by Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
My wife Carol and I first experienced Augie Mrozowski’s cuisine at his restaurant in Sarasota, Fla. around 1995. It was a 40 seat converted pizza place that had recently been named Restaurant of the Year in Sarasota. It was not long after, that we saw signs for a new restaurant coming to Springfield – Augies Front Burner.
First some history on Augie. His parents arrived in Springfield from Germany in 1951 sponsored by Catholic Charities. His father was a chef, and Augie started as an apprentice in the kitchens of the St. Nicholas Hotel in downtown Springfield at 14 years of age. He did it all and had the great opportunity to work under some famous local chefs and restaurateurs: George Bauer, who went on to own Bauer’s Restaurant and Opera House, and Peter Duer, who became general manager of the Sangamo Club. Augie credits the St. Nick and the chefs he worked under for teaching him the basics of browning, roasting and steaming. The restaurants at the St. Nick were famous for their soups and often featured eight a day. He learned and still practices to this day the importance of “working clean, quick (often there would be over 1,000 meals a day) and neat.”
He received his associate degree in business administration from Lincoln Land Community College and credits the college with providing him the basics in operating a successful business. This was before the college had a culinary program, and he still uses what he learned in Business Law and Business Marketing classes to this day.
His next venture was opening hotels for the AMS Corporation. They were establishing Ramadas in a number of Midwest cities. Augie traveled from one city to another for two years training staff and developing procedures.
The Forum 30 (now the Wyndham)) brought him back to Springfield, and he was primarily responsible for their bakery. It was a full bakery operation, and some days, Augie would make over 4,000 rolls for the various restaurants and banquets. The hotel had four restaurants. Sometimes he would work 48 hours straight without a day off preparing all the breads and pastries.
Warm and sunny Florida was next on his horizon, and he worked his way up to executive chef at Café L’Europe located at St. Armand’s in Sarasota. Café L’Europe for 42 years continues to be one of the top dining venues in Sarasota. The restaurant serves continental cuisine, has an extensive wine list and features elegant seating both inside and out. We enjoy sitting next to the front windows and watching all the people shopping and strolling St. Armand’s. When you visit Café L’Europe you can still see a picture of the staff from a number of years ago, and of course a young Augie is included wearing his culinary whites and chef’s toque. Augie was there for 19 years and his Bean Cakes, Brandy Duck and Potato Grouper are still featured on the menu. Some of the staff still remember Chef Augie and provide great stores of his time there. One staffer, Mr. Sanchez, always asks us to say hi to Augie when we return to Springfield. It has been our a practice of sending Augie his photo when dining at Café L’Europe.
In 1992, Augie opened his own restaurant in Sarasota. He converted a 40-seat pizza restaurant and opened the “Original” Augie’s Front Burner. It was not long before his restaurant had long lines starting at 5 nightly and in 1995 was named the “Best All Around Restaurant” in Sarasota. It was his opportunity to create his own restaurant and the emphasis was on French cuisine.
In 1997, Augie returned to Springfield to open up his first Augie’s Front Burner on Second Street. Not long after, he moved to his current location on Fifth. I sat down with Augie last week, and I am happy to share some of culinary-related thoughts.
His cooking philosophy continues to be using the “best quality ingredients prepared in the correct manner.” He often butchers (he prides himself on attempting to use all the parts) his own cows and is currently in the market for one. He has a large garden in Chatham where he grows tomatoes, fresh herbs, strawberries and asparagus all used in the restaurants. He is pleased to be part of the Farm to Fork movement and purchases from many local farmers.
Augie just returned from Austria and had the chance to dine in many fine restaurants. He was impressed with their emphasis on organics (no GMOs), many of the restaurants having their own gardens, and the choices the people have. “Almost every street in Vienna had a local bakery, specialty grocery, espresso/coffee shop plus a café.” Some restaurants were fourth-generation operated. He also saw the emphasis on “eating healthy and promoting a healthier lifestyle.” The daily lifestyle places great emphasis on walking or utilizing the public transportation system of buses, trams and trains, with less emphasis on the automobile, and very few families having more than one car.
Augie prides himself on helping future chefs become established. He credits American Harvest Restaurant as one of his greatest accomplishments. Chef Jordan Coffey had worked in the kitchen at Augie’s plus played a major role with catering at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Jordan left Augie’s for a time to work in upscale Chicago restaurant kitchens. When he returned, Augie partnered with Jordan and his wife Chef Aurora to open American Harvest. “Farm to Table” was coming on strong and Augie pretty much gave free reign to Jordan and Aurora to develop the menu. Augie says American Harvest “struggled” in the beginning and credits it to Springfield not being familiar at the time with the concept of “small plates.” The restaurant has found its niche and has become one of the more popular dining spots locally. At his Front Burner restaurant, Augie has recently turned over a great deal of the cooking responsibility to Chef Corey Faucon. Corey grew up on a farm in Athens, trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, and gained experience in a number of top tier Midwest restaurants. Augie is still there almost daily with his wife Sharon, who he credits for playing a major role in the success of the restaurants and business.
I asked Augie what he cooks at home or would find in his fridge or in his kitchen. His “fresh and healthy” concept carries over to home, and he does most of the cooking. Currently he is using lots of cucumbers and avocadoes, cauliflower and asparagus. In his fridge you will find a good assortment of cheese and fresh fruit. He experiments in making his own oils, sauces and vinaigrettes. He has cut back on red meat but still enjoys a good steak once in a while and of course a fine wine.
Augie can be spotted weekly in the local farmers’ markets; he makes a point of knowing the best seasonal items that are available and creates his menus around those products. Augie’s creative flair can clearly be seen when it comes to his food presentation. He believes that fine dining is a multi-sensory experience, and he ensures that each plate is constructed and garnished beautifully so that when it arrives at the table, diners are ready to take in a flavorful, texture-filled culinary delight.
What is in the future for Augie? His immediate reply is to definitely “slow down.” Lately he has been taking more time to travel, and one of the reasons he visited Austria was to investigate hosting culinary tours. Thank you, Augie, for coming back to Springfield almost 20 years ago and for the many great meals we have enjoyed at your restaurants.
Springfield is fortunate to have a number of very talented chefs, and in future articles I will be introducing you to others that have made an impact on our local dining scene.
Augie will be preparing a special Austrian Dinner Friday, May 27 at Augie’s Front Burner. The cost will be $55 and menu will feature DILL VIENNESE CUCUMBER SALAD, SOFT BAKED SEA BREAM ON RICOTTA, ORANGE AND WHITE ASPARAGUS, BLOOD SAUSAGE RAVIOLI, CABBAGE, HORSERADISH SAUCE, TAFELSPITZ, BOILED BEEF WITH VEGETABLES, WIENER SCHNITZEL, POTATO SALAD, SOFT SCHOKOV CHOCOLATE CAKE, LINGONBERRY CURD MOUSSE, and LEMON SORBET. Seating is limited. To make a reservation call 544-6979.
Augie’s Black Bean Cakes
*2 cups drained, cooked or canned black beans
*1 teaspoon minced garlic
*¼ each chopped sweet red, yellow, and green peppers
*½ cup chopped green onions
*½ teaspoons ground cumin
*2 tablespoons flour
*½ seeded jalapeno pepper
*add salt and pepper to taste
*egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1/3 to ½ cup of skim milk-you need only a few tablespoonsof this mixture)
*¾ cup fine fry bread crumbs
Heat two tablespoons of the canola oil and add the flour to make a roux. Set aside. Sauté garlic, onions and peppers, jalapeno, cumin, stir well and add beans. Stir in the roux until mixture thickens, cook three or four minutes more. Remove and refrigerate until firm. Coat cakes with egg wash and cover well with bread crumbs. Sauté in canola oil until brown. To serve, allow two bean cakes per person. Garnish with dill and serve piping hot with salsa on the side.