After a recent conversation with Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea about the Chef Sache conference in Germany in the Fall of 2015 (where he will be one of the presenters on stage), I recollected my experience at Vendome, Chef Joachim Wissler’s restaurant in the lux Schloss Bensberg a historic building and now one of the Leading Hotels of the World. The Schloss during its long storied history from 1703 till 1997 has played many roles. Originally intended as a hunting lodge, it later became a military hospital, a Prussian Cadet School, then a barracks for Belgian occupation troops, and now a luxury hotel. The baroque palace with old world charm, frescoes, coat of arms and all was brought back to life in 2000 by hotelier Thomas Althoff after a 75 million euro investment.
The Vendome restaurant is a standalone structure which interestingly can be accessed by an underground tunnel from the hotel in inclement weather or by walking across the gravel courtyard dotted with lime trees. From this old world setting once you enter the restaurant Wissler’s modern cuisine in the very contemporary restaurant moves you into another era. Since the hotel and restaurant are a 45 minute drive from Cologne spending the night at the hotel after dinner, especially since it can stretch to 5 or six hours is a better option.
I had two very different dining experiences at Vendome, one a collaborative meal with Wissler and Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez and then on another night an extensive degustation where I really experienced Wissler’s version of modern German cuisine. The excellence of the kitchen is matched by the superb service in the dining room and very friendly staff, especially when you spend so much time at the table it really adds to the experience. The view from the windows of the hotel of the river and the Cathedral of Cologne is spectacular. Apparently in September of each year there is a well-known vintage car event in the courtyard of the Schloss Bensberg which brings in foodies as well as the sights and sounds of old engines.
Chef Joachim Wissler: Provocation with a Wink
by Geeta Bansal
Mounds of white Alba truffle shaved over a deconstructed ravioli, actually a thin sheet of jelly covering delicious layers of a soft poached hens egg, jamon de Bellota, parsley, and cheese, a harmonious blend of flavors and textures that put a smile on my face. It was an unforgettable dish that the Vendome kitchen sent out in place of a course listed on the degustation menu since I was not too crazy about that particular protein. It is one of Chef Joachim Wissler’s most well-known and classic preparations and I would have it anytime again especially on a visit during the truffle season. As I have discovered on my travels the general perception of German cuisine being limited to just cold cuts, sausages, sauerkraut and beer could not be farther from the truth. Deutschland has some of the hottest tables and creative wizards in its kitchens in Europe though most well-known Michelin starred restaurants are located in grand hotels outside big cities. Germany is in fact home to eleven three Michelin starred restaurants as well as a grand culinary tradition comparable to its Spanish, Italian and French compeers.
German chef Joachim Wissler is well known for giving a modernist twist to German cuisine in the kitchens of his Vendome restaurant in the style of the neue deutsche Kuche (new German kitchen). The elegant restaurant sits in the compound of the Althoff Grandhotel Schloss Bensberg modeled after Versailles on a hilltop overlooking the entire city of Cologne. The Vendome is part of the elite group of eleven restaurants with three Michelin stars to their name in Germany. Wissler who is sometimes referred to as the Pied Piper of German cuisine is known for his molecular cuisine that puts a twist on traditional German fare and the degustation menu served over several hours has plates featuring a range of products from snails to sweetbreads and even a dessert which is a spin on a German breakfast.
Joachim Wissler born in 1963 near Stuttgart spent his formative years around a dairy farm and its adjoining restaurant. This exposure sparked an interest in a culinary career and in learning classic French techniques. Though his early career began in the eighties in Baiersbronn, Hinterzarten and the Baden-Baden regions, he steadily made his way into the head chef position at Restaurant Marcobrunn in Eltville. Earning two stars in 1996 in a span of five years he then moved from the Schloss Reinhartshausen to Vendome in 2000. Wissler earned acclaim in Germany and internationally as he earned his first star in 2001, followed in 2002 by the second and then the third in 2005. In 2003, he was recognized as the “Cook of the Year” by Gault Millau. He published “JW”, his cookbook which contains 150 recipes, in 2010. That same year he also became the first German chef receive the Spanish “Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia” award for international cooks. In 2013 Vendome earned the coveted 10th spot on the San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna sponsored World’s 50 Best list and in 2014 he is holding the 12th place till the next list is announced on June 1st 2015. Wissler’s style is unique and very personal for which he does not credit any mentors yet he has certainly influenced kitchens and cooks all over Germany who follow his lead.
Wissler was one of the first German chefs to reintroduce the German pig into the fine dining at Michelin worthy restaurants. He began to cook the pig snout in the classic German style of cooking a pork roast and served it in place of foie-gras, lobster, beef or other traditional choices in luxury dining. The flavorful, marbled, fatty piece of meat appears on his menu at Vendome as one of the first courses. The pig snout is paired with a mousse of cress, peas, Gillardeu oyster, and caviar. Snail velouté is served in a snail shell as a side to an escargot dish from the Baden region along with everything else you would find in a garden around the snails. There could be a retro dish served in any classic Berlin restaurant that Wissler has reinvented as a dish worthy of haute cuisine or a classic German roast re-imagined as a sauce. The plates are whimsical, playful and incorporate ingredients from all over the world ranging from peanut oil to coconut to miso paste to jasmine flowers to ginger or a dashi broth yet they are German in context. A visit to the kitchen revealed that they were even making their own tofu using enzymes, caviar from Douglas firs and stock from pine needles as in Nordic cuisine.
I first met Chef Wissler at a Pisco sour cocktail reception preceding a four hands dinner with Chef Virgilio Martinez of Peru. The dinner featured an imaginative series of courses alternating between German and Peruvian cuisine paired with wines. Later I had an opportunity to visit his kitchen, dine at Vendome and watch his cooking demonstration on stage at the Chef Sache, the avant-garde culinary festival held in Cologne. The fact that his event was jam packed with young culinary professionals from all over Europe was an indication of the impact Wissler has had on the new German cuisine.
We chatted after his demo and of course I had to know why the German degustation menus required five hours at the table. Not only at his restaurant but everywhere in fine dining operations there were sometimes long intervals between courses. Understandably the complexity of the dishes and all the accoutrements that are served with each plate are labor and time intensive and as a result service has to be very precise and detailed. There is a dizzying array of plate ware, styles and presentations that adds to the spectacle in the luxe dining rooms at Vendome. Wissler has a very amiable disposition and keen sense of humor and we spoke about the various facets of cooking and hospitality.
My conversation with Chef Wissler backstage at Chef Sache:
What is the significance of putting a story on your plates?
Most important for me is the soul which is the center of a plate. Once I have that I can start working and telling that story. It’s like the story on the snail garden dish it’s very personal to me.
As a cook are you transferring your emotions onto these plates, and are food memories a part of these stories?
Yes and a little part of me lives in every dish. Like the trout dish I created tells the story of my apprenticeship and reflects my experiences. Memories are all about smells, flavors, tastes and maybe even pictures from my childhood. They come back to influence my plates and in general my work.
Since you are held in such esteem by your peers, what is the secret to this longevity of your status in the German food culture?
For me, it is important to be free of any expectations from anyone. Looking at other chefs it is apparent sometimes that it is becoming all about expectations. Of Michelin stars, 50 Best, critics, reviews and all that. I keep my mind free of all these expectations and just work.
Are these awards, lists, and accolades not important from the business and revenue point of view?
Obviously the 50 Best and Michelin are very important but it is not only about that. It is more importantly about what excites me and makes me want to cook and create. Yes they do bring in business and this has become important in the last 15 years for Michelin and the 50 Best, though they have been around only eight years or so.
There is conversation amongst the more established chefs regarding the criteria for these lists or rating systems. What is your take on it?
There is always the balance between those who earn a high spot on the list and find it amazing and those who did not and who consequently are unhappy about it. These do bring in business so it’s important in the present times. The guide Michelin is a very traditional and structured system with a defined way of rating restaurants which is done incognito. The 50 Best is not very objective as it’s not only about skill but other factors too.
Is it more about lobbying and press? Is that why chefs travel to all these international events?
Possibly, though I don’t travel as much as it’s not really possible for me to leave my kitchen. The Roca brothers from El Celler de Can Roca said in many interviews last year that they had been around the world three times individually and together to different continents. Then who is in the kitchen when the chefs are gone. If your restaurant and the food you create is special and solid and you have been doing that for years then you don’t have to do all this.
When guests come from faraway places to your destination restaurant, do they expect to see you there?
I am never away from the restaurant more than ten days during the year. When I am on stage or go to an event it is always on my day of like today the restaurant is closed so I am here at Chef Sache.
On stage you spoke generously about former employees and associates or those going off to other projects. So as a chef do you believe in sharing and transferring your knowledge to others?
It is very very important. I am soon going to have a blog online where I will share my ideas, and what’s going on in my head. Dishes and stories behind them so young people and chefs who are looking for this information and will find it useful. I am pretty sure that for example after my demonstration on stage today I will get many applications from young cooks. I will probably find my desk covered in applications tomorrow.
Do you offer stages at Vendome, and are there more international stagiares?
We have three at the moment, two from USA, one from South Korea. In January we will have one from Mexico. The young man from South Korea was standing in the restaurant one day inquiring about a stage and he didn’t even speak English and presented a poorly worded letter that requested a chance to work with us. Now he has been here six months already.
So for new hires what is more important to you, the CV or the passion?
Definitely the passion.
Lately young cooks are flitting from stage to stage or restaurant to restaurant to build up their resumes. Is this useful for landing a job?
In a good restaurant and with a celebrated chef, even after two years it is not possible to have learned well. Less than two years does not count for much and I don’t consider that significant.
What is changing in German gastronomy these days?
The top end of fine dining restaurants is becoming much more relaxed than ever before. If a few years ago you visited a three Michelin in Germany it would have been the stiffest place anywhere. Now it’s changing, it’s getting friendlier and much less regimented. People talk to you more and want to initiate a conversation.
What we still don’t have in Germany as opposed to London, New York, or Paris is that a chef like me cooking in a reputed restaurant for a long time and having been recognized for my work and the range of food I cook there is a need is for our restaurants to be more approachable for everyone. People comprehend restaurants with Michelin stars as expensive or are intimidated by them. We need to have a version that is more approachable for everyone like Dinner by Heston Blumenthal for example.
So you approve of this shift to casual dining?
It depends on who is doing it and how. If you have chefs bringing the food to the table themselves then you have to ask who is cooking in the kitchen. When it fits in the concept and in the atmosphere it’s good. It works in a restaurant like Noma but would not fit in for example in Vendome.
Is the fine dining concept slowly disappearing?
It’s not going away but it’s changing and quite a lot. If you called a restaurant like say Ducasse in Paris which is very formal, very French for a table it was hard to get in. You can find a table there now because demand for such restaurants is not so much anymore. There was a time when it was hard to get a reservation at restaurants with big names. That is happening because the guest is changing as well and they like a less formal, relaxed, and friendlier atmosphere.
How do you deal with critics and negative reviews?
It goes back to my way of being free of all expectations. So I don’t care too much about these things in general. Of course I read them once in a while and it is always positive to have a good review. If you are confident and do what you like as opposed to going mainstream and following the trends you are always going to get a positive response. If you take a different path like I did there will always be critics and others who don’t understand your concept. You just say I believe in myself and what I am doing as I am not working towards others expectations.
You mentioned working on a blog, so you believe social media is important for restaurants?
Definitely important. Especially in the last few years and even social media has changed itself. In the last few years people go to restaurants after researching them on social media. If you want to go out tonight in Cologne you are probably going on social media, TripAdvisor, or the restaurant’s website or blog to research it. These websites give restaurants an opportunity to tell their story in their own words or present their point of view.
Is there a shift towards simpler cooking, and is interest in molecular gastronomy or technical cooking waning?
What was considered molecular five years ago is now mainstream or standard. Usually guests don’t know of the techniques in the kitchen unless they cook like you. The thing is for example that if one chef cooks a spectacular dish sous vide then a hundred chefs will follow. Out of that maybe ten will be amazing and the rest not great and some will be tossed out.
What are the are the important elements for a perfect progression in a tasting menu?
Simplicity, harmony, provocation and a little wink of the eye.