‘Little cook’ serves up food with charming flair

Beneath Walter Walcher’s tall chef hat and distinct Austrian accent is a humble, small-town farm boy with old-fashioned business sense.

Beneath Walter Walcher’s tall chef hat and distinct Austrian accent is a humble, small-town farm boy with old-fashioned business sense.

People would say he’s done fairly well for himself, between his restaurant, Tosonis, he and wife, Wendy, have operated for 25 years, as well as their big house off the lake five minutes away that he built with his own hands.

But he just considers himself lucky.

“I am just a little cook who works hard and watches what he spends his money on, you know what I’m saying?” Walcher said on a recent afternoon at Tosonis. “Most restaurants don’t last this long. But mine is quaint and I’m grateful and thankful that it turned out to be.”

An Austrian native, Walcher grew up on a farm close to the Italian border. His dream was to be a farmer, but when his father gave the farm to one of his nine brothers, he turned to the culinary world.

Walcher and his wife opened Tosonis in Bellevue in 1983. Serving up cuisine from Hungary to the Northwest, the cozy restaurant seats 56 and the candlelit, white-linened tables give off an air of romance. Patrons enjoy dinner with a view of the chef at work in an open kitchen.

The Reporter chatted with Walcher about Tosonis humble beginnings and what has made it a special place.

Reporter: We hear your culinary training crossed paths with Wolfgang Puck (world renowned chef and Austrian native). How’d that happen?

Walcher: I went to culinary school in Austria, the same school Wolfgang Puck went to. We learned cooking in the same town and we had the same teachers, except Wolfgang is five years younger than me. We know each other. I ended up doing military service; Wolfgang went off to France.

Reporter: How did Tosonis come about?

Walcher: I came to the United States in 1978 and believe it or not was the chef at the Greenwood Inn Hotel when Bellevue was very small.

My goal was actually to open a gourmet pizza restaurant. The bank wouldn’t give me enough money for a pizza oven, so I just had to do what I could afford.

In December 1983 we opened up here. I chose the name Tosonis because it is part of my family who lived in Italy.

We were open for breakfast and lunch. We served cinnamon rolls baked in butter and sugar. They were so mad at me when I decided to close up for breakfast and open up for dinner only. The only cook was me and my wife was washing dishes. Can you believe this?

It’s not so anymore, but I’m still on the helm of cooking. My wife also still helps out. We now have two cooks and two servers as well.

I’m out here with the guests talking to them and helping out when I can. We had the Seahawks coach (Mike Holmgren) here yesterday. A real nice guy. He looked a little depressed and sad because he’s retiring, you know.

Reporter: Did you make him anything special to cheer him up?

Walcher: Oh, yeah. I gave him a nice cognac, he and his wife (laughs). The really good stuff - XO. I said, ‘what’s the problem’ and he shared with me.

Reporter: What makes Tosonis unique?

Walcher: I would say it’s a little, quaint restaurant. You know, it’s usually couples who come in here for special occasions, or business groups we get here and they always think it’s very homey, cozy. Of course, I always come out and recognize everybody and Wendy comes along and everyone says it’s nice to see us. This is important, you know?

After 25 years, you get to know not just the parents, the children who are just married and have kids again. In a small place you can recognize and remember that. This is so unique.

The good thing about it is I live very close by. I live off Bel-Red road in a big, beautiful castle on the lake, with a creek and a hilltop. It’s a dream. I built my own house. Some story.

Reporter: How would you describe Tosonis cuisine?

Walcher: We try to keep our cooking healthy: fresh ingredients, the only frying we do is for the potato chips. We select only healthy, organic meats, chicken breasts. We purchase fish only from Alaska where it’s fresh.

Our menu changes every other day (points to the menu written on a chalkboard above the open kitchen with six selections.

Reporter: What’s for dinner?

Walcher: Our seafood plate. We have a sliced eggplant, lightly salted and fried in olive oil. We add artichoke, roasted peppers and some capers and a little bit of white wine. Just very simple. We add prawns and our own Dungeness crab meat, cayenne pepper, eggs. Then we make a fresh carrot puree. It is garnished with potato chips we make fresh here.

For dessert, apricot dumplings - called marillen knodel - which is a popular Hungarian dessert.

Also house cake. This is a vanilla custard cake, topped with roasted almonds, blackberries, peaches, strawberries, blueberries and kiwi.

(The Reporter would like to thank Bellevue resident Don Gher for recommending Tosonis, which he describes as “unique and has a very different vibe than the nouveau chic atmosphere of many of the downtown Bellevue restaurants.”)

Carrie Wood can be reached at cwood@reporternewspapers.com or 425-453-4290.

Tosonis Restaurant

14320 Northeast 20th Street, Bellevue

Opened at 5 p.m.

for dinner