A brief trip to Germany landed me at Hanover airport well after midnight and by the time I reached Wolfsburg it was early morning. As the huge Volkswagen Autostadt emerged in the dark I thought I had landed on the set of some futuristic movie. Two huge structures eerily looming in the skies at night with shiny cars housed in two round glass towers on a system of lifts along the driveway were a strange sight to behold in my jet lagged state.
The next day things still looked the same out of my hotel window as I prepared to meet this chef that I had heard so much about and visit his restaurant. I did tour the Autostadt and see the Lamborghini spectacle and the other pavilions which for a car buff it is worth visiting, and the Ritz Carlton provides a luxurious option to stay and dine at Aqua which is only open for dinner. The Terra restaurant served a delicious lunch in a room full of suits (business and corporate customers from the Autostadt) as I looked out at the four smokestacks that offered a view that could be the setting for a Mad Max movie. Needless to say both experiences, of meeting Sven Elverfeld and dinner at Aqua surpassed my expectations. I also came away with a new found respect for German cuisine and a new friend in Sven. An expanded version of my recently published interview:
Chef Sven Elverfeld: Three Stars and a Story on Every Plate By Geeta Bansal
A version of this interview published in the Examiner
Deutschland is not usually perceived as a dining destination by food enthusiasts around the world though in 2014 it boasts 11 three Michelin star restaurants compared to four in UK and eight in Italy. This year it is second to France in this count to the pride of the German culinary professionals. Chef Sven Elverfeld has been at the helm of the Aqua restaurant in Wolfsburg which since opening in 2000 quickly earned its first star in 2002, second in 2006 and the third Michelin star in 2009.
Wolfsburg a small city in Western Germany, with a population of 120,000 is the headquarters of the Volkswagen automobile company and its amusement park like Autostadt that attracts many German and international business visitors. This immense complex with stunning architecture houses huge pavilions showcasing the company’s cars ranging from the Lamborghini and Audi to the Volkswagen. A Ritz Carlton hotel in midst of this mini city with the acclaimed Aqua restaurant as its star attraction is another draw for visitors. In all it is a surreal collection of contemporary architecture juxtaposed with old buildings and looming smoke stacks sending out white plumes of smoke. Then a taste of chef Elverfeld’s brilliant cuisine at Aqua transports you to yet another dimension in time and space. The elegant restaurant with views over several water features and the lush landscaping is a perfect setting for the refined cuisine of Chef Elverfeld very well known in the culinary community for bringing attention to .modern German cuisine.
Sven Elverfeld started his training first as a Konditor or pastry chef for three years continuing onto the savory kitchen for two more at the Lufthansa LSG cooking school. . After his training he worked the top kitchens of Germany like Humperdinck in Frankfurt, Dieter Müller in Bergisch-Gladbach, Hessler in Maintal and the Gutsschänke in the Schloss Johannisberg. He then joined the Ritz Carlton group first in Dubai and then transferring to Wolfsburg to open Aqua. Numerous awards and accolades have been showered on him during his career so far including chef of the year, Gault Millau in 2004. In 2011 his first cookbook with recipes from the Aqua kitchen was published. On my recent visit to Wolfsburg I had an opportunity to visit him in his kitchens, watch the prep for the evening’s service and see the special serve ware he has designed with his father for Aqua and to enjoy one of my best dining experiences this year. We met again over several days at Chef Sache in Cologne and had a chance to get better acquainted. Very calm, friendly and excited about the new addition to his family a few weeks prior he spoke about his cuisine and his approach to life.
You came to Wolfsburg to open a restaurant from the ground up. What was the experience like?
When I first came here it was all just concrete, no name yet for the restaurant, and when I chose the design and the name I had no idea it will be so successful. We just concentrated on the work. I believed in not talking, over-thinking or telling anyone that five years later we will have achieved this or that. I believe that you should just do your thing and this is a very unique setting to do that.
Did the surroundings affect the style of cuisine you offer here?
Yes as you can see the surroundings are very unique. There is a very industrial feel, one side is modern architecture and some of old buildings you see are part of our history and will be preserved as they are. It does affect cooking because when you do something modern it feels right. If you understand the basics of cooking and tradition then you can build something new or interesting. If you understand history it is easier to build up to a modern level.
Do you think there is a connection between innovation and modernity?
You have to be curious about the future like I am curious to see what 2010 will bring. I am always curious about new products, new techniques. I myself went a little back in search of the new , more to the basics to learn before moving forward, creating more unusual combinations. For me flavor is more important than any technique since flavors and their combinations stay the longest in your mind. Once you experience a great technique then the next time there is nothing new but taste remains in your memory. I hear this from customers as we have many who come twice a month so I have to keep my menu fresh and changing constantly.
Are memories of your travel a source of inspiration for you and have your travels influenced your cuisine?
Yes I spent time in Japan, Crete, and Dubai so Asian and Mediterranean influences definitely influence my style. I don’t mix it all up in one dish, sometimes a dish will represent memories of the time I was there. I think it’s not only memories of food but product and technique also. In Germany we have totally different techniques and I was lucky at the age of 21 I was in Tokyo and Kyoto doing stages at different restaurants and eating at different places. At that young age it was a big impact that stays with me even now.
Your restaurant is in a location that not so easily accessible, so where does your dining clientele come from?
70 to 80% of our diners travel from more than 100-200kms and especially in the last five years we have started getting more international visitors who are traveling here to dine with us. We get a lot of guests from Asia, especially Japan, China, Korea, Peru, Brazil and the US. Wolfsburg is a small town and not so well known but the best restaurants in Germany are not in major cities, especially all the three stars and we are only one hour away by train from Berlin.
Does the perception of German food have something to do with this image?
True, if you ask a person on the street anywhere in the world about our cuisine they will mention sausages, sauerkraut, or beer considering that we are second only after France in the number of three Michelin starred restaurants in Europe. We still don’t get a lot of culinary travelers from other countries. Is it because the right exposure is lacking, unlike Peru where the government is helping spread the word? Yes because this information is not out there. In the last ten years our gastronomy has really advanced. Maybe the Germans are not aware of or take pride in what they have. They don’t realize that this could really boost the numbers of tourists to Germany. We have all the infrastructure with airports, highways and trains, good hotels a great economy so we should be attracting visitors.
Where do you source most of your products from?
I have 60-70 suppliers and about 50 of them produce and deliver two to three products. More than 50% comes from surrounding areas of northern Germany. I have my own hunter here for fourteen years and sometimes we go hunting together for deer and venison just 25 to 30kms away. I don’t push so much for product and whatever I can find seasonal or local I take it and work with it as long as the quality is great. This is something we learned in school while growing up. For me the season and product determine my menu.
What are some other popular cuisines in Germany?
We have a lot of Italian restaurants in Germany not just pizza but real Italian because Italy was the first country where 40 years ago Germans traveled for vacation. That is why we have so many Italian restaurants because people want to live those memories. We have so many Asian, Japanese restaurants for the same reason because in Europe, Germany was the first country from where people traveled so much and it’s always been a country of travelers. At least 90% travel abroad once a year compared to France, Spain or Italy where most people travel within their own country for vacation or dining. There is a big gap between how many Germans travel to other countries and how many foreign travelers come here.
Do you like to maintain German traditions in your dishes?
Sometimes I like to make traditional dishes in a new way or modern way like tonight I will be doing pork belly which a redo of traditional pork dish with sauerkraut and potatoes. (it was one of my favorite dishes on the tasting menu). I play a little bit with tradition but I also like to play with other products like the mackerel or pigeon as I love pigeon. I have a Wagyu supplier from Japan so we have it on the menu since the last three weeks but I change things frequently if I have an idea. I don’t change the entire menu but just one element on it as long as it fits on the menu. Every dish has its own history and its own story.
Do you ever change things on the spot in the kitchen?
Sometimes it happens. Even if we do a dish a certain way for two weeks I might change presentation or add another element to it. It’s passion that makes you do that. There is a dish from the Frankfurt area where I am from that the season is almost over for but in this you cook potatoes, peeled, few spoons of green sauce with 7-8 herbs, sour cream, lemon juice, salt pepper and it’s usually done with veal but I do it with the topside from lamb and that comes from north of Berlin. The first time I made it a German journalist called it a Mondrian painting. For a few years it was my signature dish it was based on tradition but was very unique.
Are you very intense in the kitchen and do you lose your cool?
I believe that I am harmonious, you can ask my guys, but I believe that atmosphere should be such that everyone can communicate and trust each other. There is a line of course between myself, my sous chef and other members but it is important that we all respect each other otherwise people will stay only six months or one year. When I invest in somebody and they work with me I want to get something back. In my kitchen people work on an average for two three years so they become part of a team. I believe in team spirit but the atmosphere should not be like the military. I believe in organization and a good flow and sometimes I may go overboard but it’s super important to me.
Has the image of cooks and chefs changed in recent years, and do they have a social responsibility?
In the seventies and eighties when I started my apprenticeship gastronomy was not a highly regarded profession. All this has come because of TV chefs who have raised the profile. This reality TV is not my thing but we need people out there to give direction to the new generation of chefs. This is important for the future of our industry and chefs like Rene Redzepi are teaching the new generation that you have to observe your surroundings and what is around you and utilize it. We have to acknowledge we have a problem with too many people and disappearing resources on the planet. So now the industry has to change and chefs have to be a part of this change. Simply said the industry makes the future and we see that every region and chef works to conserve and protect the resources. Some places the ice is receding or there are no more fish so we need to conserve and not over utilize or exploit resources. Once everyone can afford a product it’s finished so some things have to be expensive to conserve them example the Tilapia fish that is coming from Asia everywhere. There need to be more regulations regarding how things available in supermarkets were raised or sourced from. Then the wastage of food, so much is thrown away by supermarkets. All the bins have to be full to look good. They make pipelines for gas and oil from one country to another why can’t we have pipelines to take food and water from countries that don’t have enough to countries that have too much.
In our economies we are talking about people eating out for entertainment and not for sustenance. Do you agree?
Yes and that is why I feel we should be able to provide at least water by such a pipeline. We could and have the technology make a pipeline say to Africa for water and food but it does not happen because no one stands to make a profit by doing that.
Do you think making a resume or CV has become more important for young cooks than actually learning at stages?
I see a lot of those but the thing is they don’t learn anything, forget the basics, they don’t even learn to create something from the beginning to the end. To be in charge or responsible for something is important. If for example I have a person at one station and another one on another like my sous chef, my saucier, the poissoniere or the garde manger or the two pastry chefs . I along with my sous chef do all the plating on the hot line and my cold prep next to me must all be responsible for their jobs. When people work at one station for six seven months I move them to another station because they must learn to be flexible as well as help each other.
Do your travels impact your work in the kitchen?
What you do must fit in your region like Magnus at Faviken and if I say I am going farming or something it does not fit in my region. I travel a lot and am very open minded . I like the Japanese philosophy, not just for cooking, but life and I am inspired by how straight forward and honest it is. So why not mix up my memories, my philosophy or knowledge to be the inspiration for a dish. These days everyone is flying everywhere so to do a menu only from products from my region will be very limiting. I admire Redzepi for what he does at Noma but very few restaurants can do such a defined, straight concept.
Is food is losing flavor and taste and becoming gimmicky?
You know why; because 20 years ago everyone wanted to know how Michel Bras is cooking, they will invest in a trip to visit and eat at his restaurant, maybe take one or two pictures. But now everyone has an iPhone or iPad taking pictures at the table and young chefs are making dishes based on the pictures and if there is a new technique then after a week everyone has it. These young cooks are stealing only the pictures but they don’t see the flavor, or why certain flavors are combined as they don’t see the thought process behind the picture. They can recreate a fancy and good looking plate without any attention to flavor and taste. A lot of thought goes into choosing, product, spices or flavors and it is flavor that stays at the end.
How do you take your inspiration to the plate?
When I have an idea for a new dish with maybe three products, three side products and one main like fish or vegetable etc. I start with product by thinking about what I can do with it, a vinaigrette, a stock, a foam, a jus, cube it, fry it, grill it, and I write down all the possibilities. I do this with each product and then because texture is important to me so everything must be contributing something. Then I decide how to cook and season each product, as after the idea you must take these steps. The goal is not to create a signature dish every time. It’s just what I think or feel at that moment.
What do you do in your time off?
Sunday’s and Monday we close at Aqua and then for two weeks in January and one week for Easter and two weeks in summer. Usually in winter time I go skiing but now we have a two week old baby and my daughter is one and half years old so I spend time with my family.
Is there a question that annoys you during interviews?
The press always ask me to describe my style but it’s hard to say because then I will put myself in a kind of jail as if I have a new idea then I will have to check whether it fits into that style. If there is a new dish that we like as a team we can freely add it to our menu. When you have multiple courses if you have the same style then after the say fourth course you will already know what to expect in the next one.
Any opinion on the trend to connect art to food?
I think basically for me it has to do with creating a harmony. Speaking only for myself music is very important in my life; it can be any kind depending on my mood. What is art but what an individual perceives as art. Art sometimes takes different directions and for some it’s art and others nothing. Do you play music in the kitchen? Yes, in fact a few months ago I bought a new system but we play only during the prep not during service! At home, in my car music at all times of the day is around me. There was a time I used to play the drums, was a DJ, mixing at the turntable and the idea of mixing sounds is similar to what I do now. My brother is in the music business in Tokyo and traveling around the world. Music is connected to feelings and cooking also has something to do with feelings. Some feelings are inherent like instinctively knowing how flavors will meld together in an aesthetic way just like a musician puts together a great melody .
How is working in a small town different from say Munich or Frankfurt?
When I am out in the market people come up to me and everyone knows me and they feel proud of the attention I am bringing to the area. When they see me buying locally it encourages the growers and people have more confidence in the product. It took time to get used to being known but if it is not too intrusive then it’s pleasant. I occasionally do cooking classes for ten people three to four times a year. There is a lady who has come 28 times and I do this to familiarize people here with what we are doing at Aqua. I like to share ideas about different ways they can cook familiar products. Why we steam or sous vide products because in this recent fascination with sous vide people forget that it only works for certain products and not everything.
What would you not sous vide?
A deer or venison I will not cook this way. You cannot cook everything in the same way. (I hope lot of young cooks realize that before trying to get their money’s worth from this equipment)
Are guests turning into food critics with access to social media?
This is a phenomenon here to stay and we cannot change it. Germany has a lot of social media platforms on which people can write anything. They can compare two chefs or dishes or write what they do not understand. I personally stay away from all this and just concentrate on my work. I use the Internet to stay connected with other chef friends and that is it. People are sometimes on their phone while eating or texting with one hand and its disrespectful to those serving or cooking their food. Respect for not only what is on the plate but what is behind it.
Does pressure come with success?
Yes as you achieve success in your profession there is pressure and a lot of responsibility.
Finally something I ask most people in this industry. Would you like your children to be in this industry?
I would like them to do what they like because no one in my family was behind me. I was the first to enter this profession. I don’t want to give them direction just good education. You have to be ready mentally to make a choice depending on your aptitude. Everyone must do what they like and once you find your passion you must follow it. Your passion is then a gift to the profession you follow.