from Plume de Veau—he said, "This costs us $12.99 to $15.99 a pound."
Cut from the top part of the leg, the top round has already been cleaned off, which means there's little to no scrap—defined here as cuts of meat that aren't big enough to be made into schnitzel or veal piccata.
Not that those bits go to waste, either.
"Small scraps, we throw in a sauce or add to sausage or terrines," Matusevich said. "There's no waste. We can't afford it."
When making schnitzel in bulk, he explained, the cut of meat is particularly important.
"I want the biggest possible cross-section," he said. "I need a 5.5- to 6-ounce medallion."
To pound the schnitzel out before cooking—a process for which home chefs would typically use ziploc bags or plastic wrap—Matusevich uses vacuum bags, "which the the Health Department gives me hell over every time, because they think we're cooking sous vide," but that he keeps using because he can pound out fifty pieces of meat without the bag breaking or falling apart.
Sandwiching a medallion between two bags, he hit it repeatedly with the waffled side of a mallet, starting at the center.
"It's not about hitting it hard, it's about hitting it evenly," he said.
When it was pounded to half its original thickness, he switched to the flat side of the mallet, which is less likely to put holes through the meat as it thins. (Whatever holes do result from the pounding process can effectively be glued shut during the breading stage.)
An eighth of an inch produces the best meat-to-breading ratio, he said. Any thicker and the crust will burn before the meat finishes cooking. Any thinner and you're left with too much breading, which Matusevich says is gross.
"It's like chicken-fried steak with too much chicken-fried on it," he said.
When the pounding was done, Matusevich was left with a piece of meat that was thin, and imposingly big.
"You want a schnitzel that covers the plate," he said. "That's standard. That's tradition."
It's at this point in the process—after the meat is prepped—that the Café Select chefs make their first break from tradition. For the batter, they use eggwash and ... Panko breadcrumbs.
The batter and breading are supposed to make a seal, trapping moisture, and creating the large bubbles on top for which schnitzel is famous. The key to having that nice bubbly schnitzel is making it fresh.
"We only make as many as we're going to sell in a day," he said. "If we make 16 orders and run out, we run out."
In a concession to speed, though, the Café Select crew pounds and breads the individual schnitzel ahead of time, during prep.
"Where Wallsé differs from us, I think, is that they pound and bread theirs to order," Matusevich said. "Theirs comes out and it's ridiculous. It has huge bubbles the size of my head on it. I think that bubble size is what people associate with a good schnitzel."
Not coincidentally, Wallsé's price-point is higher, and its dining room relatively un-hectic. To Matusevich, those are luxuries he doesn't have.
Which leads to his last, and most controversial, departure from tradition: he deep-fries his schnitzel.
"I'll probably get lynched by some Swiss food purists, but it works," Matusevich says of his method, which ensures consistent cooking temperatures. "The oil has to be pretty clean, obviously. We change our oil daily."
He suggested that Wallsé cooks theirs slower while basting it, which allows for one huge bubble to form, but as far as taste goes, "We've done side-by-side testing and there's no difference in flavor or color between frying and using a pan."
Herde, the Swiss consulting chef, often stops into Café Select when he's homesick and wants a schnitzel, Matusevich said.
"We'd switched to the fryer and he comes in and says, 'This schnitzel is so good, this is perfect—you guys finally got it right!' I'm like, 'First of all, that hurts my feelings. Second of all, we're deep-frying this.'"
Finished off with a sprinkle of salt and a spritz of lemon, the deep-fried schnitzel is crispy and surprisingly light, the veal tender enough to cut with a fork. It's served on the plate with a tiny little salad on the side, which is all there's room for.
Photography by Jasmine Moy.