When Jarret Dennis first started making strudel, an idea struck him. With such strong Eastern European influence in traditional American cooking, Jarret saw no reason why strudel could not take off just like cupcakes had years earlier. Moreover, strudels are available in both savory and sweet varieties, making them quite diverse, and deserving of a more prominent spot in American cuisine.
In 2012, Jarret and his chef father, Alan Dennis, started “The Strudel Guy” to try to make this happen, and chose Petaluma as their home base.
I first discovered strudel as a child, usually around the apple harvest, when a friend’s German grandmother would make us a special treat of “Apfelstrudel.” And of course I was familiar with Pillsbury’s Toaster Strudel, which are more like overstuffed Pop-tarts than actual strudel. As an adult, I would rediscover strudel while visiting Eastern Europe, but what with all the other great pastries, strudels were lost in the mix.
Technically, a strudel is any type of filling, rolled in dough. Currently, a distinct part of Austrian cuisine, strudel traces its roots to similar rolled pastries in Hungary and Turkey. It reached its peak of popularity through the influence of the Habsburg Empire, which at various times spanned from Belgium to Italy, and from Spain to Hungary. The oldest strudel recipe dates to a 1696 handwritten cookbook and are still quite popular throughout Austria, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, Bosnia, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, and Italy. The word “strudel”, which can represent both the singular and the plural, is borrowed from the Germans, where it literally translates to “whirlpool” or “eddy”, clearly referencing the mixed filling, wrapped in layers of dough.
It was not until tasting the Strudel Guy’s offerings a couple years back that I started to gain a real appreciation for strudel. My mother had picked up an array of strudels from the local farmers market for a family dinner. Laid out on the table in front of us was a feast for the senses, with a large variety of ingredients, from local meats and veggies, to deserts filled with cream cheeses and local fruits. They were not only attractive to gaze upon, but filled the room with an overwhelmingly enticing bouquet. We thoroughly enjoyed every bite.
Jarret grew up in New Jersey, cooking alongside his Culinary Institute of America trained chef father, in the family’s kosher catering business. As a young adult, Jarret attended the Art Institute of Philadelphia to study advertising, as a bit of an escape from the kitchen, but after moving to Northern California for a change of pace, found himself drawn back into the galley.
“I truly believe the universe put me here in Northern California for a reason. The flavors are so abundant and people have an appreciation for good quality food,” says Jarret. “As a passionate artist, I wanted to do something different. Nobody was doing strudel, but it has such a great heritage, so I wanted to see if I could help make it great again.”
“Simply Spectacular Strudel” was Jarret’s first idea for a name, because Jarret wanted to highlight the simplicity of the product, as well as how spectacular he and Alan’s version was. However, his father had built a name for himself and wanted to highlight the chef, in addition to the product they hoped would take off. Alan named the business the “The Strudel Guy.” “I thought that was a bit odd,” chuckles Jarret, “because there were two of us strudel guys working in the kitchen.”