|By Charlie Patton, The Florida
Times-Union, JacksonvilleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sept. 02, 2010--Growing up in Karnten, a small town in the mountains of Austria not far from the Italian border, Hermann Muller was exposed to good food young.
Both his mother and father cooked well. "In Europe, everybody was a good cook," Muller said.
But the food he was eating wasn't fine cuisine. It was "good home cooking," lots of pasta and vegetables grown in the family garden.
What gave him the idea that he might want to make a living cooking professionally was the experience of a neighbor who had gone to culinary school and then gotten a job cooking on cruise ships.
Muller wanted that life. "I wanted to see the world," he said.
The 55-year-old Muller has seen plenty of it, in a professional cooking career that has taken him from Austria to the Bahamas to New Orleans to Washington, D.C., and finally to Ponte Vedra Beach.
Today, he is executive chef at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, where he supervises a staff of 52 chefs preparing food for six dining rooms.
The menus in those dining rooms range from traditional American comfort food such as soup, burgers and fries to his "American fusion" menu in the Sea Horse Grill in the Surf Club.
Next weekend, during Delicious Destinations, an annual fundraiser for the St. Vincent's HealthCare Foundation's community outreach programs, he will prepare one of his signature dishes, Smoked Salt-Encrusted Domestic Lamb Medallions with a Gooseberry Demi-Glace over Goat Cheese with Roasted Parsnip. He and 13 other chefs from across the Southeast will prepare dishes during a $250-per-plate dinner Saturday, Sept. 11.
Muller's journey from the mountains of Austria to the oceanfront Northeast Florida began at 16 when he enrolled in culinary college. He spent the next four years studying cooking and working at various ski resorts (he's a certified ski instructor who took up the sport at age 4).
In 1976, on a lark, he and a friend took what they thought would be short-term jobs in the Bahamas at the Xanadu Princess Resort & Marina, which was once owned by the reclusive Howard Hughes. From there, Muller moved in 1980 to a Hilton hotel in New Orleans. Five years later, he went to the Washington Hilton in the nation's capital, becoming executive chef there in 1996.
During his years there, he catered an inaugural party attended by about 9,000 people, which is why serving lunch for 500 on a Fourth of July doesn't faze him, he said.
The decision to come to the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club as executive chef in 2005 wasn't easy, he said. He decided, however, that it was time for a new challenge.
He said he loves working at the oceanfront resort, where he cooks for guests of the hotel as well as for the club's membership. Each of his kitchens has its own chef de cuisine. Muller is ultimately in charge of all food preparation. "But it's not my show, not the Hermann Muller show," he said. "It's our show."
Muller's career as an American chef has coincided with a revolution in America's culinary culture.
"America has come a long way in fine dining" and "has become very adventurous," Muller said. He said he must always bear in mind that he still serves a clientele that includes people who think the ultimate fine dining is a seared filet of beef and a perfectly baked potato. But he enjoys the challenge of creating and executing an "American fusion" menu that marries typical American fare to techniques from other cuisines.
Muller said he loves "the instant gratification" of being a chef. "When people tell you, 'Wow, that's good,' that's your reward," he said.
Muller first took part in Delicious Destinations eight years ago, while he was still with the Washington Hilton, when he was one of the celebrity chefs. When he took over the kitchens at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, where the event is held each year, he said he was delighted to renew his involvement.
His wife, Marilyn, is pediatric care coordinator for Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, and her work with sick children "opened my eyes" to the need "to give back" by participating in events like Delicious Destinations.
For the chefs, it's "a fun event," he said, a chance for them to spend time together, exchanging ideas and watching each other cook good food. "It's fun for everybody," Muller said.
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