In 1976, celebrity chef Willi Koeppen disappeared from his restaurant in the Dandenongs. The case has never been solved.
Paul ‘Willi’ Koeppen was born in Berlin in June 1929.
He trained as a chef, completing his apprenticeship at Berlin’s famed Adlon Hotel. Later he worked at different locations around Germany and Europe. In England, in his early twenties, he served for a time on Winston Churchill’s staff, cooking for the former Prime Minister.
In 1956, Koeppen moved to Melbourne. The summer Olympics were being held in the city, and he was lured by the opportunities this large event presented.
Also arriving in Melbourne from Germany that year, and for the same reason, Karin Lantzsch. The pair met at a party during the Olympics, began dating, and were married the following year.
Melbourne at the time was a city working hard to establish an international reputation.
In preparation for the Olympics, many old buildings were demolished (you can read more about this, here), and were replaced with more modern equivalents. Outdoor dining, a novelty at the time, began at the Oriental Hotel on Collins Street, in 1957.
The city was trying to shake off its colonial, agricultural past, and seeking cosmopolitan, contemporary ideas.
Willi Koeppen, with his experience in Europe, fit this trend. He was handsome and energetic, and brought with him innovative new cuisine ideas.
Koeppen was appointed Executive Chef at the Chevron Hotel in St Kilda, an impressive position for a 28-year-old.
Built in 1934, the Chevron was itself an innovative idea for Melbourne.
It was described as a ‘country club’ hotel, the first in the city. The building was low-rise, rather than a big tower block, and situated on extensive grounds featuring a swimming pool, tennis court and gymnasium, when these were not standard hotel features.
The Chevron billed itself as a more relaxed accommodation option, like a rural getaway, in the heart of the city.
Koeppen quickly established himself at the Chevron, and began a meteoric rise.
His youth, and background, made him interesting, beyond his skill as a chef. He was a symbol of the international influence being felt in Melbourne, a sign of the changing times.
In 1957, he began hosting a radio talk show on local station 3KY. The popularity of this lead to him being offered his own TV program.
Called ‘The Chef Presents’, this 15 minute show ran before the nightly news on Channel 7, and was the first televised cooking show in Australia.
Koeppen demonstrated his recipes and provided cooking tips. Like TV chefs in the modern era, Koeppen also used his program to promote other brands. He was hired as a spokesperson by Heinz, and used their products in his program.
Willi Koeppen was Australia’s first celebrity chef.
In 1958, Koeppen decided to go into business for himself.
He and his wife purchased an old café in the Dandenong Ranges, the Quamby Café, just outside of Olinda. They renovated the property significantly, and expanded it, living in the basement of the building while the work was ongoing.
The name of their new restaurant, came from an unlikely source.
‘We called our restaurant ‘The Cuckoo’ because I woke up one morning, shortly after we’d moved in, and heard a cuckoo.
Back then, I had no idea that Australians use the term ‘cuckoo’ to describe someone who is crazy, in the same way we Germans say: Jemand hat einen Vogel!’
– Karin Koeppen
The pair had a unique idea for the restaurant’s cuisine as well.
A ‘smorgasbord’ is a traditional Swedish style of food, popular across Europe.
Many dishes are presented, including cold cuts of meat, fish, salads, and preserves, laid out as a self-service buffet. The Koeppens were familiar with smorgasbord style eating from their time in Europe, it is particularly popular in Germany, but it was largely unknown in Australia.
‘The Cuckoo’ would become Australia’s first smorgasbord restaurant.
The menu included traditional German dishes like chicken schnitzel, bratwurst and sauerkraut, and the interior was wood panelled, the tables covered in red and white checked tablecloths. The wait staff wore lederhosen.
Friday through Sunday, there was a floor show. Live bands supplied German folk music, there were Bavarian dancers and yodelling.
This was something new in the city, and an instant success.
Olinda was already a popular tourist getaway for people in Melbourne, and Koeppen was well known from TV. Other celebrities came to dine, including singers, actors, and leading politicians. Dinner at The Cuckoo became a key part of any visit to Melbourne.
With his TV show and now a thriving business, Willi Koeppen had become a very successful young man.
But success had come at a cost.
The pressure told on Koeppen, who developed a volatile temper. He drank heavily, and was prone to bouts of anxiety, and mood swings.
Running ‘The Cuckoo’, and two other restaurants Koeppen had a partial stake in, proved demanding. He gave up his TV program in 1959 to focus on his business interests, losing himself in work.
Koeppen and his wife had three children, Andrei, Sabine and Daniela, which increased responsibilities at home.
But ‘The Cuckoo’ continued to flourish, right through the next decade. The restaurant was expanded to seat 400 patrons, the largest in the area, and now welcomed busloads of tourists each day.
By 1976, things were coming to a head.
‘The Cuckoo’ was no longer the exciting new presence of 20 years beforehand. By this time it had a reputation as a respectable, if slightly quaint, establishment. It was no longer hip, although it remained popular.
Koeppen, now 46, had continued his personal decline.
He felt the restaurant had become a millstone, stifling his creativity. His drinking had escalated, and some of his friends now considered him an alcoholic.
His older children had been sent away to boarding school, and while he and his wife still ran the restaurant together, they lived otherwise separate lives.
Koeppen had taken up residence in a small cottage at the rear of the property, he and his wife avoided each other outside of work. Both reportedly had extra marital affairs.
He was likely suffering from depression.
Saturday, February 28, found Koeppen in a particularly bad state.
Drinking during the evening dinner service, he was clearly intoxicated by the end of it, slurring his words. He was verbally abusive to members of staff, sacking one of them, and had a public row with his wife, who he confronted with her infidelity.
At one point he threatened suicide, stating he would throw himself off the roof of the restaurant.
A family friend who lived nearby, Dr Bernard Butler, was called in to help. When he saw the condition Koeppen was in, he stayed for a few drinks, hoping to calm him down. Karin left the premises, and went to stay with a friend.
Butler and Koeppen sat in the now empty restaurant together, talking, until 2am. Then they moved back to Butler’s house, about a kilometre away. There they continued talking and drinking for another hour.
Sometime between 3 and 4.00am, Butler saw Koeppen climb unsteadily into his Volkswagen Kombi van, and drive away.
At 4.30am one of The Cuckoo’s cleaners, Nivelles Love, arrived for her morning shift.
She found Koeppen’s Kombi in the restaurant’s lower carpark. The side door was open, Koeppen was nowhere in sight.
She thought this unusual, and reported it when other staff arrived. Karin was concerned, but after the fight of the previous evening, thought that her husband may simply have gone away for a break.
The Koeppen’s owned several properties in Melbourne and one on Poole Island, in Queensland. Dr Butler confirmed that Koeppen had mentioned going to Poole Island the previous night.
But when a few days passed and no one heard from Koeppen, Karin raised the alarm. He was reported as a missing person to police, on March 2.
To this day, no trace of him has ever been found. Somewhere between 3 and 4.30am on February 29, Willi Koeppen vanished without a trace.
The police investigation initially focussed on the Poole Island property, but it was clear that no one had visited.
Restaurant staff and recent patrons were also questioned.
It was uncovered that the Sunday before Koeppen’s disappearance, three female escorts and their manager had attended The Cuckoo for lunch. Under questioning, one of the women said the stated reason for the visit, was so Koeppen could choose one of them as a travelling companion, for a planned trip to Queensland.
This corroborated what Dr Butler said Koeppen had told him, but otherwise lead to a dead end. It seemed that Koeppen had not made it to Queensland.
Police thought it possible he could have followed through on his threat to commit suicide. The area surrounding the restaurant, steep and thickly wooded, was searched thoroughly, but no body was found. And the window of time between Koeppen’s last sighting, and his car being found, was small.
There was not much time for him to have left the area.
At a later time, police received a tip: a man living in South Australia had admitted to a friend that he had murdered Koeppen in a jealous rage. Koeppen and this man had been sharing a lover, a local woman, the man had finally had enough.
Police questioned this suspect, never identified, but did not pursue the lead any further.
And so Koeppen’s disappearance became an unsolved mystery, a cold case.
Karin continued to run the restaurant in his absence, much the same as before. The busloads of tourists arrived each day, and the staff laid out the smorgasbord.
In 1991, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read added a fascinating note to the case.
Chopper is a local legend. A former standover man and thief, who became a gang leader in Melbourne’s notorious Pentridge prison. His nickname comes from his ears, which Read had hacked off so he would get sent to the prison hospital, and so avoid a gang confrontation.
In jail, Read also began writing stories about his criminal exploits, and the underworld identities he had known.
The first of these, ‘Chopper: From the Inside’, was published in 1991. In it, Read made a sensational claim: convicted serial killer Alex Tsakmakis admitted to Read that he had murdered Koeppen.
‘I remember Tsakmakis said the bloke owed him money, and there was a falling out.
Alex was into that murder up to his neck. He was proud as a peacock over that one.’
– Chopper Read, ‘From the Inside’
But by the time the book was released, Tsakmakis was already dead. Three years earlier he had been bludgeoned to death while still incarcerated, beaten to a pulp with gym weights by the Russell Street bomber, Craig Minogue.
Police investigated but could not find any link between Tskamakis and Koeppen. Nor was there any evidence that Koeppen was in financial trouble. While he was having personal problems, The Cuckoo was still a profitable business when he disappeared.
And Chopper is known as an unreliable narrator. His popular ‘true crime’ books are riddled with exaggerations and furphies. Nevertheless, this story has persisted: that Koeppen was murdered by underworld figures, over a financial dispute.
In 2018, a coronial inquest into Koeppen’s disappearance was held. This had not been done previously, due to the absence of a body.
The State Coroner, Sarah Hinchey, re-examined the police evidence relating to the case, and spoke with detectives who had continued to work on it, over the ensuing decades.
The police conducted additional ‘proof of life’ checks on Koeppen’s records, which confirmed that neither his bank accounts or Medicare file had been accessed, since 1976.
Hinchey examined the Tsakmakis connection, and the suspect in South Australia. There was no evidence to support either theory.
Her conclusion was brief:
‘Mr Koeppen died on or about the 29th February 1976, at an unknown location, from unknown causes.
Despite an extensive criminal investigation conducted by Victoria Police, no person or persons have been identified, to date, as being responsible for causing Mr Koeppen’s death.’
– Coroner’s Report, July 18, 2018
The official investigation of the disappearance was closed.
The Koeppen’s children were divided on what they thought had happened to their father.
Daniela thought he had perished in an accident, Andrei was a believer in the South Australian suspect. While Sabina’s daughter Elke, thought he had been the murdered by some still unknown assailant.
In March 2021, after 63 years of operation, The Cuckoo closed its doors, a victim of the covid lockdown. The family intends to sell the property.