CHATEAU DU SUREAU: A CASTLE BY YOSEMITE
Erna Kubin-Clanin. Photo: Terrance L. Reimer
By Bettina Gordon
"God no longer lives in France. He moved to California, close to world-renowned Yosemite National Park, into the Chateau du Sureau. There he stands shoulder to shoulder with Erna Kubin-Clanin and ensures that everything the guests eat, drink, touch and otherwise perceive with their senses is one thing and one thing only: heavenly."
Barbara Streisand, Robert DeNiro and Brooke Shields, who all appreciate the upscale European ambience, the discrete luxury and the unique talent of the lady of the house to resurrect the world of the turn of the 19th century, apparently agree. As does Sir Anthony Hopkins, who prepared for some of his movies in the ultra-secluded Jugendstil villa (furnished with classical European antiques designed in the famous “Jugendstil” style period between 1890 – 1905) behind the castle and dined in Erna’s Elderberry Restaurant in the evenings.
Erna Kubin-Clanin serves her guests outstanding European food and lifestyle at her Chateau du Sureau in California - without having to fly across the ocean. Industry bible Travel Conde Nast has declared the Chateau du Sureau- a member of the famous Relais & Chateaux organization since 1993 – the best hotel in the state of California multiple times since it first opened its wrought iron gates emblazoned with the castle’s elegant crest 20 years ago.
What’ s really drawing me into the chateau on a sunny spring morning though is the castle owner herself, Erna Kubin-Clanin. As many of America’s accomplished citizens she, too, was born in a foreign country under less than easy circumstances. I came to find out how this sophisticated and welcoming lady, who was born in the chaos of the Second World War and traveled across the Atlantic on the MS Bremen to America in 1962, came to build herself what the child Erna had longed for in the rubbles of war-torn Vienna: A fairytale Inn filled with beauty and peace. And that she did.
Despite many detours and stumbling blocks Erna has created an estate of exceptional class and a 9000 square foot Inn complete with a stone turret, Parisian balconies and shuttered windows. As we walk the landscaped park grounds past the fountain she tells me, that she did all this completely without financial assistance and no advertising to speak of. “I am happy to have put together something beautiful in America,“ she says humbly and pets the head of her Coton-de- Tulear dog Sophie.
Her voice hasn’t lost its Austrian timbre even after almost 50 years in America. Her slender figure testifies to her discipline. As her cell phone rings, Vivaldi plays. Since 1988 Erna, mother of two daughters and “Omi” to three grandchildren, has been married to Rene Clanin. The eye doctor gave up his practice to scour the world with his wife for furniture of the Fin de Siecle, Jugendstil chandeliers and handmade iron gates. Erna had the vision, Rene the technical talent to, along with his team, realize the plans designed by her for the construction of the castle, spa and the villa. Those who enter the estate, find themselves in Europe.
Erna Kubin-Clanin (left) with Bettina Gordon. Photo: Terrance L. ReimerI sat down with the Grande Dame, who has elevated “fine dining in the European tradition“ to an attitude towards life, and Dr. Rene, as everybody calls him, for a conversation in the castle salon.
You built an exceptional 5-Star hotel that attracts Hollywood Stars, Silicon Valley CEOs and globetrotters. Was it always your dream to someday run a top restaurant and luxury hotel?
No, not at all. My big dream was always to become a theater set designer. I was studying in Vienna at the Academy for Fine Arts, when I received a stipend for the New York University Fine Arts department. I arrived in January 1962 on a grey, bitter cold winter morning with the TS Bremen in New York’s harbor. To earn money I worked as an au-pair girl, but unfortunately the family placed so many demands on me that I had no time left for my studies. So I lost this opportunity. For personal reasons I could not return to Austria at that time. I sold my fur coat, the only thing valuable in my possession, to at least be able to travel by bus from New York to Los Angeles to follow a friend who had moved there. In L.A. I met my first husband. Together we built up a Greek restaurant, even though I always hated cooking and never thought about becoming a cook.
Then how did you get from a metropolis like Los Angeles to the still quite provincial Oakhurst in Northern California?
Due to the gambling addiction of my husband we lost everything we had built up. After the divorce I left Los Angeles. My daughters Pamela and Renee-Nicole were still little and I knew no better way than to keep earning money in the hospitality industry. Friends of mine wanted to build a hotel near Yosemite and asked me if I would follow them. So I arrived here with my children and 100 dollars in my purse at the end of the 70s. I immediately looked for work to support my family. At that time my mother Maria had moved from Austria to help me with my girls and somehow we managed to get back on our feet. For seven years I cooked in a little village inside the National Park in a restaurant called The Redwood Inn. I furnished the place with my European furniture from my former house in LA and served Tafelspitz (boiled beef) and apple strudel. These were dishes from my home country that I perfected with my mother’s help. The unusual ambience and the classic European kitchen made me famous and the restaurant was a hit with the tourists. But it was hard work and during the high season in summer I frequently worked from six o’clock in the morning until one o’clock at night to be able to save money and eventually buy a bit of land outside the park in Oakhurst. I purchased the current Elderberry estate, named after the many elderberry bushes that grow here, and opened my own restaurant, Erna´s Elderberry House, in 1984.
Within a couple of years your restaurant drew the attention of a famous The New York Times food critic. How did that come about?
Yes, acclaimed food critic Craig Claiborne really put me on the map and I had no idea who he was when he came into my restaurant. Only after the dinner he approached me and introduced himself. He ended up prolonging his visit for three more days that we primarily spent in the kitchen cooking together. His review of Erna’s Elderberry restaurant in The New York Times opened the doors to a whole new clientele that otherwise may never have heard about us. I learned many lessons in my life, one of which was, that hard work and perseverance will be rewarded in maybe rather unsuspecting ways!
Erna's Elderberry restaurant is famopus for its quality - onl;y farm-raised meats, no endagnered fish, innovative vegetarian options and an impressively stacked wine cellar. Photo: Terrance L. Reimer.
I understand that when you became a top chef you wanted to expand, but building yourself a castle?
I did this for business survival. My restaurant attracted an upscale clientele from cities like Fresno, San Francisco and L.A., but there was no acceptable hotel within 1.5 hours, only cheap rooms and motels. I had to offer my guests lodging and so the idea was born to build a luxury hotel with 10 rooms. The Chateau du Sureau opened in May 1991. Later we added the private Villa Sureau and the Spa Sureau. I designed and helped build every building on the estate. Rene is the technical soul of the estate and painstakingly and patiently restored many of the antiques, light fixtures and iron gates over thousands of hours. Quality and authenticity are our top premises. Our estate offers the guests the flair of Europe without having to board an airplane. My fabulous Chateau director, Sonja Gruber, hails from Styria, an Austrian province.
You mastered the challenges that immigrants often face with style and finesse and have proven extreme perseverance. Where do these character traits come from?
I was born during the Second World War and my mother worked as a housekeeper to take care of us. I was a single child and grew up without a father. As a five year old I entered the monastery boarding school and was educated there until I gratuated. Every morning we received an hour-long lesson in manners. We learned how to beautifully set a table, how to decorate for Easter or Christmas and how to design our environment stylishly, which has benefitted me my whole life. My childhood during the years after the war also taught me to do whatever needs to be done in order to survive, to persevere and to always give your best. I am also a hopeless romantic and dreamer and believe in the positive in life. My husband Rene always says, with the castle I have created a world here for myself, that I could only dream of as a child.
You still seem very connected to your home country. Did you ever think of returning to Austria?
I never stopped being a Viennese with body and soul. I do sometimes think about it, what would have been, if I had stayed in Austria. I believe, I would have been successful in my home country too, however, not in the hospitality industry, but in theater as a stage designer. My grandson Florian is studying photography and art in Vienna at the University for Applied Arts. In a certain sense he is stepping into my footsteps, which makes me very happy. At the same token, I don’t regret anything. Life leads all of us to crossroads and I have made peace with my decisions. Now I see my restaurant and the hotel as my stage that I build and design down to the last detail. As soon as my guests arrive the curtain rises and the performance begins!
Journalist Bettina Gordon-Wayne is Austrian by birth and American at heart. Bettina writes for a variety of leading magazines and publishes her work also at www.BettinaGordon.com.