Hearts were heavy this week after Augustans learned Heinz Sowinski, known to so many as Chef Heinz around town, had passed away at Emory University on Tuesday.
For anyone who has ever sat down and enjoyed a meal at La Maison on Telfair, they knew the enormous talent of this brilliant chef.
But he was also a man of great generosity, kindness and warmth to everyone he met.
Chef Heinz had the gift of making everyone feel special and at home at his table.
He also knew the value of hard work. He learned at a very early age that life in the kitchen was not going to be easy.
In 1961, more than 30 years before he purchased his restaurant La Maison on Telfair in downtown Augusta, a young 15-year-old Chef Heinz began his culinary training in Germany’s apprenticeship program.
For three years, he worked five days a week learning his trade, while also attending school once a week. If he was lucky, Chef Heinz had one day of freedom. That was, unless he made a mistake.
“If you messed up on the job, you’d lose your one day off and that happened more than once the first year in program,” Chef Heinz told the Metro Spirit in 2001. “It’s a tough training period, but you’re so young, you just handled the work.”
Each student would earn $5 a month working at a hotel where they would be given a place to live and food to eat.
“Your boss became your custodian,” Chef Heinz said. “He was your father for the next three years. So, you didn’t give him any lip.””
After being in the program a few weeks, Chef Heinz wasn’t sure if he was cut out to be a chef.
“One time it got so bad, I came home from school and said, ‘Mommy I am not going back there. This is not going to work out,’” Chef Heinz said.
His mother, a professional chef herself, wasn’t going to accept any excuses.
“She said, ‘That isn’t going to work. I warned you it was going to be tough and now there’s no backing out,’” Chef Heinz said. “She told me, ‘You get back on that road and you hitchhike back to work.’”
At the time, that was not the answer Chef Heinz wanted to hear. But looking back over his life, Chef Heinz said he was grateful that his mother insisted he return.
“I’m so thankful because you can’t take the easy way out in life,” Chef Heinz told the Metro Spirit. “I mean, every time there comes a hurdle, if you don’t take it, how do you prepare yourself for life? So, your parents have to have the strength, the moral strength, to teach you what is right and wrong.”
During his years of training, Chef Heinz was being taught how to cook a wide variety of international cuisines and was regularly asked to help prepare these extravagant 20-course meals at the hotel.
“It’s just overwhelming,” Chef Heinz remembered. “Here I was, at an impressionable age, getting the exposure from everything from just home cooking to these exquisite foods. I mean, how do you take all of it in?”
Somehow he did, and after graduating from his training in Germany he opted to travel to America to begin full-time work.
“I ended up in Santa Monica, California,” Chef Heinz said. “The first job I had was in 1965 at the Brown Derby.”
The Brown Derby was a restaurant known for catering to the famous, like Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin.
“They had all the movie stars’ pictures on the wall,” Chef Heinz said. “And the movie stars would come in there for their weekly meals.”
Each day the restaurant would serve a different dish, anything from chicken pot pie to liver with onions.
“It was very ordinary food, but it was food that the stars didn’t get cooked at home,” Chef Heinz said.
That was not Chef Heinz’s only brush with fame. He went on to work at the Beverly Hills Hotel where he saw Lee Marvin immediately after he won the Oscar for the 1965 movie, Cat Ballou.
“He came right down the red carpet with his Oscar in his hand, and I shook his hand, saying ‘Congratulations, Mr. Marvin,’ with the little English I knew,” Chef Heinz said, smiling.
Through the years, Chef Heinz had the opportunity to cook for some of Hollywood’s greats like John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, but he always believed that no matter who you were, if you came to his restaurant, you deserved the same quality dining experience as a star.
By 1971, Chef Heinz took a position at Walt Disney World in Florida where he met his wife, Zelda. The couple later moved to Atlanta where he continued his career as executive chef at the Hilton before opening one of Atlanta’s finest restaurants, The Brass Key.
It wasn’t until 1992 that Chef Heinz came to Augusta and purchased La Maison on Telfair.
Dining in downtown Augusta would never be the same.
“People who come to La Maison want to learn about food, not be misled,” Chef Heinz once said. “I don’t want to sell anyone something they don’t want or they don’t like. And I don’t want anybody to walk out of here and feel like they’ve been ripped off or they are still hungry. I wasn’t raised that way.”
Chef Heinz always went out of his way to make sure each dish he prepared was up to his standards.
“When people go to a restaurant like La Maison, they have a certain expectation,” Chef Heinz said. “And you have to live up to that expectation every day. Because, you know the worst thing about this business? You are only as good as the last meal that you’ve made. I believe that.”
Meals at La Maison, also referred to as downtown’s familiar “painted lady,” never disappointed.
For more than two decades, La Maison has been the downtown restaurant that longtime Augustans go to celebrate monumental occasions in their lives.
During dinner service, Chef Heinz frequently mingled with his guests throughout the evening, sharing his knowledge, insight and passion for his craft with charm and his contagious smile.
Chef Heinz also knew the importance of family and would frequently boast about his beautiful wife of 40 years, his lovely three daughters, their husbands and his many wonderful grandchildren.
No matter what the age, Chef Heinz was always mindful of the needs of his patrons.
“What continues to inspire me is the people who come through the door,” Chef Heinz once said, describing a particular evening when a little girl asked him to make Bananas Foster.
Of course, he obliged.
“I still make classic dishes by request. I think, ‘Hey, let me know what you like and I’ll do it,’” he said. “Our guests need to be happy. The full experience is our goal.”
Chef Heinz defined happiness.
He lived life to the fullest and that is why the news of his death hit this community so hard.
Chef Heinz will never be forgotten. His passion and knowledge will live on through the many lives he touched over the years.
He was one of a kind.
“My enthusiasm is La Maison. I love to cook and it rubs off. I cannot hide it,” Chef Heinz once said, laughing. “I get excited about taking a reservation because I can make a difference in someone’s night. I’ll do whatever it takes to make it better, better, better.”
Danke, Chef Heinz.
Augusta is so much better for having known you.
Our deepest sympathies go out to the entire Sowinski family, including his wife of 40 years, Zelda Sowinski; three daughters and sons-in-law, Sofia and Manuel Verney-Carron, Grovetown, Ga., Erika and Terry Miller, North Augusta, S.C. and Miriam and Chris Hill, Fernandina Beach, Fla.; a former son-in-law, Jason Mitchell; seven grandchildren, Joullian, Isaac and Noah Mitchell, Sara Miller, Gavin Hill, Mia Verney-Carron and Zachary Verney-Carron and his extended family in Germany.