The Strudel Guy
Mining the strudel mother lode
The word itself is faintly funny, in an Austro-German sort of way, which is to say, not so much humourous as sternly whimsical.
It suggests, perhaps, a small, homely dog (meet Hansi, my 10-year-old strudel hound) or maybe a minor illness (I’d love to go out but I’ve got a slight case of the strudel).
The one image that does not come to mind in the same sentence with strudel, is gourmet. But then gourmet is not a term closely associated with much, if any, of Austria’s traditional cuisine. Google an Austrian menu and the first thing you find is Wienerschnitzel, quickly followed by Apfelstrudel.
Lest we forget, this is the country (and the empire) that also brought us Tafelspitz, Gulasch, Beuschel and Germknödel, dishes almost as appetizing as their names.
All of which makes meeting Alan Dennis—The Strudel Guy—such a surprise.
First of all, he’s not Austrian. He’s from New Jersey.
Second, he doesn’t wear lederhosen, he has a soul patch above his chin and a tapestry of full-circumference tattoos marching up his right arm. Is that your idea of a strudel-maker?
Third, he’s a New York, CIA-trained chef (first in his class, he says), and not a baker. So how did he become The Strudel Guy? And who cares?
To answer the first question, you have to follow a long and winding road. It starts in Manhattan where Dennis first worked as a commercial and fine-arts photographer. It then leads to a strudel epiphany on a skiing vacation in Switzerland, then to the aforementioned CIA education, a successful French restaurant in New Jersey, followed by a popular catering business, followed by a restaurant in Florida (“We got incredible reviews but nobody came.”) followed by a divorce.
“After 24 years, or 28 years—whatever it was—of being married, one day we looked at each other and we said, ahh…nnaahhh.”
With five children and a 30-year-old son in Truckee, Dennis had location options. Jarret, his Truckee son, was heading to Burning Man and suggested his dad come watch the house and the dog. So Dennis took a temporary leave of the Sunshine State and moved to the High Sierra.
In Truckee, he discovered a Thursday farmers market with an affinity for creative confection, so he dusted off a dessert recipe he once served to his restaurant and catering customers, and began making a tasty Tahitian, vanilla-bean strudel that hit the Tahoe basin like a perfect powder blizzard. Everyone loved it.
The Strudel Guy had struck the mother lode, but he still hadn’t figured out how best to mine it. And meanwhile, his Florida kids were calling. After the ski season, he went back to the land of grapefruits, thinking, “I can make strudel anywhere. But for some reason, in Florida, I couldn’t give it away.”
So for the next chapter of his life he returned to Northern California, got introduced to Sonoma County via a connection in Sebastopol and, before you could say “Millirahmstrudel,” he was baking strudel by the panload in leased kitchen space at the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa.
To answer the second question, who cares? you have to stick a fork in some strudel.
The variations are famously endless, although apfelstrudel (chopped apples, cinnamon, raisons, roasted bread crumbs, sometimes rum and various nuts) is what most people have experience with.
The Strudel Guy reaches well beyond the mainstream, with choices that include apple but then branch out to explore chocolate crunch with peanut butter (deadly decadent), fresh lemon (light, with a lovely lingering aftertaste), tiramisu with espresso ladyfingers (wow!), green tea with toasted sesame seeds (yum), fresh pear and roasted walnut and bananas Foster, to name just a tantalizing few. The flavors are rich and seductive, but not too heavy and not too sweet.
He also dabbles in savory strudels, including brown-sugar-mashed sweet potato and pulled pork (a great breakfast dish), garlic potato and fresh spinach or wild mushroom and fresh tarragon.
The strudel ingredients are combined in an industrial-sized mixing bowl before Dennis does a lay-up of multiple sheets of fillo dough, each layer coated with clarified butter, applied with a $30 house-painting brush “that has never touched a house.”
Molding the roll into a perfectly symmetrical strudel tube is a skill Dennis trusts to few, though he says Jarret knows the secret and The Strudel Guy has also hired an apprentice who responded to a posting at the junior college culinary program. Now Bennett Van Leuven helps with the assembly work as well, and has developed a skill at blending the interior ingredients.
With his son’s endorsement (“Jarret says my flavor profiles are always on the money.”) a growing following in both Wine Country and the Tahoe basin, and glowing reviews on his Facebook page, Alan Dennis may have found a gourmet niche that will see him happily through the last third of his life. His rolls are available in select stores in Sonoma, Santa Rosa and elsewhere (go to his Facebook page—acebook.com/The-Strudel-Guy-Inc—for the latest list of vendors), he’s working on farmers market permits, and he makes strudel for a variety of special events and winery parties, with exotic creations like risotto with crab and shrimp, or Italian sausage. Want something off the menu? He’ll create it for you. Call him at 530.448.2506.
If the citizens of Sonoma County play their cards right—if they buy enough strudel—Alan Dennis will likely keep rolling it out for years to come.
Who knew strudel could be this good?
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA