Gunther Krupp is seated in the recently renovated Green Room just off the main lobby of the Read House. The space has all of the opulence and grandeur of its earlier days when it was "the" place to celebrate a special occasion.
It is used only for special events these days, but Krupp is thrilled to see it returned to glory. With his walking cane at his side, he speaks in a heavy German accent about what the restaurant and hotel were like back in the day.
When the Read House held a Roaring '20s-themed gala last month to show off its $25 million renovation, among the hundreds of guests was Krupp. While the 88-year-old wasn't around at the hotel during the days of flappers and the Lindy Hop, he was the chef from 1961 to 1979, which were also popular eras for the city landmark.
"When I started, we were the best hotel in town," he says. "Any organization, the Cotton Ball, any kind of big to-do happened at the Read House."
And for all of those functions. Krupp was there in the kitchen, first as one of many chefs on staff and later as the man in charge of a large staff of waiters, servers, sous chefs, pastry chefs, butchers and printing-press operators.
"We had our own printing press and printed the menus every day," he says. "When I started, I worked in the butcher shop. We did our own butchering."
They also made all of the soups, chili, pastries and breads served throughout the hotel daily.
Krupp was born in Germany and first came to America in 1957 at the behest of his aunt, Hulda Nite. She married a man from Rossville and for many years ran the food department at the University of Chattanooga, now the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Krupp earned his pastry and baking certifications in Europe and considered going to the Caribbean to work, but his aunt convinced him to come here. After a brief return home, he moved here for good in 1961 and started at the Read House.
He says the menus in the Green Room and the cafe and sandwich shops were largely continental, with mostly American dishes and some French and German items thrown in.
"It was good, so I didn't change much when I took over," he says. "All of the food was popular.
"In the tavern we served hot dogs with homemade chili. The coffee shop had homemade soups, and the omelets were very popular. And in the Green Room, we had good steaks and roast duck and fresh vegetables. We had German spinach, and when I took it off, people complained.
"I changed very little, and I inherited a great staff," he adds. "The only thing I changed was when someone left or retired."
Newly implemented minimum-wage laws in the '60s caused him some of his biggest headaches, he recalls, because his staff had been accustomed to working a morning/afternoon and evening shift and the changes required more workers and more time figuring out the schedule.
Krupp says he respected all of his employees, and the feeling was mutual, as he learned during the civil-rights era. At the beginning of those years, all of the waitresses were white and most of the support staff were black. When one of those waitresses retired, one of the support staff commented that the women who delivered the bread and butter and filled the water glasses worked as hard or harder than the waitresses and made less money.
"They knew all the guests. They knew all the work. I told her when she came into work the next day to put on a waitress uniform. She said, 'Oh, I couldn't do that.' I told her, 'You earned it,' and if she didn't [take the job], I would have to find someone else."
Krupp says he heard some complaints from diners, including from a local doctor.
"I told him, 'She's been bringing you your bread and your butter for 15 years. What difference does it make? She deserves a shot.' He looked at me and never said another thing."
Krupp says when many African-Americans in town were missing work to protest elsewhere over civil-rights issues, his staff came to work every day.
"They said, 'Chef, we take care of you.' Everybody showed up for work because of the understanding I had. I never bragged about it or made a point of it. If you could do the work, that's all I cared about."
Krupp remembers some of the funnier moments at the Read House as well. Like the time one of his cold-food chefs got a visit from the IRS.
"Elmer was his name. He claimed several people on his taxes, and they came and said, 'Who is Paul?' Paul was his cat."
As part of the renovation work, the tavern has been named the Bridgeman Chophouse in honor of longtime employee Peter Bridgeman, known by the nickname "Peter Rabbit." He worked in the tavern and in room service for 47 years.
"Everybody knew Peter Rabbit," Krupp says. "He would have your food ordered as soon as he saw you coming."
Director of Sales Annie Still says Bridgeman got his nickname because of the rabbit design he used as his marker on customer tickets since he could not read or write.
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.