Built with thick stones in the late 1800s, the Red Wing reformatory provides the setting for an obscure Bob Dylan song — first performed in 1963 yet unreleased until 1991.
“Oh, the age of the inmates I remember quite freely: no younger than twelve no older ’n seventeen,” the “Walls of Red Wing” begins. “Thrown in like bandits and cast off like criminals, inside the walls, the walls of Red Wing.”
The last verse looks forward: “Oh, some of us’ll end up in St. Cloud prison. And some of us’ll wind up to be lawyers and things …”
For George Wandzel, one of the thousands of delinquents funneled through the institution, life after Red Wing included important lessons provided by Nazi prisoners that led to a celebrated career as a Twin Cities chef — first at the Nicollet Hotel in Minneapolis and then the Blue Horse in St. Paul.
Attracting celebrity diners such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dean Martin and Omar Sharif, the Blue Horse was ballyhooed by Esquire magazine, national food critics and politicos before closing its doors in 1991 after 28 years at 1355 University Av.
But long before serving up beef Wellington for the elite, Wandzel served time in the Red Wing reform school. Born to Polish immigrants in 1920, he was the second of six kids growing up in northeast Minneapolis. His mother, Mary, died at the Glen Lake tuberculosis sanatorium when he was 18.
His father, Joseph, had only a fourth-grade education and worked odd jobs — loading boxcars to support his family during the Depression.
George Wandzel remembered plucking coal from railroad cars to help warm their home and stealing Pillsbury flour sacks to sell as pillowcases. At 17, he wound up behind the walls of Red Wing after getting busted for riding in a stolen car.
Working in the reformatory kitchen started Wandzel’s improbable culinary climb. With only a grammar school education — no fancy chef schools — he called himself a cook when he enlisted in the Army in 1940 at Fort Snelling. Soon, he was stirring pots in Army mess halls in the South Pacific during World War II. His big break came in Louisiana while supervising German POWs.
“These prisoners were kind of laughing at me and how I did things around the kitchen,” Wandzel said in 1980. Turns out, some of the captured enemy had been top chefs in German hotels and resorts.
“I learned the proper way to do sauerbraten and potato pancakes,” Wandzel said. “These people were professionals. They didn’t cook like Army cooks.”
In addition to their bread dough and strudels, Wandzel learned about a secret ingredient found on no recipe list.
“They took a lot of pride in what they did, even in feeding prisoners,” he said. “ You’d be amazed what they could do with a head of cabbage and some bits of ham or bacon.”
After the war, Wandzel rose to executive chef — donning the tall white hat during 17-year stints at the Nicollet Hotel and the Blue Horse. His delicious, umpteen-course holiday meals became legendary. And long before the Food Network, Wandzel’s fame grew with cooking appearances on KSTP-TV’s “Dialing for Dollars.”
Stress, though, was also on the menu.
“He was so meticulous, and everything had to be perfect,” recalled his son, Donald Wandzel, 68, a retired postal worker from Coon Rapids. He has a copy of a magazine article about his dad, which quotes a diner saying: “To watch him work on a Saturday night was like watching the conductor of an orchestra. He would have 15 to 20 meals going simultaneously, and somehow manage to put it all together.”
At 59, Wandzel said he’d read newspaper obituaries of former kitchen colleagues — asking himself: “Do I want this pressure? ... One dishwasher doesn’t show up and it turns you into a raving maniac.”
He retired from the Blue Horse in 1979 but kept cooking at a downtown Minneapolis tavern, Russell’s Bar, serving up simpler fare such as minestrone soup and short ribs. “For the first time in a long time I’m really having a ball in the kitchen,” he said.
Despite all that kitchen time, he remained tall and thin — having only tea for breakfast and one meal a day in the evening.
“I cook hungry,” he said. “It’s better that way. Your taste buds are sharper and you just do a better job.”
He died from a stroke at 79 in 1999, leaving behind his wife, Caroline Ciecmierowski Wandzel, who’d grown up a few blocks away from George on Second Street NE. They had four children, 13 grandchildren and five great-grandkids when he died.
His son said George made a trip back to the stone reformatory in Red Wing in 1959 at the cusp of his cooking career.
“He wanted to show the superintendent how well he was doing,” Donald Wandzel said.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.