CLEVELAND, Ohio – On the surface the chef tandem in Der Braumeister’s kitchen might look like a bit of an odd couple, but it’s anything but.
Linda Hoertz has been the main cook, mostly a solo show night in and night out in the Lorain Avenue restaurant that has been around almost 40 years. It’s ingrained in the community, a family-run place with business-savvy daughter Jenn Wirtz running things.
Early on in the coronavirus pandemic Wirtz struck a deal with the Cleveland Clinic to serve meals to frontline workers. Good for business, but a burden on Hoertz.
“I knew I needed help,” she said.
Enter Jason Quinlan.
What has developed is a friendship and a great working relationship between Hoertz and Quinlan. And with his recent hire, Quinlan becomes the first person from outside the restaurant’s family ownership to be named chef.
Quinlan’s foray into food started years ago for the 2001 Jackson High School graduate. He started at Kent State but found himself more interested in the Food Network than college life.
“Alton Brown specifically, the science behind the cooking, then I would try to recreate those things,” he said. “And I wasn’t very good at that time. My dad mentioned to me, ‘You don’t know what you want to do, why don’t you try to get a job cooking?’ “
He applied to Longhorn Steakhouse. No experience meant no job, he found out quickly. So he jumped back into school, but this time it was more in line with his interests: He enrolled at Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona. When he returned to Northeast Ohio he met restaurateur Marlin Kaplan, former owner of One Walnut in downtown Cleveland, and worked there. He found his way to Spice of Life Catering and quickly found himself amid the communal world of catering, with chefs helping each other.
“Once you get the catering bug it’s fun to cater,” Quinlan said. “It’s a challenge. You don’t have a home-base kitchen. It’s like, ‘Here’s this closet, figure this out.’ It’s great for problem solving. I learned a lot (about) how to solve a lot of problems.”
He also began managing Spice’s farmers market stands in Shaker Heights and Peninsula.
“That’s where I learned how to talk to people,” he said. “As a cook you don’t really have to talk to people that much. But there my job was to sell stuff.”
He had a chance to meet people “who really care about what they are doing” and eventually moved to Marigold Catering. He was enjoying life as a caterer but through a mutual friend met Der Brau owner Wirtz. They met, talked, and shared ideas. She offered him a job and he turned it down, comfortable in his catering gig.
But, he said, “Eventually she got me. She’s good at that.”
That’s when Quinlan and Hoertz became a team.
Working in a commercial kitchen doesn’t require that you are BFFs with everyone in there. But it’s important to have that rhythm of working, like dance partners moving in sync or collaborators working without ego.
Ask Hoertz if she is mentoring him, and Quinlan will answer: “Yes.”
She says: “It’s a team effort.”
They both say things clicked between them and that they are similar in personalities.
“I haven’t had anyone to collaborate with in a while,” he said. ‘After writing 150 catering menus by yourself the well starts to get a little dry. You need the collaboration to come up with new things and new ideas. When it’s constantly coming from you it’s a very selfish point of view.”
And that’s why the tandem works well: Quinlan – who stands more than a foot taller than Hoertz – brings new ideas but respects Der Brau’s traditions. Hoertz teaches but learns at the same time.
“It’s so nice to have Jason because we throw stuff back and forth to each other,” said Hoertz, who goes by her family’s originally spelling of her name. “It’s nice to have somebody you can do that with.”
Quinlan sees his initial role as learning the menu and honoring the way the restaurant has operated for 38 years. And that, he said, has been “kind of fun.”
“I had planned to retire, but now with Jason here, I’ve got this new spark again,” Hoertz said.
“It’s nice to have a resource of someone to talk to,” Quinlan said. “If this (dish) isn’t working out for me – ‘What do you think? Have you done this before, how did you do it?’ “
Hoertz is responsible for how things have been done in Der Brau’s kitchen for decades. Her parents started the business, and several years ago Wirtz, who studied art history in New York, returned and jumped back into the restaurant, bringing a strong work ethic and business acumen.
“She has an incredible drive,” Quinlan said about Wirtz. “That was a huge selling point for me; that’s someone to attach your cart to. She’s going to get business when times are tough, and she’s going to get it done.”
Wirtz is happy with her new chef, who just completed two weeks on the job.
“The decision to hire someone outside of our family to lead our kitchen after so many years was certainly not an easy one,” she said. “However, I knew from my first meeting with Jason that he would be the right person for this transition. He’s not only creative, talented and shares the same food philosophies as me, but he’s also incredibly down to earth and willing to learn our history. I know he will take great care to preserve what my family has built, while helping move us forward into the brighter future.”
Added Hoertz: “I just get along with Jason so well. Having someone to talk with is so nice. Jenny would just shout out to me ‘I want this, this and this.’ And I’d have to come up with it. This way, I get to talk with Jason. Now she tells him what she wants,” drawing a chuckle from Quinlan.
Quinlan is getting a chance to bring his touches to the menu.
“I’d like to infuse some different styles,” he said. “I’m big into the sous-vide thing, and I think this type of food will really elevate things. German food has a lot of meat and pork and roasts, and sous vide lends itself to that.”
They share techniques, learning from each other.
“It’s funny how you can make the same thing two different ways,” Quinlan said. “They both are good, just different.”
Business has been “pretty good,” Hoertz said, but not over-the-top crazy, which has been a blessing for Quinlan, whose transition into a new place is without the proverbial baptism by fire. It’s allowing “more time to get my feet under me, learn things, try some new things, implement some changes week by week.”
A new menu will be coming in the early 2021. But that doesn’t mean an overhaul of favorites. Schnitzel – veal, pork and chicken – is a big seller, along with various sausage plates. Those will stay, of course. And there’s no reason to sub out goulash or chicken paprikash, they said.
“That’s been great for me,” Quinlan said. “A lot of times you go into a place – ‘This is the way it is, you can’t change this, don’t mess with anything’. They have not been like that at all. It’s ‘learn how to do it first, then go from there.’ They have a good clientele here. If I’m the new guy who comes in and burns the menu and completely changes it, they’re not going to be too happy to me.”
Some things won’t change. Wirtz has an affinity for good beer and ability to procure special taps – “We call her the beer babbler,” Hoertz said.
“She knows so much about beer,” Quinlan said. “I’m looking forward to doing beer dinners with her.” The restaurant will hold its annual “12 Beers of Christmas” on Wednesday, Nov. 25. That day, Quinlan said, they will have a special holiday menu in place. And a new happy hour started Oct. 30 and features Strammer Max – a toasted open-faced sandwich with ham, fried egg and herbs. Which is fine with Hoertz, who had it on the menu a few years ago.
The duo will bring their collaborative style to the kitchen, which boasts a 2-foot by 2-foot butcher’s block table Quinlan and Hoertz love. Until an overhaul a few years ago, that table was dinged with countless mini grooves from years of pounding schnitzel into thin submission for diners who love the traditional breaded meal.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation,” Quinlan said. “It all clicked and worked early on. I came in here one night and worked the line with Linda and I knew right away.”
“It clicked with me,” Hoertz said.
I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. And tune in at 8:05 a.m. Fridays for “Beer with Bona and Much, Much More” with Munch Bishop on 1350-AM The Gambler.