Monday was the coldest day of the year. By mid-morning, angry dark Armageddon clouds from the east were viciously lashing my office windows with sleet. It couldn’t get any colder, could it?
It could. When my phone rang, even the usually heart-warming tenor voice of Ristorante Ritrovo’s Forti Mazzone added to the chill because, however kindly and gently one tries to break sad news, it always chills the bones, freezes the blood.
Forti told me that Walter Ulz, chef-patron of Linger Longer, had taken his own life the previous night.
My brain froze too, rejecting these senseless, artificial words. Walter is full of life. Larger than life. His name doesn’t belong in such a stark, empty sentence. He can’t just disappear.
But he can. We all can. It just takes time to get over the shock, to assimilate, to try to understand.
Linger Longer has consistently been among Joburg’s handful of best fine-dining restaurants for more than three decades. Such achievements are about teamwork and captaincy, and Walter was that captain. He was hired as executive chef in 1976, which meant that when the restaurant turned 50 in April, Walter had been at the helm throughout its best 35 years.
He had arrived from his native Austria two years earlier to join Marc Guébert’s brigade at the quondam Landdrost Hotel. Unlike most people who come to this city to mine gold, Walter brought gold. Although Joburg was a long way from his landlocked homeland and a far cry from his international culinary training (alongside Wolfgang Puck, chef to the rich and famous at Beverly Hills’ Spago), he turned an aspiring kitchen into an alchemist’s cauldron.
Haute cuisine favourites of the day suddenly found themselves sharing top billing with hitherto uncharted local exotica such as crocodile tail, ostrich and bobotie.
When Linger Longer was acquired by Ben Filmalter, there was no stopping Walter. Restaurant awards started to pour in and continued to flow after relocating from its legendary Braamfontein venue to a spacious Georgian manor in Wierda Valley. In 2006, Ben sold his wildly successful Mugg & Bean branded franchise to a large corporate and sold Linger Longer to Walter and two partners.
At last, Walter was a chef-patron. It must have been the proudest moment of his life. With relish, he set about embellishing the property and refreshing the menu.
A beautiful, intimate conservatoire sprouted in the garden, surrounded by a lovingly tended herb garden.
More idioms, from far afield – Cajun, Vietnamese and his beloved Peruvian ceviche – enriched a cuisine that remained accessibly haute but was never haughty.
In April, during the restaurant’s high-spirited golden jubilee celebrations, no one could have guessed that tragedy was lurking.
One partner had sold out, unable to cope with long restaurant hours and a young family, but Walter cooked up a storm of old favourites while Carlos de Freitas was still handing the business side.
Then, just three weeks ago, the seriously overweight Carlos succumbed to a heart attack, leaving Walter stranded amid a seamingly nightmarish morass of business hassles.
There is no point in conjecturing whether Walter uncovered insoluble financial or legal difficulties, or whether this stress was compounded with personal or health reasons that we know not and whose privacy we should respect.
He must have found himself unable to carry on working in his kitchen while struggling on the hitherto unfamiliar front of business management.
What matters more to me is how a good and honest man who had become a friend must have felt to renounce a successful and apparently rewarding life. For Linger Longer was Walter’s life.
He poured himself into it with irrepressible energy, professional pride and infectious Austrian gemütlichkeit. He relished the act of creation and seeing the resulting pleasure.
He had countless regular customers who had seemingly become friends. Were there no friends to help him out of this crisis? He was respected by his long-serving staff. What will become of them now?
He unfurled his red carpet with a flourish to visiting dignitaries and documented Linger Longer’s uniquely colourful pageant in a wonderfully comprehensive series of scrapbooks. What will become of them now? And of the recipes that deserved preservation on glossy paper between hard covers under the name of Walter Ulz?
I feel immense sadness that such wonderful human energy as Walter’s can be so abruptly truncated through by despair. There will be no more calls, asking me to pop in to give an opinion on a new dish or chat about the restaurant industry that he kept tabs on with the meticulous zeal of the CIA.
No more bumping into him at Thrupps on Saturday morning and discussing our food purchases over coffee.
No more photo shoots at Linger Longer where the hovering Walter irrepressibly commandeers the role of artistic director.
No one will ever again arrive at a supper of the Brigade Blanche (the group of Joburg’s doyen chefs) wearing a red-chequered kerchief around his neck.
I am left with a hollow feeling, asking why this had to happen. Could anyone have said anything, done anything to avert such an awfully wasteful sacrifice?
Linger Longer was not only the jewel in Joburg’s culinary crown. It was Walter’s love, and a generous, giving heart cannot live without love. If it really was on the verge of financial demise in the callous winter of today’s economic climate, the impending loss must have felt like unrequited love – a terribly painful way to end a 35-year love affair.
Goodbye, Walter. You created a living legend which lingered long enough to give us countless golden memories. You, though, deserved to linger very much longer.