By now, everyone has seen the color radiating atop ivory plate and slate. Pretty, possibly cliche, what if we considered these flowers as symbol?1 For wrapped inside the foraged stylings of today’s food lie deeper questions about identity. As gardens and fields unfurl into the kitchen; the direct connection to growing, or finding, food has many chefs rallying around their regions and traditions.
Luxury is becoming authenticity – developing meaningful identity.2 And this is where the New German School finds itself – building a framework to discover and push itself forward.
What might a German high end cuisine mean? Does one ditch the French Bresse chicken and serve a reduced wild venison tea, Pure Venison, instead? There are cold waters to the north in the Baltic Sea for seafood. Can a classic cheese, Handkäs, be re-imagined with liquid nitrogen that melts into a satisfying tangy chew? What if native flavors are eschewed for international profiles, but applied with a meticulous balance that recalls the traditions of German engineering?
Hitting their primes, the New German School is a group of chefs united by their values. They have 11 Michelin stars among the four leaders. There is no manifesto about the land or any agreement on style. Instead, they choose to focus on traditional German virtues in the arts – directness, hard work, perfection, and orderly creativity. It might be easy to dismiss any one in isolation (what chef doesn’t work hard?) but, together, it constitutes a foundation for exploring their own questions and ideas of new German cooking, one independent of French haute cuisine that dominates Continental Europe.
And it is immediately clear the chefs run in divergent styles. Sven Elverfeld, of Aqua ***, mines dishes of his youth for his Classics Re-interpreted themes. At Schloss Hotel Lerbach **, Nils Henkel tackles his Pure Natural concept with a lighter, more-vegetable oriented cuisine. Thomas Buhner, of La Vie ***, with a newer garden, uses modern technique to craft landscapes and pure flavors. And, finally, Christian Bau of Schloss Berg *** fuses an aggressive Asian sensibility on a slightly more classical French base – Bao-style.
Chef Sache 2011, covered in great detail by Very Good Food, was used as showcase for this burgeoning movement. Each chef gave a presentation of ideas, technique, and a signature recipe. The German National Tourist Office, and High End Food,3 invited a few bloggers and journalists to taste and understand this group of chefs.4
It was a cool crisp German night at Schlosshotel Lerbach. Eleven Michelin stars cooked in the kitchen while eight lit up the dining room as guests.5 Virtuoso performances were reduced to one final dinner hosted at Henkel’s restaurant. Here was the New German School, plate by plate, two for each chef.6
Foie Gras, “Lumumba” & Plum – Sven Elverfeld
In an immediate nod to Andoni Aduriz,7 bubbles erupted from the center of the plate – a fleeting chocolate suggestion (poetry, remember?) The thin layers verged on the too sweet but the dish was balanced with bitter and tart with the foie lasting long. This also helped balance the foie’s fat which, obviously, luxuriously coated the mouth. Why don’t more chefs pair foie with chocolate – they belong together – and this was my favorite dish of the trip.
A tomato and its circle of possibilities, Nils Henkel explored the Caprese salad. Obviously plated in a modern, artistic style; the forms, textures, and temperatures are organized as a journey around the plate. Some flavors were amplified, pristine, and clear but some textures were too artificial to fit into the natural thesis, mostly the mozzarella permutations. The variety of tomatoes, and forms, provided different bites of acidity and sweetness. The basil bread was interesting and fluffy, a delivery mechanism that released less sharply than small leaves. Based on this interesting dish, I would like to try Henkel’s restaurant to see how he interprets vegetables in a full tasting menu.
Turbot – Sweet/ Sour/ Salty/ Spicy – Christian Bau
With impressive balance across its self-appointed flavor profiles, this dish walked the delicate lines between its quadrants. A ginger oil pulled everything along tightly. Looking at pictures, it’s clear Bau likes to use many ingredients and, sometimes, dishes look too busy. It is quite interesting that he pulls much inspiration from Japanese cooking, except its minimalism. However, the precision displayed here confirm the ingredients are plated with intention – and they work, without overwhelming.
Spice Pigeon – Kefir, Pomegranate, Sesame, Cous Cous – Sven Elverfeld
Elverfeld again showed a tactician’s accuracy in balancing disparate elements with a tasty pigeon. Spiced red fruit paired beautifully with the pigeon and a few jabs of acidity. Elverfeld is arguably strongest when cooking meat. In an earlier tasting menu, the meat dishes excelled – surprising, given my preference for vegetables later in a menu.
Layers, textures, leaves, and temperatures; the line between savory and dessert was blurred by the sweetish cream elements. Buhner plates often in landscape, inviting exploration into an ordered randomness. Here, the liquid nitrogen Gorgonzola, broken, is the focal point. The cold shell tempered the pungency typical of the cheese and immediately melted into the small beets and their stalks (from Buhner’s garden.) The cheese also appeared in biscuit and chip form. There are obvious Spanish vanguard elements in this dish but their harmony is more composed than experiment – a trademark the chefs strive toward. And how rare is it to have a cheese course that is truly thought through – and works?8
How often do gala dinners disappoint? Chefs in foreign kitchens are often emperors with no clothes – everyone keeps up the pretense despite disappointing efforts. The four chefs of the New German School cooked valiantly on this magical night, showcasing skill, discipline, and execution. If the execution of modern technique, with German inflections and interpretations, sounds interesting – there is a convincing argument to visit these chefs and their restaurants. And it was all done with nary a flower in sight.
1 – If you wanted a book deal on Anthony Bourdain’s imprint, pitch it as a culinary Trystero symbol – a secret society in plain view – Crying of Lot 49 meets Fight Club. I also bet a Pirates of the Caribbean-style comic book/graphic novel about chefs could get serious attention. Not the family-friendly movie; more the ride – men chasing women, threatening each other with bottles, and muttering to dogs in the gutter – because they were drinking Pappy at a tailgate party.
2 – Not authentic dishes, a concept that has little meaning, but as in actuality and true character. Cooking that ultimately represents who the chef is, instead of what the market thinks they should be. I think this is where the press gets it wrong – fine dining is not going down-scale – it’s being re-interpreted as an arguably more individual, artistic endeavour. Carrots are not caviar but if you grew up with carrots, and have thought about them for 10, 15, or 20 years; that dish should be just as regal as a dollop of caviar.
I am also convinced kaiseki might become a primary inspiration for this new style of food – chefs just need to make it to Japan. It developed before the French tasting menu, and by some accounts informed it, and it manages to encompass an entire dining ecosystem in one seating – season, nature, ingredients, bowls and plates, and food. Everything contributes to the story – everything trying to reveal dimensions of the whole. Here’s a review of my experience at Hyotei in Kyoto, one of, if not the, oldest kaiseki restaurants in Japan. One time does not do it justice.
4 – Yes, it was entirely paid for by the German Tourism Board. Many of the dishes featured in this meal were signatures to a degree, finished products instead of sketches. They were also served to over twenty people simultaneously – for that reason alone, quality should not be an issue when dining anonymously.
5 – Andoni Aduriz, Elena Arzak, and Marc Haeberlin.
6 – There is one dish missing: Nil Henkel’s Lightly Smoked Arctic Char – Vinaigrette of Elder-Capers, Cress Mash, Char Caviar. DocSconz was more diligent with his notes and pictures.
7 – You can see the same bubbles in Aduriz’s Interpretation of Vanity from my 2007 Mugaritz meal. Aduriz is a chef who does not get enough credit – the chef’s chef – but he hasn’t achieved the same fame as some of his contemporaries. He is one of the most influential chefs in the Western world. And hopefully his upcoming cookbook, Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking, will earn him wider respect. For the record, Mugaritz is one of my favorite restaurants in the world – sometimes challenging but rewarding on my two visits.
8 – Don’t get me wrong – I can consume an entire cheese cart and you’ll often find me asking for 3-5 more cheeses than what is initially offered. The Michel Bras cheese cart was probably down a day or two when I was done with it. It is rare for chefs to include a cheese course at all on tasting menus; and, more rare, to find a strong composed cheese course. They often veer on the minimal (strategic dops of honey or herb placement – mostly cop-out) or confused (too much going on in an effort to balance pungent cheeses); and this one worked because it accepted that dessert was next, and incorporated sweet elements into the dish.