Lower East Side, New York
Erwin Schröttner is the owner of the Lower East Side eatery Café Katja in New York City. Growing up on a farm just outside of Graz, Styria, he developed an early interest in fresh and homemade food. At the age of 15, he started apprenticing in various restaurants and hotel kitchens, actively pursuing a culinary career. After a few stints in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, Erwin made his way to New York in 1998. There he met his friend and business partner Andrew Chase. Together they worked on and off both at Monkey Bar and the former Mark Hotel, for about eight years before eventually opening Café Katja on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Where in Austria are you originally from? Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up?
I am from Ligist, which is a small town about 20 minutes outside of Graz, where the Schilcherstrasse begins. I grew up on a farm and was introduced to fresh food, live stock, and home made goods from an early age on. Growing up with fresh vegetables and fruits from our farm, I fell in love with food when I was about 5 years old. We raised our own chickens, rabbits, fish and pigs for our daily meals. We had bee hives with honey from surrounding flowers like chestnuts, pine trees, and clover. I developed a foundation in cooking from my family. We made our own sausages, smoked bacon, and jarred vegetables and fruit.
How did you end up in New York?
After I had finished my apprenticeship in Austria, I worked in St. Moritz, Lausanne, and Germany. At age 25, I had the desire to work outside of Europe and had offers to go to South Africa, Australia, and the U.S. I chose a hotel in Washington D.C. and worked there for one year. After that, I moved to New York City where I worked in a few restaurants and a hotel. Eventually, I opened my own restaurant.
What challenges did you face in the beginning opening your restaurant?
When Cafe Katja opened, it was a tiny neighborhood restaurant with only 24 seats. My business partner, Andrew Chase, had the idea to open something on Manhattan’s Lower East Side because it was an up and coming area with reasonable rent prices. We went over quite a few concepts before I realized that all I wanted was a place in New York where I could enjoy a proper drafted beer with a nice foam. That is how the concept was born. The actual name, Katja, is the name of one of my daughters.
Can you tell us a little bit about Café Katja?
Cafe Katja is a neighborhood restaurant with traditional Austrian comfort food. We are dedicated to a fine selection of European beers and some of the best vintages of Austrian wines. I enjoy serving the food that I grew up with, prepared by recipes from my mother. So far it has worked wonders. In your opinion, how is Austrian cuisine received here in the U.S.? German Americans make up about 17.1% of the U.S. population (61 million folks), thus, making them the biggest ethnic group in the country. Many of the foods that we eat today are Americanized versions of German-Austrian foods. German immigrants settled in large numbers across the United States and kept their food and culinary traditions like beer, sausages, desserts and all things barbecue (the German population that settled in central Texas definitely left their mark). This is a demographic that we relate to. Everything old is new again with the upsurge in sustainable farming and local organic produce.
In your own words, how would you describe Austrian cuisine and what is your all-time favorite Austrian dish?
When you talk about Austrian Cuisine, the first thing that comes to mind is the Viennese pastry, and not to forget all the regional food throughout Austria’s provinces. The country is also known for its stews, pasta dishes like spaetzle, along with a wide range of traditionally prepared dumplings. Also worth mentioning are the salads and vegetables that Austrian cuisine has to offer. My favorite meal would have to be a beef goulash with spaetzle and a proper drafted beer.
What are some of your favorite places in New York?
New York is one of the greatest cities in the world. I do not know where to start with my favorite place. I enjoy walks in Central Park and visiting the Fulton fish market. Since I live in New Jersey, watching the skyline at night is also a favorite of mine.
Are there any special stories to tell that happened to you or in one of your restaurants?
Mistakenly, one time someone thought that I was Richard Gere. My wife had a good laugh about it and said that I am more like Willy Wonka.
The last question: Looking into the future, what is in store for you? What would you like to accomplish?
Cafe Katja is named after one of my daughters. Since I have three girls, the other two are now pressuring me to open a restaurant for each of them. So that will be my next focus.
For delicious Austrian food and drinks, visit:
79 Orchard Street New York,
NY 10002 (212) 291-9545
Interview: Anja Mayer