As Pandas closes, an era ends

To the ears, Rudy Muehldorfer is like Vienna schnitzel complemented by a glass of Chardonnay. The Bavarian chef and co-owner of Pandas European…

To the ears, Rudy Muehldorfer is like Vienna schnitzel complemented by a glass of Chardonnay.

The Bavarian chef and co-owner of Pandas European Dining in downtown Whitehorse smacks his lips when he talks, savouring the taste of his words in his mouth, rolling his R’s like a Parisian, substituting V’s for W’s like a Berliner.

If you get the chance, ask Muehldorfer to say “Chateaubriand,” “Duck a l’Orange,” or “flambé.”

After 16 years in business, Muehldorfer and Pandas co-owner, Lizz Wort, are selling their well-known, much-loved dining room to Ed Schultz — former grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations — and his wife, Yvonne Jack.

Under Schultz and Jack, Pandas will soon be re-named Chiefs Steakhouse.

The decision to sell has been a tough one for Muehldorfer.

Being a chef, caring about cuisine and pleasing customers all clearly give his life meaning. But recent health concerns have underlined that he needs to hang up his apron.

“It’s time to just slow down a little bit, you know? I’ve been cooking for 43 years, so … I’d just like to have a little bit less responsibilities,” Muehldorfer says, snacking on a piece of brie cheese.

“It’s a hard business; it’s a good business, but it takes lots of work. I have been very sick for the last two-and-a-half years. But I’m doing remarkably well.

“I’m 56 years old, I worked all my life, you know, and then that just happens … then I just said I have to do something about it. You have to look at yourself.”

“That” is Muehldorfer’s illness: how close you are with him dictates how well you know just how frightening his health problems have been.

After relating the story under his breath, he politely insists that it doesn’t make it to print.

“I was very ill. Some people know, some people know more,” he says.

Having left his small-town Bavarian roots for Canada 30 years ago, Muehldorfer lived in Ontario and Alberta before moving to Whitehorse in 1985.

After two years, Muehldorfer and Wort — who shares his passion for fine dining, and whom he met in Japan — opened Rudy’s, a European restaurant near the Whitehorse airport.

And two years after that, the two bought the former Golden Garter restaurant on Main Street and re-named it Pandas.

 “The simple reason was people wanted us to be here. People said, ‘Where is Rudy? Where is Lizz? They have a lot of special dishes.’”

Rudy’s closed soon afterwards.

But what does a panda bear have to do with fine European dining?

 “We had Rudy’s already. We wanted something short, catchy, something people like, something cozy; and, of course, we both like the colour black and white — it’s very traditional, very fashion, very classy,” he says.

“We looked at a little panda bear and said, ‘Why don’t we call it Pandas?’ People remember it. It’s worked quite well.”

The interior of Pandas is like a frame of celluloid from Hollywood’s film noir days.

Screenshots of Humphrey Bogart kissing Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca hang on walls covered with silver, black and white accents. Panda bears stare playfully from all angles.

The room begs for diners to smoke a Galouise while sipping absinthe, waiting for an order of Rudy’s famous peppered strawberries and, perhaps, a call from a Hollywood director.

The intent is to imply class.

And Pandas is — or, properly, was —a classy European dining room striving to be the best, says Muehldorfer.

“Classical, I think, is still European,” he says.

And he relishes what his restaurant has meant for himself and his customers: happy memories.

“We had very wonderful parties in here; we had very, very happy people in here; we had dignitaries in here; we did functions for lots of people, so that is a nice part,” he remembers.

“You create something with your hands, put something on the plate and someone says, ‘Oh, wow!’”

For two years, he has been holding out to find the right buyer for Pandas.

In Schultz, he has found the right guy, he says.

“I think he’s the right person. I always said to my partner, ‘Why doesn’t the Yukon territory or Whitehorse have a native restaurant — owned by native people, with some native influence?’”

Schultz is keeping quiet about Chiefs Steakhouse. The dining room will undergo a change and be themed to reflect his aboriginal heritage, and many dishes will feature specialty meats, like bison and caribou, he says.

As for the name, “It represents leadership, someone in the lead,” says Schultz.

“It’s a good catchword identifying it as a uniquely aboriginal-flavoured restaurant.”

With Schultz and Jack taking over, Pandas comes the end of an era.

A small display in one corner of Pandas says exactly that, and features old pictures of Muehldorfer and Wort in their heyday.

Asked what it all means to him, Muehldorfer becomes reflective.

“For Lizz and Rudy to establish two dining rooms, and basically, to take them away,” he says.

“Rudy’s doesn’t exist anymore; it’s just a coffee shop. And soon Pandas will be something different, so that part we take away, with the hope that people have lovely memories for the last 18 years we do business.”

His hopes? “That people remember I am a good chef,” he says.

“My skills, my hands, my taste — that’s what I want people to know.”