In 1952, Ursula Knaeusel made her escape from Russian-occupied East Germany. She was forced to leave behind her home and family, but managed to escape with her passion for cooking.
"When I was 3 years old, my Oma [German for grandmother] would only let me in the kitchen if I was good," she says. And Knaeusel's been very good over the years – good enough to have cooked for celebrities and politicos, including former President Jimmy Carter and former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat.
Now 74 years old, she still runs Ursula's Cooking School out of the same Cheshire Bridge Road home she bought in the '70s. More than 300 "kitchen witches" hang from the ceiling in her kitchen/classroom and more than 5,000 cookbooks in German, English and Spanish (one dating back to the 1800s) line her living-room, dining-room and guest-room walls.
You've lived all over the world. Why did you pick Atlanta?
After five years cooking and teaching in Central America, I decided to travel to the U.S. to start a cooking school. Atlanta was the only city I traveled to without a cooking school and there were 2 million people living in the city. I thought out of 2 million people I should get some customers. So I rented this house first and I had my open house for the cooking school on July 28, 1971. The owner eventually sold the house to me five years later.
What are some of your house's highlights?
I have a huge classroom with a big 24-foot mirror where students can watch what I am cooking. There are 321 kitchen witches hanging around. I have 40 yellow school desk chairs set up in three rows.
How long did it take to create the look you wanted?
When I moved here in 1971, the kitchen was my main focus and it was very improvised, but little by little it came together. I put in an elevator because I had heavy merchandise in the basement and I put in an indoor exercise pool and a generator so that when the power goes off it comes back on in 10 seconds. I would lose all my food otherwise. I have instant hot water and a walk-in fridge.
Has living in the South had an effect on what you create in your kitchen?
Well, when I first moved here, I didn't know what grits were but now some people call me the "Grit Queen." I even make corn bread.
Any advice for creating or maintaining a good kitchen?
Clean up after you do something. My Oma taught me that dishes belong to the cooking. And remember that the eye eats first. So that's why I decorate my food.
How many students have you taught here?
Since 1971? I started with five students on opening day and soon I was teaching 500 a quarter. I would think I've taught well over 5,000 over the years. I have students who have been coming since 1974 and I haven't repeated a recipe since then.
What is your favorite recipe to make in your kitchen?
Where did you learn to make that?
I was teaching from house to house in Nicaragua because I didn't have my own school then and I wanted to poach my fish. There was no fish poacher and just one oven where I was baking a cake. So I stuck the fish in the dishwasher. There's a special trick – you have to come to class to find that out – and since then I fix dishwasher fish in different ways while washing the dishes at the same time with soap. The fish cooks well and the dishes don't smell like fish, either.
Do you have any pieces of furniture or art that you couldn't live without?
I love my brown couch. I bought it back in 1977 and it is very modern. Well, maybe not modern anymore. I just love to sit there, have the fireplace going with the music on and sit with a book. I also love my mola [a traditional textile art made by the Kuna people of Panama] that I got in Panama City. I also like my St. Bernard painting over the fireplace. In '77 when I remodeled the house, friends gave it to me. The piece was made in 1870 and it's a picture of a St. Bernard licking a dinner plate. There's a bottle of wine on the table, a glass and a napkin. The scene is so typical and innocent of what a dog would do and it's such a natural scene that I wonder if this dog was the painter's dog.
Ursula's Cooking School, 1764 Cheshire Bridge Road. 404-876-7463. www.ursulacooks.com.
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