Gerlinde’s offers fresh, authentic cuisine

Gerlinde’s Water Street Café features European and California cuisine

Gerlinde (pronounced, Grr-LINDA) Sampson brought her love of cooking to the United States from her home country of Germany more than 30 years ago. She worked in the corporate world overseeing chain restaurants in the Chicago area for a number of years before deciding to open her own establishment.

Chez Gerlinde’s opened in the old Stagecoach Stop, where the National City building now stands next to the Sweden House Lodge. A surprise sale of the building forced Rockford’s original French restaurant to change locations. Gerlinde’s Water Street Café opened four years ago in its current location overlooking the Rock River.

The quaint shop offers outdoor seating for 30, in addition to indoor seating available for 25. The open kitchen leaves nothing to the imagination, even the accidents. “If you drop something or burn yourself, there’s no protection from your reaction,” Sampson said. “My staff reminds me of that weekly.”

Gerlinde’s offers daily features (not specials) made with fresh and seasonal items in the European and California cuisine style. A selection of simple, light fares are offered regularly for breakfast and lunch for American tastes. These items include scones, coffee cake, pitas, soups and sandwiches. They also offer gourmet coffee and specialty desserts.

Sampson offers Fine French Dining Saturday evenings by reservation only. The menu changes regularly, but I saw some previous menus that included Grilled Salmon, Rack of Veal and Filet of Duck Breast. For the real enthusiast, Gerlinde holds a cooking school Sunday afternoons during the cooler months. For a nominal fee, students learn how to prepare and cook a five-course meal. At the end of the class, students enjoy the fruits of their labor, along with selected wine pairings.

I spoke with Gerlinde and my Spanish roommates about the differences between American and European eating and cooking habits. Gerlinde pointed to the simple difference in shopping for food. “Europeans are more careful when they shop,” she said. “You can go into a store and buy one egg at a time.”

Certainly an odd concept for a culture used to buying in bulk. The overwhelming sentiment I got from the conversations with my European friends is that Americans eat to live while Europeans live to eat. They cherish their food; most times, we Americans inhale our food behind the wheel of our car.

I recently read a story of a man in a European coffee shop who sat for two hours with a piece of melon untouched on his plate, lost in conversation. Have you heard of an American doing that?

I spoke with my roommate, who has a master’s degree in history, and he thought the answer was simple. “Europeans have been surrounded by different cultures a lot longer than Americans, and their history goes back just as far,” he said. “Every culture in Europe at some point has experienced great need and hunger. America has always been a country of abundance, so you’ve never learned to truly appreciate something so simple as food.”

Sampson blames the poor food quality in the United States with our melting pot culture.

“America started out as this great melting pot, but it’s become diluted,” Sampson said. “We’ve taken a little bit from here, a little bit from there, until the original cuisine is unrecognizable. We need to become less insolent as a nation and start finding out about these other cultures.”

America as a geographical area is insulated, and that mentality has passed to her people. Most Americans’ heritage lies somewhere in Europe, but I would bet most people have not had authentic food from their country of origin. Ask anyone who’s been to Italy what Italians call a pizza. The Hut’s greasy, meaty, pan-style gut-bomb is a far cry.

Gerlinde sees hope in America’s fast-food culture.

“The new generation of chefs understands quality,” she said.

She also sees a growing emphasis on organic foods and a continually changing menu.

“When I go to the store, I buy what’s on sale and what’s fresh,” she said.

Gerlinde’s Water Street Café is at 115 N. Water St. Hours are 8 a.m.-4 p.m., weekdays, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturdays during summer. Info: (815) 962-3310.

from the July 18-24, 2007, issue

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