Breading schnitzels and painting delicate pastry layers with butter is not most little boys’ idea of fun, but to Ed and Ben Robson, it was the most enticing aspect of life with their grandparents in London’s Hatch End.
“They made us comfort food and encouraged us to help; it was central to our experience of visiting them,” says Ed, now 31 and co-proprietor with Ben of Boopshi’s — a restaurant named for the pet name their Viennese Oma and Opa used for each other.
“They were always cooking — we would go for Sunday lunch and end up having three or four meals in the same day. Our grandfather did all the baking but was never allowed to touch the strudel, which was the pride of our grandmother’s dessert trolley.”
Although both grew up to be restaurant managers, Ed and Ben could not have guessed that the secret to their destiny was lurking undetected in the attic.
“A box full of documents lay untouched for years after our grandparents died, but our father seemed unwilling to go through it,” explains Ben, 27.
“When we finally did, we were thrilled and amazed to discover three dog-eared cookbooks, meticulously handwritten in German and passed down from our great-grandmother — with the methods written in code!”
Armed with recipes for the schnitzel, spatzle — an egg noodle or dumpling — and strudel of their childhood, the Robsons knew the restaurant they had dreamed of running together one day would be based on the Austrian dishes of their childhood. Or, to be more precise, the Austrian-Jewish heritage which was the second surprise in the attic.
“We discovered that our grandparents had fled the Nazis and decided never to talk about their past when they arrived in Britain,” explains Ben.
“We had an idea that our grandmother’s mother had died in the camps, and that our great-aunt, who’s 93 and still living in Vienna, was in hiding during the war, but when we had asked about their early lives, they simply didn’t want to talk about it. We only found out they were Jewish from the papers they left.”
So, there was no synagogue or Shabbat candles for Nora and Fritz Rosenzeig, who seamlessly morphed into Nora and Fred Robson, harking back to their past in Vienna only when it came to their cooking.
“It was from them that we learnt about getting the oil for schnitzel incredibly hot, so that you need to cook them for 30 seconds only, leaving them crispy without soaking up the oil,” says Ben, while Ed remembers all the fun of breading and flouring.
The schnitzels are among five or six family recipes which have made it onto the menu at Boopshi’s in London’s Fitzrovia.
“We felt there was a niche for Austrian and central European food served in a modern way,” says Ben, who with Ed and their head chef, Rino Scalco, went to Vienna to see how this old world cuisine has been brought up to date. “Rino comes from Trieste, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but he knew more about the food of the Tirol than Vienna,” Ben explains.
Apart from the importance of getting the oil really hot and bashing out veal or chicken escalopes for schnitzel really thin, the Robsons think they learned a secret or two about strudel from Nora: “It’s butter — lots of it on the pastry layers,” believes Ed. They have also added a favourite dessert eaten with relatives in Vienna but not listed in the family cookbook: “Chopped-up pancakes with plum compote which are the Austrian equivalent of Eton Mess — except the whipped cream is optional,” explains Ben.
While Oma and Opa’s spatzle were plain home-made nuggets of noodle eaten with beef goulash, at Boopshi’s they are served instead with a three-cheese sauce.
“We wanted to address the vogue in London for mac and cheese,” says Ben, who feels the addition of gruyere to cheddar and Parmesan gives a taste of the Austrian alps where they also enjoyed family holidays. Milky dishes are clearly part of the family heritage: “Our grandmother always had custard and ice-cream on her dessert trolley,” says Ed.
“Which is great, because I prefer my strudel with custard and Ben likes ice-cream with his.” Which explains why you have a choice of either at Boopshi’s, even though in Vienna strudel is generally eaten plain.
One can only imagine what Oma and Opa would have thought of this interpretation, but they would surely be delighted that the well-used cookbooks are being used a century after they were written in Vienna.