The man in the black fisherman's cap reminds you at once of Timothy Leary in his later years -- minus the drugs.
Mind-altering substances, to be sure, do not define the life of Hans Traulsen. Rather, he marks his own 86-year-long "trip" with much more laudable escapes. The first, his emigration from Hitler's Germany. "Hitler and I couldn't get along well. When it gets too hot in the kitchen, get the hell out," he says.
And the second, a newly minted cheesecake confection -- his dream dessert, in fact. Something he calls the Soufflette.
"I wanted to create the American dream dessert," he says. His brainstorming yielded a delectable French cheesecake dipped in pure Belgian chocolate and chilled. The bonbon -- usually two inches in diameter, but sometimes larger -- is kept frozen, but is best consumed at its peak: when it's slightly thawed out.
Traulsen pops around town each day behind the wheel of a late-'70s VW bus, meeting and greeting people, promoting his beloved Soufflette. He takes an iconoclastic approach to advertising his wares. A large placard pasted on the van's front end reads, "Lonely for Chocolate." The rear license plate asks the question, "YSOSAD" -- testament to the fact that Traulsen is, if nothing else, a perpetual optimist.
Despite his obsession with chocolate, it can be difficult to keep Traulsen on the subject. "Are you a free spirit?" is one of the first things he asks.
"Don't you see, this is the very moment you and I are experiencing," he says, "because we are free spirits, and we are enjoying the blessings of our chapters in life, which we have grown into."
I have to shake myself of the notion that, instead of a bonbon, he's going to pass me a pipe.
When he's not driving around preaching the chocolate gospel, Traulsen and his partners operate out of a postage-stamp-size parcel of kitchen in downtown Phoenix's historic Westward Ho building. Inside several large, cold steel refrigerators, row upon row of trays sit, bearing many a Soufflette.
The place is spotless -- a health department certificate boasts a recent 100 percent rating. Oddly, for this basement location, the atmosphere is about as close as one can get to a neighborhood bakery in sprawling Phoenix -- people stop in all the time, just to shoot the breeze and to be entertained by Traulsen's infectious personality.
"You're only as good as your ingredients," he says. That's chiefly why it's impossible to extract details of the recipe -- not only from Traulsen, but from his business partners Viana Bruce and Lynn Felton, who jealously guard it as if they were sentinels at the tomb of an Egyptian king.
Traulsen worked in the culinary arts aboard the Hamburg American cruise line when Nazism took hold, forcing him to flee his increasingly intolerant homeland.
However, he didn't arrive in the Valley straight from Germany. He took what you might call the Pacific tour, spending time first in San Francisco, Canada and Hawaii -- the latter, however, gave him a bad case of islanditis. For this dessert king, the Sonoran Desert was just the cure.
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Now, Traulsen's chocolate fantasy has become a reality. The gold-wrapped Soufflette is on sale at AJ's Fine Foods around the Valley; it also makes the rounds at corporate receptions and parties. Even the QVC Home Shopping Channel has advertised the Soufflette. Neiman Marcus includes it in its famous catalogues.
To hear Traulsen tell it, our meeting, as well as his meetings with people while driving the VW, represent the end result of some universal truth that appears to be somehow related to quantum physics.
"I meet a lot of people by law of attraction," he says. "I meet somebody in a store -- they just come up and talk to you."
So when you see Hans Traulsen driving by in his VW van, it's not your fault you have a sudden urge for some decadent, highly caloric, chocolate-covered cheesecake that will spend a lifetime on your thighs. Remember what you learned in physics. Just blame it on the law of attraction.