I never used to have a burning desire to visit Germany, though I had always had a sort of morbid curiosity since my father had been a Medical Officer during WWII and had served through the Normandy Invasion, the Battle of the Bulge and all the way into Germany itself including the liberation of several concentration camps. Happily for myself and my family, he survived. As a child, I used to accompany my parents to my father’s army reunions in various cities throughout the United States. The stories of war and survival that I had heard recounted from my father and his fellow Third Armored Division Spearheaders both fascinated and chilled my curious young imagination. Still, with the destruction of much of old, historic Germany from the war, the separation of the country into two after the war and what I had perceived as uninteresting food, my interest had never really been piqued. That, however, began to change about 5 years ago, when I started reading some rave reports of the food there on eGullet and I started to look more closely at the number and descriptions of the Michelin starred restaurants located there. My interest became piqued further, when my nephew, Lucas, chose to spend a year of college studying at the University of Konstanz this past year. I finally stepped into the country for the first time to visit him in Konstanz this past January following the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France, where I had also been impressed by the German team’s demeanor, technical skills and beautiful presentations. I was utterly charmed by my lone night in Konstanz and vowed to return soon.
The only question for a return visit was when. Fast forward to early this summer when I received an email from Ingo Scheuermann, the man behind the outstanding blog High End Food, inviting me to take part in a unique opportunity sponsored by The German National Tourist Office to experience some of the very best in German dining as well as visit the upcoming Chef Sache, Germany’s exciting and relatively new equivalent of the Starchefs International Chefs Congress in NYC, Madrid Fusión and other educational meet-ups for chefs and culinarians. My luck is generally such that I ordinarily would have had to decline this generous offer due to unavailability secondary to my primary occupation, but I happened to have that very week off, ironically due to Starchefs changing the dates of their ICC. This was beginning to have the appearance of fate.
With arrangements for the trip made through the German National Tourist Office, I was ready to go, with my bags packed and my appetite whetted. I flew into Frankfurt and was met there by Karina from the German Tourism Office. We met up with three others at the airport including my friend Chuck from Chuck Eats. Together, we took a train north to Wolfsburg, most widely known as the home of the Volkswagen Corporation.
Leave it to the Germans to make a factory into a sort of Disneyland. In Wolfsburg, the Volkswagen company has done just that. They’ve created a veritable wunderland around their automobile factory and call it the Autostadt. An homage to all things automotive and especially to the plethora of Volkswagen brands, which include such diverse offerings as Audi, Lamborghini and Skoda amongst others, the Autostadt doesn’t stop there. It is also a haven for food. A visit to the Autostadt to buy a car is like a visit to no other car dealership that I know of. In addition to the purchase process (one need not purchase a vehicle to go to or enjoy the Autostadt), one can be pampered in the the luxurious five star Ritz Carlton Hotel, tour the automotive museum, have the children earn their first “driver’s license,” watch the automated auto delivery towers in action, eat at 9 restaurants within the complex or, if really looking to indulge, and I suggest you do, dine at the fabulous three Michelin starred restaurant Aqua under Chef Sven Elverfeld in the Ritz Carlton.
It was at the Ritz Carlton, a post industrial, modern playground of luxury, that the rest of the group came together for our first dinner. As enticing as the food part of this trip was for me, it was also a wonderful opportunity to get together with other outstanding bloggers including some, such as Bonjwing Lee and Trine Lai, with whom I have had the pleasure of having met before and others such as Ingo Sheuermann, Adam Goldberg of A Life Worth Eating, Steapanie Batteau of Cookcooning, Laurent Vanparys of Gastros On Tour and Hugo Hivernat of Fulgurances with whom this was a chance to finally meet in person. In addition there was a small group of traditional journalists with whom we also shared the experience.We met at a pre-dinner champagne reception before being seated in the dining room of Aqua, where we met our first example of Neue Deutsche Schule cooking from Sven Elverfeld. While Elverfeld’s cooking was international in scope and technique, his food was made with extreme precision and craft, all the while being extremely imaginative , creative and supremely delicious. He incorporated German themes in a number of his dishes throughout the multi-course extravaganza, maintaining an impressive consistency of quality and performance. One dish with deep German roots was an interpretation of a classic Hessian cheese preparation know as “Handkäs mit Musik.” The handkäseis a classic stinky German cream cheese, that is typically very, very strong. The traditional preparation also includes bread and onions and the combination is such that it has a reputation for being the direct inspiration of a lot of biologic, post-prandial “music.” Elverfeld’s preparation updated the classic and brought it into the Modernist realm with liquid nitrogen amongst other techniques. The extreme cold served to soften the typically overpowering flavor of the cheese. The hand-kaese had been melted and formed into a sphere before being frozen in the liquid nitrogen. For service a hot sauce of onions was poured on top allowing the sphere to slowly implode producing not just an impressive and fun presentation, but also a remarkably well balanced and delicious dish. Bread crumbs were then sprinkled on top of that. At Aqua, one dish was as delicious as the next with each possessed of a stunning presentation. This was the first of the three star restaurants I would encounter in Germany and based upon this meal, the polished service and the setting of quiet luxury, there is no doubt in my mind, but that this is fully deserving of all its stars. We were off to a great start! The next morning we were out early to continue our journey through the elevated landscape of German gastronomy. After a light breakfast at the Ritz Carlton, we checked out and rode a bus to the charming town of Osnabrück, home of the Michelin two star restaurant La Vie, helmed by Thomas Bühner. Chef Bühner served an incredible lunch displaying dazzling technique and a deep creative imagination. While every dish was quite delicious, some were more satisfying than others, but that was due to the absolute stand-out nature of several of the dishes. Foremost amongst them was a dish called “PURE Venison,” the likes of which I had never previously encountered. The venison itself was sheer perfection, poached at temperature in a broth and served with a distillate of venison made from the deer’s meat. When I first saw the title of the dish, I was skeptical and thought that there may have been a bit of bravado in the naming of the dish, however, upon tasting it, all my skepticism vanished. This was indeed the purest, most delicious venison that I have ever had the pleasure of eating. The flavor was just deep and as profound a meat flavor as I have experienced. Buhner’s “PURE Venison” is to date one of the five best dishes I have eaten this year. After the spectacular lunch in the elegant, small dining room, Chef Bühner took us on a walking tour of his town, including passing by his home, quite near to the restaurant, which also happens to have been the very place where the Treaty of Westphalia was signed to end the Thirty Years War. With reluctance we bid adieu to Chef Bühner and the lovely town of Osnabrück to continue our drive to Bergisch Gladbach and the Shlosshotel Lerbach where we would bed down for the next two nights. Schloss Lerbach is a converted manor home set amidst a bucolic property. We arrived in time to settle in before taking the bus into Köln for our first visit to the Chef Sache. We arrived in time to partake of a cocktail party, mingling attendees of the Congress with the invited speakers. Following our first night at the Schloss Lerbach, we again drove back to Köln to spend the day at Chef Sache. The Congress was notable for the presentations from the Chefs of The New German School including Christian Bau of Schloss Berg near Luxembourg (a small party of the group ate there the evening before my arrival. I had been invited, but was unable to get there in time), Sven Elverfeld, Thomas Bühner and Nils Henkel, the chef of the eponymous three star restaurant at Schloss Lerbach. The day was also notable for presentations from top international chefs including Massimo Bottura, Elena Arzak and Andoni Luis Aduriz. It was particularly fun to have just eaten a number of the dishes presented and to know that others presented were to be served that evening at a special dinner at Gourmet Restaurant Lerbach Nils Henkel, in which all four German Chefs would be contributing several dishes. The dinner was once again incredible. Though I did not get the chance on this trip to dine at Schloss Berg, I did at least get to sample some of Chef Christian Bau’s impressive fare. The same held true for Chef Henkel, as we did not eat a formal meal at his restaurant prepared exclusively by him. Both Chefs Elverfeld and Bühner continued to impress from their earlier meals. With eleven Michelin stars cooking and another nine partaking in the dining room, the evening could not help but be a tour de force and it did not disappoint. We closed out the night drinking kirschewasser in the bar upstairs. The next morning I grudgingly got out of bed and after a light breakfast we headed by bus to the group’s final destination -Stuttgart, the birthplace of the German automobile industry and still the home of Daimler-Benz and Porsche. Following lunch at our Hotel Am Schlossgarten in it’s Michelin one star restaurant Zirbelstube, we took a most welcome and informative walking tour of central Stuttgart including its lovely food market. We then took a short bus ride to visit some vineyards overlooking the city and then a tasting of outstanding local wines from Weingut Wöhrwag , a private winery located in Stuttgart. This was followed with a tasty traditional Swabian meal at Restaurant Alte Kelter with such classics as Maultaschen and Flädlesuppe.
While we had lost some of our participants the day before, the next morning heralded the end of this part of the trip. It was certainly sad to part company with friends, both old and new, but I had my own upcoming adventure to console myself with. I was able, with the assistance of The German National Tourism Office, to extend my visit through the end of the week. As wonderful as the restaurants that we had visited are, there were a number of others that I desperately wanted to visit and I was able to add three more. Even with that I couldn’t visit every restaurant in Germany that I really wanted to.That day I set out by train to the city of Mannheim, located at the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar rivers. Mannheim is a charming city based on an industrial economic base. I got a fair view of it having taken an extended walk through a good part of it including the University and down along the Rhine river. This set up an appetite for later that evening when I was to have dinner at the newly relocated Michelin three star restaurant Amadorwith its German born chef of Spanish heritage, Juan Amador. Even the taxi driver was a bit confused when he pulled into an industrial lot just outside of downtown Mannheim, but then we both saw it in the corner of the lot – an old factory that had been converted into something that although it looked to be quite simple, was clearly a place of elegance – Amador. I was surprised by the off-beat location, but I was even more surprised when I entered the restaurant. The extensive interior space was not only home to what was a beautifully designed modern restaurant space . It also contained an airy and beautiful outdoor patio and a private modern art museum visible from the dining room. Juan Amador has the reputation of being the most avant-garde chef in Germany, translating the Modernist impulses of his Spanish contemporaries such as the Adriá brothers, Dani Garcia, Martin Berasetagui, the Rocas and others into a German kitchen. While I expected typical Spanish Vanguardist culinary pyrotechnics, I was surprised at the depth of Germanic inspiration apparent behind the body of each dish and the degree to which Modernist technique had been relegated to the background. While still clearly used, the techniques were not placed front and center. They were relegated to a supporting position, where they were able to enhance his food and not outshine it. Amador too had a version of “Handkäs mit Musik.” Though a completely different preparation than Elverfeld’s it was equally evocative, fun and delicious. In this space opened for less than a week, I was particularly impressed with the fluidity and professionalism of the service as well as the quality of the food. With Michelin notoriously unkind to major changes in restaurants and the German edition closing in just a few weeks, it is possible that Amador may suffer the loss of a star, though per my experience, it most certainly should not. From Mannheim, I took several trains to head into the fabled Black Forest of southwestern Germany to visit Traube Tonbach near the village of Baeirsbronn. Traube Tonbach was my destination chiefly because it is the home of Schwartzwaldstube, the three Michelin starred restaurant run for he past thirty years by Chef Harald Wohlfart, a man who has been a mentor to many of Germany’s top toques. I was absolutely dazzled by this extensive resort hotel with nothing but the forest behind it. First opened as a small tavern hotel in 1789 to provide rooms and sustenance to those who worked in the forest, the hotel grew and improved steadily over the 8 generations of single family ownership. With each generation adding its own stamp, the hotel has grown in an absolutely charming fashion. With so much to see, do and eat, I wish that I had more time to spend here. As it was, I only had time enough for a massage before a quick tour of the hotel and dinner at Schwartzwaldstube, where I was joined for dinner by the exceptionally affable Patrick Schreibe, the head of the Baiersbronn Tourism Office. With a flavor palate most reminiscent to me of that of Jean-George Vongerichten, Wohlfart dazzled with bright, delicious flavors and sure handed technique. His preparations, though not cutting edge in technique, were beautiful and delicious. The 40 seat restaurant itself was the epitome of old world elegance without the stuffiness that is often associated with that. Wohlfart, raised cooking in the French tradition, remains loyal to his influences, but has also adapted a more German palate. A stone’s throw from Alsace, his kitchen and wine cellar utlizes the very best of the region.
I have enjoyed German wines for sometime, especially its well balanced Rieslings, however, I never had a clue to the depth and breadth of German wines. The Rieslings are wonderful with a wide range of styles from bone dry to ultra-sweet. A hallmark for me of German wines, and this goes well beyond just its justly famous Rieslings, is the outstanding levels of acidity present to balance the fruit forward nature of even its driest wines. I tasted outstanding varietals such as Blauburgunder (pinot blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Sylvaner, Gewurtztraminer and even Chardonnay for white and reds which included Spaetburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Bordeaux blends as well as some lesser known native German grapes. What is clear to me is that German wines represent an extremely excellent value and make some of the very best food wines in the world.As much as I hated to be torn from Traube Tonbach, where I was treated royally, I had one more destination and needed to take an early train to get there. I returned to Bergish Gladbach, but this time to Schloss Bensburg, a former palace reminiscent of a mini-Versailles. I returned specifically to have lunch at the Michelin three starred Vendôme, where Chef Joachim Wissler presides. With a lovely breakfast at Traube Tonbach, I did not step into my 1:30 reservation starving. Indeed, I was not particularly hungry, a condition that often spells doom for big meal. Wissler’s food, however, was amongst the most creative, most beautiful and most delicious that I have had, easily overcoming my state of initial disinterest. In a room bedazzled with dozens of red roses and at least three perfect specimens per table, I enjoyed dish after exceptional dish, the most notable of which was one that because of what it is , they often have a hard time selling. This was a veal heart with artichokes that was truly mind-blowing. In the center of the dish over diced artichoke hearts, was a veal heart carpaccio that seemed to be made of satin. It was so soft, tender and surpassingly delicious, I was astounded. Wissler showed me that he is an absolute master of both flavor and texture, with each course displaying deep nuances of each. This was a perfect meal with which to end my culinary adventure.
After this trip, I believe that I understand Ingo Sheuermann’s concept of the Neue Deutsche Scule or New German School of cooking. Clearly, there is a cadre of outstanding chefs cooking food of the highest order. They all share traits of precision, depth of knowledge and are extremely well grounded with the ability to use a variety of techniques, both traditional and Modernist in their cooking. Though his cooking is still based primarily in traditional technique, Harald Wohlfahrt along with Dieter Müller are the two main mentors to this 40-ish generation of chefs, who have all hit their strides and cooking food as beautiful and delicious as anywhere in the world. The question then becomes, what kind of food is this cadre cooking. The foundation of haute cuisine in Germany is clearly French and this influence remains quite strong. That Spanish vanguardist influence is present is also clear as is some American influence – Juan Amador clearly has learned from the approach of Grant Achatz and employs some Alinea-like serving pieces, albeit with very different food. Unlike Spain or Italy, which utilize a wealth of unique, well-known native products to produce mostly clear national and regional cuisines or the Nordic countries, which have newly crafted an identifiably Nordic cuisine based upon wild and farmed Nordic products, Germany has yet to fully capture that kind of identity in its high end restaurants. Many, though not all of these restaurants have taken to using product grown, raised and produced in Germany, but so much of that product, as high in quality as it is, is similar to what one might find in neighboring countries or even the United States. A few of these chefs are emphasizing interpretations of classic German and regional cooking to great effect, though this is also not a universal characteristic of this cadre of chefs. That said, the food I ate over this week is somehow distinctly German. It is true that much of it would be as at home in New York, Chicago, London or Paris as it is in Germany, but the overall sense I got was that these restaurants would not be at all the same if they existed in other countries. Perhaps its the distinct personalities of the chefs, the rooms or the service staffs. Perhaps it is the remarkable views of places like the old Volkswagen plant from Aqua, the Köln Cathedral in the distance from Vendôme or the majestic, brooding Black Forest from Schwatzwaldstube or the small town historic German charm of La Vie or even the surprising cocoon of Amador, or perhaps it is that these restaurants all share a unque spirit that makes them specifically German even when serving dishes inspired by South Asian flavors. That there is such a concentration of restaurants of this kind of quality is all the more remarkable and makes a visit here all the more worthwhile. Germany is a destination that begs for more attention from the serious gourmet or even the not so serious. It is clear that one can eat very, very well in Germany today. It had taken me a while to get there, but I am so glad that I finally have. It was a dream come true.
Disclosure: All non-personal expenses for the trip were covered through the German National Tourist office. I did not personally pay for my transportation, dining or lodging for this trip. While these meals and lodging arrangements were out of the ordinary and may not fully reflect the experience of the average traveler, they do illustrate what Germany is capable of both in terms of dining and lodging. My thanks to Dr. Ingo Sheuermann, who was primarily responsible for including me in this incredible adventure and to The German National Tourist Office and especially Victoria Larson for organizing such a truly fantastic trip! I will expend considerably more time writing about each of the meals portrayed above over the coming months. Of course, there will be plenty of photos!