An extended version of my conversation with Chef Sven Elverfeld that was recently published in the Daily Meal.
Chef Sven Elverfeld of Aqua: Michelin-Starred Fine Dining in Germany
by Geeta Bansal, for The Daily Meal
In conversations about contemporary gastronomy, Germany tends to be overshadowed by its neighbors like France, Italy or Spain in spite of its eleven three Michelin starred restaurants. Deutschland is not where most Gastro tourists head to, unless they are familiar with the prowess of contemporary German chefs such as Sven Elverfeld. Germany boasts one of the more robust economies in Europe, with well-heeled clientele supporting upscale fine dining restaurants like Elverfeld’s Aqua restaurant in the Wolfsburg Ritz Carlton. The hotel sits amidst the car themed Autostadt, an immense amusement park like complex in the small city of Wolfsburg , the headquarters of the Volkswagen automobile giant. The park’s huge pavilions showcasing cars are not the only draws for local and international visitors. The Aqua restaurant, the only one in the Ritz Carlton chain to hold three Michelin stars, is a star attraction, standing in the midst of a surreal collection of pre WWII factories with their looming smoke stacks spewing plumes of white smoke into the skies.
In this somewhat unusual setting the old elements juxtapose with the contemporary architecture to provide a unique setting for the restaurant and its modernist cuisine. At night the windows of the elegantly appointed restaurant frame the brilliantly lit lush landscape of the complex interspersed with multiple water features, providing a perfect backdrop to Sven Elverfeld’s exquisite cuisine. Elverfeld is credited with bringing attention to modern German cuisine and while holding three Michelin stars, his Aqua has also been recognized as one of the World’s 50 Best restaurants for the past several years. In 2015 it placed #33 on the San Pellegrino sponsored list one of the only two German restaurants with this recognition. Aqua since opening in 2000 quickly earned its first star in 2002, second in 2006 and the third Michelin star in 2009 justifying its status as a destination restaurant. Elverfeld has been bestowed with numerous awards and accolades including Chef of the Year by Gault & Millau in 2004, and Aqua scoring 19.5 points out of 20.
Elverfeld began his training first as a Konditor or pastry chef continuing onto the savory side in the top kitchens of Germany such as Humperdinck in Frankfurt, Dieter Müller in Bergisch-Gladbach, Hessler in Maintal and the Gutsschänke in the Schloss Johannisberg. He came aboard the Ritz Carlton group’s Dubai operation and then transferred to Wolfsburg to helm Aqua. Since its opening Aqua has become the jewel of the upscale hotel chain and offers one of the premier dining experiences in Europe. The spectacular plates, attentive service and the extensive wine lists make it a destination restaurant for savvy German diners as well as international visitors. Just an hour’s train ride from Berlin or by plane into Hamburg it is also easily accessible by car from any of these cities as well as Düsseldorf or Cologne. On any given night besides the local clientele there are often guests from Asia, especially Japan, China, Korea, Peru, Brazil and the US.
The detail-oriented chef is hands on in every aspect of his operation, including the original serve ware he collaborated on with his engineer father. The dishes are used to serve the restaurant’s ever-changing selection of amuses that begin the Aqua experience. His playful interpretations of classics are also in his well-received cook book simply titled “Sven Elverfeld” a heavy tome with mouthwatering pictures of his food and recipes from the Aqua kitchen. A father with a young family, this perfectionist in the kitchen is the face of modern German gastronomy. Elverfeld is a well-traveled, well-read intellectual who is also an avid skier and has a keen interest in music. Interestingly any conversation with him invariably veers into the subject of cuisine and his passion for his profession and craft is easy to discern.
In a recent conversation with Daily Meal, Chef Elverfeld very eloquently expressed his views on many aspects German gastronomy as well as sharing his latest flavor combinations and new creations.
In your opinion, why is Germany not perceived as a fine dining destination by diners despite the level of excellence evident by its eleven three Michelin-starred restaurants?
Germany doesn’t get so many food travelers and a lot of our customers are tourists who come to visit cultural attractions or come on business. There is virtually no food tourism and if we have 8% to 10% international guests then for us it’s a lot. Compare us to say Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Fransescana in Modena or Elena and Juan Mari’s Arzak in San Sebastián for instance where 60% to 80% are food tourists so there is a big discrepancy.
In my opinion if you look back at the sixties Germany was already a country known for its automobile industry and German tourists were already traveling in large numbers all over the world. Most German’s were traveling at least once or twice a year to a different destination in Europe like Italy, France or Spain by car. They brought back many of these cuisines and probably that is why we have a lot of Italian restaurants and one exists almost in every neighborhood. What the German’s didn’t do even twenty years ago was promote their own kitchens or food culture.
Is the German government or Tourism Board getting more proactive in this regard?
Not really since like other countries, they don’t fly in people to help promote our food culture like say Copenhagen, Peru, or even Mexico is doing now. Spain sells a lot of food products in different countries so its cuisine is more recognized. Germany is known for more technical products which it exports. All these reasons impact the food tourism and promotion of our chefs and restaurants.
There are many international food congresses and events taking place these days. Can German chefs take initiative to hold them in Germany or even travel more to such events like Cook it a Raw etc.?
I myself do travel to different events like the Cayman Island food festival, charity dinners like an event at Frantzen in Stockholm, a food congress in Prague, Massimo Bottura’s Refettorio Ambrosiano in Milan to cook with food waste, and Chef Sache that takes place in Cologne every year. In the last five years most international customers traveling to dine at Aqua are coming mainly due to the World’s 50 Best list. It has helped us a lot by bringing more attention to Aqua and in promoting our cuisine. Now we are on the radar and almost every day we have customers from Latin America or Asia who learnt about us because of the 50 Best list. We do get a lot of customers from Hamburg and even more from Berlin, a more well-known tourist destination, and just an hour away by train.
German chefs were not part of the Gelinaz Shuffle event this year. Why is that?
I don’t know how it works. The German chefs are not well-known around the world for all that they do especially since we have eleven three Michelin star chefs and are cooking remarkable food. It could be that most of these restaurants are in the remote countryside and not in major cities but it’s hard to say.
Most restaurants in Germany, including yours, are situated within a large hotel. Does this give you an advantage in attracting food tourists or even the hotel clientele?
It is good for us as it provides an opportunity for guests to come and stay and make it a real break.
When you envision a new concept or dish how long does the process from an idea to reality take?
Some ideas we think about, write or record, and test out and some are never realized. I see those as having a missing part and then we try with a different ingredient or technique. Sometimes despite repeated attempts it is not satisfactory to me but then I don’t just discard it we hold on to it and one day we revisit it and look at it with a new perspective and surprisingly it works out great that time. I don’t give up and try to rework ideas again if they don’t work out the first time. Sometimes the entire process takes two to four weeks.
Your cuisine is very meticulous and complex and you play with a lot of texture and flavor, yet color plays an important role on your plates. Is color an important element in food composition for you?
It depends, sometimes my dish may not be colorful but monochromatic like it might have variations of brown or white. For me color is an element that comes towards the end. I am not a chef who will add flowers on a plate just because it needs color. Only elements that make sense in the plate will go on it. I am definitely not one who likes to add garnish for the sake of color.
What kind of flavors do you like in your dishes?
I like strong flavors. I don’t consciously add them they come along in the process. If I create a dish I know the taste I am aiming for and if I have a piece of meat I don’t like to mix up too many things in it so as not to lose the taste of the meat. In the past few months we are pickling and fermenting our own vegetables. We are now doing a dish with pork jowl with smoked eel. We first marinate the eel for two days with Asian spices, soy sauce etc. and then grill it on a charcoal grill. It is then served with our homemade version of Kimchi with fermented radish and burnt yuzu. This is an unusual preparation especially for the use of the pork jowl in Germany as this part is usually discarded. We are also serving the calves head with oysters where we do a ragout and then mix with oysters as I like working with unusual combinations such as combining seafood with meat.
You have trained in both the sweet and savory kitchen. Does that help in balancing flavors especially in these unusual combinations?
I don’t combine these purposefully but just leave it to chance. It doesn’t work if you say, “I need a new idea so let me find one.” The most ideas come when you are free in your mind and usually not at work.
You use very precise techniques to bring flavor to your dishes. Is there a limit to how many you will incorporate into one dish?
Firstly the flavors cannot be contrasting and have to be harmonious. It’s the same as when you create a piece of music. Sometimes what is perceived as progressive and seems like it doesn’t fit can then miraculously fit. It all depends on how strong are the flavors that are being combined.
When you build the dish, do you work along a certain theme or direction?
For me it is similar to the process of a songwriter writing the lyrics; they don’t usually all come at the same time. You write the big notes and then the small bits come later. It all depends on the length of time you work on it. In a dish the amount and type of the small ingredients added later can change the profile.
German cuisine is perceived to be meat heavy. Is that true these days with the stress on vegetarian or vegan elements?
In fact we have a dish on the menu that is totally vegetable based. It has potato, sorrel, root vegetable, egg yolk, and a fume from smoked trout that is added as a foam, then topped with caviar. The vegetables are al dente and combined with the fish foam, egg and caviar it’s delicious. We do work with seasonal produce from around our region.
Since seasonality is important in your kitchen, what are some of the products being used in your menu for this season?
We have two menus and both use seasonal and locally sourced products like German chicken. This is a free range chicken with a district taste that comes from nearby Watterheim, in fact an area where I grew up. When I worked in Greece they used to do a one pot dish of lemon, parsley, tomato and cut up fresh chicken and it was accompanied with salad of tomato, olives, oregano and feta. At the beginning of this season I was reminiscing about the time back in 1992 when the mother of the family cooked a one pot simple dish for the staff. The memory of that traditional dish inspired a chicken dish with those flavors that is served in two parts on my menu. Some of the dishes however change within the season as availability of some products changes.
Do these memories of your time in Crete, Kyoto, or Dubai influence your cooking style?
These do come back and I want them to as they are part of me and are imprinted in my mind. Just like if you follow a painter and look at where they studied or worked, consider their personal favorites you can find a line connecting all these places and experiences. It is the same with me and I was lucky to travel a lot and in fact still do so of course these experiences affect my cuisine. I do use very German products like snails or char with caviar, mushrooms with hazelnuts but now we also have Japanese Wagyu on our menu and serve it with pickled beetroot with coriander and yuzu. The first famous chef in Germany was totally inspired by France and in my case I was lucky to go away to other countries and get inspiration from other areas. I also picked up very basic but different techniques used elsewhere and sometimes mixing up these techniques is interesting.
How do you define your individual cuisine and separate yourself from your fellow German chefs?
I want to be free in my mind so I do not look to my left or right and do my own thing and it doesn’t matter if my style is a combination but it is all my own. If you look too much around you then you can get confused. For me it is more interesting to check out different markets and products. Products are my main inspiration for creating along with the season. Of course I see how other chefs are plating but I don’t let it affect me as I want to be myself. It is also interesting to see but when I visit a famous chef’s restaurant I want to enjoy my experience over taking pictures and notes. The eleven top restaurants in Germany are all very different and serve different food. The older chefs are more French based while others they are very futuristic at the other end of the spectrum.
Do you think social media has changed this aspect of the food business?
Of course. When I was young and wanted to see how Michel Bras was cooking I had to save money, travel there and pay to experience his food. I had the opportunity to first taste before looking at the plating. Now all the young people, whether on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, see all the plates from all the chefs around the world everyday but they never taste the food. They look at the pictures and start cooking or plating without a clue about the taste and it may look the same but does not taste good.
What are the latest combinations to emerge from your kitchen these days?
We are combining pumpkin, bacon, pumpernickel, sorrel, and vanilla ice cream.
You have some of the most spectacular amuses served before the meal. Do you feel these are an important component?
Some of the amuses are served this way since I feel if the portions are bigger then they will be too much or the flavors are too strong. They are better served in a small taste and I do feel this part of the meal makes diners ready and looking for more.
Sometimes on lengthy tasting menus even just one dish has too many components or sides. Are such elaborations necessary?
I don’t do this at Aqua, but it does happen sometimes in Germany when there is a main plate and few other plates around it and they are all just one course. I feel it is too much at one time. Twenty ingredients on a plate are too much for me. Combining cuisines like Japanese and French are other things happening here but all these concepts are hard to explain in a single sentence as the chefs have different concepts.
There are not many women in kitchens or heading teams in Germany. Is it a cultural phenomenon?
We don’t have many women in the kitchen, it is true. In the past ten years we have had a few women cooking in my kitchen and right now I have two, one on pastry and another on line. For the past forty years or so women have mostly been cooking for families and for them sometimes doing both is difficult but things are changing now.
How do you relate minimalism and modernity in your food, and do they go together?
Sometimes they do but for me I don’t want to have more than five flavors on the dish. I prefer one or two main flavors and few small nuances on the side. It has to make sense otherwise additional elements are not needed. We have a cold starter right now that is a little playful. We are doing a version of saltimbocca with veal tartare, the typical white wine sauce served with saltimbocca, top it with Parma ham, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pork rinds, a Parma ham stock jelly and fried leaves of different kinds of sage around it, in all a very modern interesting twist.
What dish did you demo at Chef Sache in Cologne last year?
The pork belly dish from last year with sauerkraut and then a dessert with red beets, trumpet mushrooms and chocolate.
Are international guests surprised at finding this level of haute cuisine in Germany?
Yes they are, and they comment about how they had never realized it prior to experiencing our cuisine.
Any plans of taking your cuisine on the road to familiarize a wider audience with your talent?
We have been talking to Four Magazine who are thinking of a restaurant concept in London which will feature a different chef every three months. I have been asked for next fall but I don’t know when exactly.
Are young German chefs imitating the bistronomie movement towards more casual, price friendly dining in Germany?
In Berlin and Frankfurt such restaurants are opening which are more casual but with more natural food. Something more like the Noma style.
So it’s not modern German food but food inspired from outside?
What German chefs can do is take tastes from German dishes and create smaller , lighter dishes based on that and present them in a new way and in new surroundings. These are ideas that would also work in cities like New York , Paris or Chicago. I find it interesting and maybe I will consider opening somewhere outside of Germany one day or night might even be a special event in San Francisco or London.
Did you come across any mentors in your formative years who helped you realize your potential?
Every chef I worked with famous or not taught me something. I refer not only to learning techniques or cooking but also how to be a good chef, how to lead a team, the way of thinking as an individual. In the kitchen along with cooking other things matter too such as working with your team. There were some chefs who didn’t care about fame and were not only good chefs but good people. To this day I can still talk to them and consult with them and they are also very proud of my achievements. I worked with chefs from zero stars to two or three stars and that didn’t matter since I learnt from each one of them. In fact my first position after school was in the vineyards of Johannisberg, in the Rhinegau, a very traditional area where the focus was on regional German food. For me it was important not to start with the high end cuisine but from the basics.
Is your own kitchen brigade very structured, and is there a kitchen hierarchy?
In my kitchen there is laughter and at times music, but we also need to be a very organized and focused team. It is not like an army atmosphere, but of course when a big mistake happens, when they know better, then there might be raised voices. At the end of the day however we shake hands with everyone. I should say in my kitchen it is focus with a smile!.