From the wurst to the best: A cutting-edge chef is putting Germany on the world gastronomic map
Thursday 28 July 2011
When contemplating potential culinary destinations, Germany might not be the first place that springs to mind. Spain; Italy; France; Greece; Asia; the Middle East and now even Scandinavia are all vying for the attention of the hungry traveller, but Germany, which is still reeling from the worst E. coli outbreak in its history, is not exactly known for its national cuisine. Ask most foodies what they associate with German dining and it's more than likely to include images of soggy sauerkraut and lurid wurst than delectable fine dining. For many, contact with German food is limited to the annual roll out of German Christmas markets peddling vats of acrid cabbage and farty frankfurters, served by grown men in lederhosen.
But in reality, Germany has quietly been going from strength to strength in gastronomic terms over the past decade, with chefs and artisan suppliers creating a high-quality cuisine. It now impressively boasts nine three-Michelin-starred chefs (the UK has just four), 23 two-Michelin-starred restaurants and more than 200 one-stars. Perhaps it's time for us to reassess our views about this country's food credentials. After all, it wasn't all that long ago that people sneered at the idea of British cuisine, citing our overcooked roasts and greasy English breakfasts as proof that we had little to offer in comparison to our European neighbours.
One man who is passionately trying to change the way Germany's food culture is perceived is 43-year old Sven Elverfeld: a chef whose cutting-edge, deconstructionalist cuisine has put the innocuously industrial hub of Wolfsburg on the global restaurant map. Elverfeld opened his now three-Michelin-starred restaurant Aqua inside Germany's first Ritz Carlton hotel 11 years ago. The chef, who had cooked in some one and two-star kitchens prior to that, was what he calls "a no-name" when he arrived from its sister hotel in Dubai.
"When we opened this place, some people were laughing about it," he says now from a seat in Aqua's dining room. "They were saying, 'why are you going to Wolfsburg? There's nothing there, nobody knows the place – it's crazy.' But for me it was interesting because I had nothing to lose."
Within 17 months of opening, Aqua was awarded its first star, followed by a second in 2005 and a third in 2008. This year the restaurant was placed 25th at the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant awards, nine places up from last year (Noma, where chef René Redzepi has been championing indigenous Nordic cuisine, currently holds the number one spot).
Before Aqua, Wolfsburg was known for two things: its football team, and the Volkswagen group's headquarters, whose workers the city was founded to house in 1938. This is now the "Autostadt", a sprawling monument to the car manufacturer, complete with its manufacturing plant, theme park, arts venue (which has hosted shows by the the Rolling Stones) and the Ritz Carlton, with Aqua attracting its own breed of foodie followers. Driving into "car city", you're immediately struck by the ominous industrial backdrop – all redbrick factory chimneys and straight, dark lines, gloomily reflected in the surrounding waterways and glasswork.
It's a beguilingly jolie laide scene: the strategically placed blossom-filled trees and bright patches of manicured grass punctuating the concrete monotony. And it's a constant source of inspiration for Elverfeld. "It's a unique setting here, and I love the architecture. You have the old factory chimneys on the right, which is the classical," he says gesturing out of the restaurant's floor-to-ceiling windows. "And on the left you have the modern architecture. It's the same as what I'm doing in my cooking. The basis is the classical, but I'm always working on the modern way to move it forward."
While he's achieved what to some is considered the ultimate in culinary accolades, Elverfeld is modest about his feat, admitting that he "never expected" the three Michelin stars. "What counts is what's on the plate and the guests need to be satisfied. If you build it up over the years, customers grow to trust you, and then you have more scope to be creative. We built everything from the bottom up."
Elverfeld decided he wanted to be a chef at 16, training first for three years in confectionery, and then for two in cookery, followed by a job at a restaurant in Germany's famous Rheingau wine region under chef Dieter Biesler. "We were only three in the kitchen and we did really traditional German regional recipes. We had people who collected mushrooms and plants for us, and we'd do different sorts of goulashes with white wine, different sorts of German fish. It was really focused on local products and old-fashioned cooking."
A stint with one of Germany's most experienced and respected chefs, Dieter Müller, was also a formative part of his development, and Elverfeld cites him, along with other big-name chefs Heinz Winkler and Eckart Witzigmann, as major influences. It's clear that he finds it incredibly frustrating that Germany doesn't seem to be globally recognised for its cuisine. "Nobody speaks about Germany in culinary terms," he says. "We have nine three-star restaurants and 23 with two stars, which is a lot. But the development of food here has been in the last ten years and the problem is that there are no three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the big cities – none in Frankfurt, Munich or Berlin."
He also feels passionately about the fact that, in a similar vein to the UK, Germany's food culture suffers from unflattering perceptions in the global culinary consciousness. "If you ask people what is the famous dish in Germany they say sauerkraut. But there is so much more to our national cuisine, and what I like about the three-starred restaurants in this country is that each chef has their own style."
Like our own Heston Blumenthal, Elverfeld has made it his mission to pay homage to his native cuisine on the menu at Aqua, using indigenous ingredients and reinterpreting classic national dishes. His take on stroganoff features tenderloin steak, cooked in a water bath, served in a hot pepper sauce with sour cream cooled in liquid nitrogen. This is placed on top and the dish is eaten in an explosion of temperatures. "I like contrasts in a dish – to perhaps have something crunchy, liquid and creamy in one dish, and to play with the temperatures."
His interpretation of handkäs – a traditional German classic from his home region Frankfurt – uses a special strong cheese served as an iced ball with traditional condiments like onions, vinegar and chive. A dish of crimson venison from the nearby Altmark region, which comes with lettuce, a slick of medlar purée, crunchy raw almonds and tiny cubes of crisp, dehydrated potato, is another expression of the terroir. The venison is caught wild for the chef by his own hunter.
"From the beginning I've had my own hunter who is also a trained butcher. I go hunting with him. He's in Lehre, seven kilometres from here, and he also makes sausages with whatever he catches, so I can do a salami or liver sausage from the venison." Other nearby produce includes white asparagus, mushrooms, lamb from near Berlin and strawberries. Elverfeld is a big fan of artisan suppliers who specialise in one or two products. "I have a lot of suppliers that I get just one ingredient from. We have a lady who collects the wild herb woodruff, which tastes like a sort of herby, green vanilla."
Elverfeld uses this in his wonderfully creative rhubarb, yoghurt and woodruff dessert, which features a ping-pong-ball-sized sphere of yoghurt which has been frozen in liquid nitrogen: cool and crunchy on the outside, and molten inside. Little gems of woodruff jelly dot the plate, with moist cubes of perfectly cooked rhubarb. But this careful sourcing isn't limited to main ingredients. "I found a farmer 16 kilometres from here who makes his own butter using traditional methods. We serve it in slices and ask the guest if they want it with salt or not. We have a mill filled with salt from a quarry 18 kilometres away. So the salt and butter are completely local, which is very special."
Elverfeld tells me that he has a hardcore following of diners who he uses as guinea pigs for new dishes. They come to Aqua to eat creations such as his "Simmered corned beef from Müritz lamb with Frankfurt-style green sauce, potato and egg", which comes in a striking grid-like arrangement – the deconstructed and reconstructed egg perfectly rectangular, nestled next to a thin slab of boiled potato. It looks like flat-pack gastronomy, and it tastes sublime. But it wouldn't be to everyone's taste. "If you're making something for everyone you're mainstream," says the chef. "And if you're mainstream, you don't have your own character."
As I look out of the window at the towering industrial backdrop, I think that, unlike the German markets we know so well, character is something that Elverfeld, and his precise, delicious German cuisine has in abundance.
Eat your way from Berlin to Bavaria
Pierre Gagnaire in Berlin
Iconic French chef Pierre Gagnaire, who holds 11 Michelin stars globally, is set to open a restaurant in the Waldorf Astoria which is currently being built in Berlin. His brand of avant-garde cuisine will be welcome addition to the city's culinary landscape. (www.waldorfastoria.com)
Joachim Wissler at Vendôme
This three-star chef is a pioneer of the so-called "new German cuisine". He serves a blend of classical and traditional German cuisine and in 2009 was deemed "the best chef in Germany". His restaurant, Vendôme at the Grandhotel Schloss Bensberg near Cologne, is ranked 21st in the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list. (www.schlossbensberg.com)
Baiersbronn, the heart of Michelin star territory
This municipality, down south by the border with France, boasts seven of the country's Michelin stars. At the Bareiss hotel (www.bareiss.com) is chef Claus-Peter Lumpp who was awarded his third star in 2007. Harald Wohlfarht, who also has three, is at the Schwarzwalstube (www.relaischateaux.com). And one-starred chef Jörg Sackmann is at Restaurant Schlossberg (www.hotel-sackmann.de).
Black Forest ham
This ham is a German speciality (www.backhaus.co.uk). It's made from the hind leg of the pig and is air-dried and smoked over Black Forest timbers for three months before it's ready to eat.
The Rheingau wine region
Wine enthusiasts should take a tour of the beautiful Rheingau region – the most central wine-growing region in Germany – which is dotted with notable vineyards and producers. This area, has been producing wine since Roman times and is known for making some of the best Rieslings in the world, as well as Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir).
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