Master Chef Norbert Schulz
It’s been 35 years since Master Chef Norbert Schulz and his long-time business partner, Brigitte Guehr, first opened a restaurant in Santa Barbara, and no one could have known – least of all Norbert and Brigitte – that his eponymous first offering “Norbert’s” would set in motion a career that would transform Santa Barbara’s dining landscape forever.
Starting his apprenticeship at age 15 (a common occurrence in Germany’s vocational system), over the next six years Norbert would learn every station in kitchens throughout Germany while graduating from trade school with his basic cook’s certification. Along the way he met Brigitte while working at the hotel where she was going through hospitality management training. They hit it off and stuck together, traveling from hotel to hotel, following Germany’s seasonal hospitality industry while they continued to gain experience. “It’s funny,” remarks Brigitte, “when we first started going out I told him it wasn’t going to be a long term relationship, that I was just training in Germany and then I was going to America. He said, ‘Oh. I’ve always wanted to go to America. I guess I’ll come along.’ And I think I replied with something like, ‘Oh, okay. Fine.’”
They first moved to Los Angeles, where Norbert worked in a few restaurants over the next five years before accruing the 10 years of experience necessary to apply to the esteemed Master Chef program back in Germany. After months of strenuous training, Norbert the cook returned to the U.S. as one of few certified Master Chefs, moving briefly to Seattle at the urging of Brigitte’s parents. They decided they wanted to open their own restaurant, but a lack of appealing spaces and general displeasure with Seattle’s climate caused Brigitte to think back to a happy weekend spent in Santa Barbara during their stint in L.A. “I want to move to Santa Barbara,” she said one day out of the blue. “Fine,” he replied. “Get me a restaurant or a good job, and I’ll go.”
“This was the old days,” says Brigitte. “No Google, no easy access to information. I called up a real estate broker and asked her to send me a Santa Barbara News Press. When we opened it up, right there in the classifieds was a job opening at the Biltmore. So we got in our old van and drove to Santa Barbara.” The Biltmore’s General Manager was German, so Norbert bonded with him right away and a job offer followed shortly thereafter.
“It was a good job, but we really wanted our own restaurant,” says Brigitte. While Norbert had been interviewing, she’d gone to look at a restaurant for sale on the corner of Montecito and Mason Streets – not the most stylish of Santa Barbara’s neighborhoods. “It was a dump,” deadpans Brigitte, “A total disaster. There were roaches and rats, completely filthy. They wanted $80k for a business with no customers. We offered $50k – every penny we had in the world – and the agent called me back that afternoon. Apparently we’d bought a restaurant.”
They cleaned for days and did the modest renovation themselves, with a little help from Brigitte’s father, who had driven down from Seattle to lend a hand. “I told him,” Norbert recalls with amusement, “I need a sign before you leave. He went into the scrap pile, took out two plywood sheets and hand-painted ‘Norbert’s’ on them. We just put them on the wall – no permits or anything. I think we still have those signs somewhere.”
They didn’t have beer or wine, because the permit took two months and they didn’t have the money not to open. There was no real advertising or press – they took out a tiny little ad in the News Press announcing “New Restaurant Opening”. But somehow, against all odds, Norbert’s was packed from the very beginning, and with a surprising clientele. New luxury cars began populating the streets around the restaurant, people started coming in sport coats and cocktail dresses. “It was completely bizarre,” recalls Brigitte, “I would ask customers, ‘How did you find out about us?’ And they would say, ‘Oh, Linda told us’. This went on for about six weeks. Who’s this Linda? This mysterious Linda?” It would turn out that Linda, their de facto publicist and early champion, was a legendary hairdresser at the Miramar Hotel’s hair salon. “Every little old lady from Montecito went to that salon and she told all of them to come to Norbert’s”, says Brigitte. “So we were off a good start, and we just advanced from there.”
Advance they did. Incredibly favorable reviews from a number of respected publications would follow, as would visitors from all over the state, and later the world. Julia Child became a regular patron and friend, along with many of Santa Barbara’s other noteworthy residents. As Norbert and Brigitte’s renown grew, so did new opportunities. There was a new, much more upscale iteration of Norbert’s, one that would garner multiple awards from Bon Appetite and Gourmet Magazines and was listed as one of Travel and Leisure’s 12 Best Restaurants in the United States. There was also a bevy of other new restaurants: Brigitte’s (which would eventually become Opal, still next to the Arlington Theater today), Oyster’s (the original restaurant where Bouchon is now), Allegro, Fennel and Café B’s. Brigitte and Norbert were original partners in Downey’s, trained the eventual chefs of The Santa Barbara Club, Montecito Café, Jane, Fresco and the aforementioned Opal. Later Norbert helped start Pure Joy Catering and developed his own rolodex of private catering clients, which is where his genius has been most recently on display. For all of these reasons, the argument can strongly be made that Norbert and Brigitte are significantly responsible for bringing contemporary fine dining to Santa Barbara and indelibly furthering its expansion.
But in retrospect, what has most significantly defined Norbert and Brigitte’s career thus far isn’t the awards or the success their ventures have garnered – it’s the relationships they’ve developed, both with their staff and their patrons. “What’s been most rewarding for us,” says Brigitte, “is that we’ve had the opportunity to get to know the members of our community and mentor some really great young people along the way. So many of them have been able to take their experience with us and use it to create their own stories. So many have gone on to become successful in the industry, to manage, cook for and start their own restaurants. We haven’t had a restaurant here for years, but I still walk down State Street and someone will run up and hug me and say, ‘Brigitte! Remember me?’ We must have done something right all those years.”
This sentiment is echoed by Kendrick and Alessia Guehr, Brigitte and Norbert’s children. “You create a family working in a kitchen,” says Alessia, who also happens to be a pastry cook with a resumé including The Biltmore, Renaud’s and Le Marais in San Francisco. “There’s really no other way to describe it, because you spend so much of your time with these people, holidays and weekends, late nights or early mornings, and most of the time under a lot of pressure. So all of the people that have worked with them over the years, they’re like our family. They used to nanny us, keep an eye on us – they all helped raise us.”
“We keep hearing about how deeply our parents changed all of these people’s lives,” says Kendrick, a realtor in Santa Barbara. “So now we feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to maybe become a part of that too.”
Which brings us to the family’s newest venture, the Nook. “I think, no matter what,” says Kendrick, visibly emotional, “we always wanted to carry on their legacy. Now we have a chance to keep building it with them.”
“Norbert and I never expected or even mentioned that we wanted them to follow us,” says Brigitte. “In fact, Norbert would say, ‘I never want them in this [restaurant] world – it’s too hard, too stressful.’ But I think we both feel like it’s really nice to see them taking this interest. Alessia’s cooking and Kendrick’s going to help with management.”
“When we first came to Santa Barbara,” says Norbert, “we just wanted to have a fun little restaurant at the beach. We didn’t want to be famous – I would have been happy making good hamburgers. We just wanted to have a good place that made people happy and allowed us to live and work here.” The Nook will be a return to these simpler beginnings.
“In this country,” says Brigitte, “everyone likes a great burger. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like a great burger. And when you go to the Middle East, a flat bread is like their burger, it’s just what everyone eats. And you go to Germany, you get your sausage, Mexico, your street taco. To me, comfort food is not fried chicken. Comfort food is global. It’s the food that is eaten on a daily basis by all people in any country. Rich or poor, gourmet or gourmand, each culture has their own food for all people.”
Norbert intends to create a menu drawing from these inspirations the world over, a menu filled with clean, inauspiciously presented and accessibly priced dishes, perfect for either a grab and go lunch or a long dinner with friends over a beer or glass of wine. Simpler than the dishes from his white table cloth background, yes, but still informed by the expertise and creativity that he’s so capably cultivated for more than fifty years. But as integral as they are, it’s more than expertise and creativity that determines a restaurant’s success. As Brigitte points out, “You can taste love in great food. Be it a taco stand or Michelin starred restaurant in France, the love of the person creating it is what elevates food from good to great, and Norbert’s love for what he’s doing has always been our secret.”
“Norbert has a story behind each thing he cooks,” says Kendrick. “Whether it’s a sauce or a technique, each aspect of a dish means something to him, it calls up a memory or a feeling, and that translates into how much care he puts into each dish.”
“He’s never satisfied finding a comfort zone,” Alessia chimes in. “’Oh, you liked the dish okay?’ Well that’s not okay with him. Next time he’s going to change it and make sure you like it that much more. That’s the difference. That’s passion.”