Maneuvering his way around signs from across the globe, furniture made by a friend, and even a 1960s motorcycle, chef and neighbor Thomas Ferlesch paused and looked around, his gaze traveling from the evening sunlight flooding in through the back room’s skylight to the wood-burning stove and the tables where neighbors will soon be downing goulash, schnitzels and more in his soon-to-debut Austrian restaurant, Werkstatt.
“I always wanted to open my own restaurant, to have a neighborhood place,” Thomas said last night, when he and his wife, Robin Wertheimer, showed me around Werkstatt, located at 509 Coney Island Avenue, by Turner Place.
Piece by piece, things are coming together — the city permits and inspections, the decorations (including an extensive collection of signs that Thomas has been collecting for decades) and, of course, the menu — and Thomas can imagine it now: the crowds and the plates of goulash and the neighbors raising their glasses of beer and wine in a restaurant that the Vienna native has dreamed of for years.
The restaurant’s opening — which, provided the often slow-moving city agencies can finish their inspections soon, could happen as early as August — is the culmination of a lifetime of experience, from learning to cook from his mother in Vienna to cooking for people like former President Bill Clinton while working as the executive chef at the Upper West Side’s historic Café Des Artistes.
“I trained as a chef as a young man in Vienna, and I worked in Vienna, Switzerland, Bermuda, and when I was 21 I came to New York City,” said Thomas, who started his food career in the U.S. at the Upper East Side’s Austrian restaurant Vienna ’79 — where he, at the age of 23, became the youngest chef to land four stars from the New York Times.
After working as the executive chef at Café Des Artistes, Thomas went on to open Thomas Beisl, a Viennese restaurant across from BAM in Fort Greene, which he ran for eight years until 2010. A couple years ago, when Thomas and Robin were seriously considering opening their own restaurant, the two had been searching across the borough for a space they could call their own, looking at spots from Bed Stuy to other locales on Coney Island Avenue. One day, about two years ago, they drove by 509 Coney Island Avenue after La Guadalupana Taqueria closed in 2013 — and they immediately knew where their new culinary home would be.
“We’re really looking forward to having a community here, to being part of the neighborhood” said Robin, who, along with Thomas, lives just minutes from Werkstatt.
“I always wanted a place where neighbors could get to know me and I could get to know them,” Thomas added just minutes before a curious neighbor popped his head in through the window to ask when the restaurant would be opening.
“I can’t wait!” the neighbor yelled as he waved goodbye, disappearing past the flower beds that Thomas just put up outside the restaurant.
As for what we can expect for the food? That’s where the eatery’s name comes into play.
“Werkstatt means workshop — this is a workshop; I want to cook what I like to eat — which is a lot,” Thomas said, explaining he’ll be offering plenty of traditional Austrian food, as well as other favorite foods, from fish tacos to matzo ball soup.
“He makes better matzo ball soup than my mother,” Robin laughed.
The menu is still evolving, but, so far, Thomas knows there will be “an incredible beef goulash,” roasted pork belly, tacos, Austrian crepes with apricot jam or hazelnut and chocolate, and more.
When I asked if he already knows what his favorite meal will be, Thomas gave me a look.
“That’s like asking a mother who their favorite child is,” Thomas said, shaking his head.
In addition to the food, there will be seven draft beers — ranging from Brooklyn Lager and Six Point Sweet Action to European selections — and draft wines, including an Austrian house red and Grüner Veltliner — “the most famous of Austrian wines,” Thomas explained.
You can expect some creativity with the drinks as well, including a combo that mixes lemon sorbet with a Belgian beer.
“It makes your beer ice cold and…” Thomas smiled widely and trailed off, becoming too excited to talk.
“It’s so nice; it’s like a gangster lemonade,” he concluded.
With all of these details — the drink recipes and buying the chairs and bringing in the motorcycle to hang on the wall — Thomas and Robin said the opening is, after two years of waiting, becoming more and more real — and they can’t wait. After all, this is the ultimate dream of someone who, at the age of 14, knew where he wanted to be more than anywhere else: the kitchen.
“When I was 14, I had to make a decision about my future; I knew I didn’t want to go to college,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, Thomas, you have to learn a trade. What do you want to be? I told my mother, “I think I want to be a cook.’ My mother paused for a moment and said, ‘You know, that’s OK. People are always gonna eat.
“And I’m lucky,” Thomas continued. “I still love to cook. It’s a way of life. It’s my way of life.”