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Horst Mager: Portland's First Celebrity Chef

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An empire builder and TV personality, with a lasting legacy.

Horst Mager with Julia Child at his French restaurant L'Omelette
Horst Mager with Julia Child at his French restaurant L'Omelette

Amid the rapid-fire restaurant openings and steady stream of transplants, it's easy to loose the thread of Portland's culinary history. So as we continue our Classics Week celebration of the city's stalwarts, we decided it's time for a few history lessons. We asked local writer Heather Arndt Anderson, author of the recently published culinary history book ""Portland: A Food Biography," to school us on the some of the people and places of the past. Next in the series is: Horst Mager, perhaps Portland's first celebrity chef and restaurant empire kingpin.

Before chefs like Jenn Louis, Naomi Pomeroy or even Caprial Pence graced our television screens, before entrepreneurs like Kurt Huffman and Micah Camden launched Portland restaurant empires, there was Horst Mager.

In the mid-1950s, the young Mager was a recent transplant to the States, having grown up in his father's restaurant in Hesse, Germany. But after visiting his sister in Missouri, he decided to try his hand at the American dream. He took a job at the Sheraton in St. Louis.

In 1959, when the Lloyd Center shopping mall was being built, Sheraton recruited the 28-year-old to come to Oregon and open the restaurant in its new Portland hotel, the Lloyd Center Sheraton.

After proving his mettle as a sous chef in a first-class hotel kitchen, Mager bought into widow Maria Kald's restaurant, Maria's Swedish Dinners on NE Sandy Blvd., and took over as head chef in 1963. At Maria's, Mager was able to relax a bit from stuffy hotel fare and cook the food of the Fatherland — family specialties that came naturally to the seventh-generation chef.

His ascent was celestial. In 1964, he was selected for a Chef's Choice award by the Chefs du Cuisine Society of Oregon. The following year, Mager changed the name of the restaurant to the one it bears today — Der Rheinländer — and the television offers began to roll in.

In 1965, Mager began appearing on a show on KOIN-TV called Chef's Gourmet. Throughout the late 1960s and early '70s, he was a regular guest on the cooking program KOIN Kitchen, before becoming the show's host in 1973. He played up the jolly Bavarian persona, though in real life it has been rumored by numerous local industry professionals that he was something of a bear to work for. Julia Child appeared on the show in 1975. It wasn't until 1977 — 12 years after opening — that Der Rheinländer got its first proper restaurant review. But by then it didn't matter; Horst Mager had made himself a household name.

In the 1970s and '80s, he expanded his empire by opening a series of other (sometimes ill-fated) Europrean restaurants as part of Specialty Restaurants, Inc. There was the Irish-inspired Blarney's Castle; Chateau La France; the very upscale Couch Street Fish House (yes, that was its name), complete with limo service; and a half dozen or so others. His French restaurant L'Omelette, with its open kitchen, was evidently much loved by Julia Child and James Beard.

Unsatisfied with restaurants and TV shows, Mager opened his own culinary school. The Horst Mager Culinary Institute opened in the Olds, Wortman and King department store building on SW 10th and Alder in 1983 (later to be renamed Western Culinary Institute, now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts). He also had a series of endorsement deals; Reser's Fine Foods gave him his own line of Bavarian potato salads.

Although most of his restaurants couldn't survive the 1980s, Rheinlander and the spinoff Gustav's bierstube restaurants have endured, and daughter Suzeanne Mager is at the helm now that he's retired. She's even expanding into the Keizer area with a new concept called Bargarten, set to open in April.

And Rheinlander is still the only place in town where one may eat while being serenaded by a yodeling accordion player in bundhosen and a Tyrolean hat.

Gustav's Bier Stube

5035 NE Sandy Blvd, Portland, OR 97213 (503) 288-5503