A Volkswagen factory might be the last place you would expect to find a modern luxury hotel and a Michelin 3 star restaurant, but those are exactly what you will find should you venture to the Volkswagen Group’s Autostadt in Wolfsburg, Germany. Indeed, there is a marvelous hotel – the Ritz Carlton Wolfsburg – and within, the celebrated 3 Michelin-starred restaurant Aqua led by Chef Sven Elverfeld.
I was invited to Germany with an international group of food writers and photographers to explore the Neue Deutsche Schule of high-end German cooking, a term coined by Jürgen Dollase and championed by the group’s organizer, Dr. Ingo Scheuermann, who has a wonderful food blog of his own called High End Food. Although the cooking may or may not feature German produce and may or may not reflect on traditional German cooking, the traits inherent to the movement are an incorporation of “traditional German virtues” in the creation of food. According to Thomas Ruhl
“The essence of the “New German School” is, however, the use of traditional German virtues in the design and implementation of creations. Comparisons can be drawn from the fine arts; a German chef does not fill the canvas with expressive brush strokes or explosions of colour. First, he sketches, makes designs and plans his work methodically. Then, he carefully places each stroke of the brush. Nothing is left to chance. Exactly like German design or German engineering, the New German School represents directness, hard work, perfection and ordered creativity. And this is what makes it one of the best in the world.”
Aqua was to be our first stop in our quest to explore this so-called New German School of cooking. Chef Sven Elverfeld is considered by the school’s proponents to be one of its foremost practitioners. Now in his early forties, he originally started his career in pastry before shifting over to the savory side of the kitchen and serving some time as Chef de Partie at the Restaurant Dieter Müller at the Schlosshotel Lerbach in Bergish Gladbach before joining the Ritz Carlton team in 1998 and becoming the chef of La Baie at The Ritz Carlton in Dubai. Elverfeld was the opening chef at Aqua when Ritz-Carlton opened the hotel in Wolfsburg in 2000 and within two years he received his first Michelin star, followed by his second in 2006 and his third in 2009.
We sat down in a room that was sleek, spare, modern and comfortable with full length windows on one end looking out into the Autostadt. With wood, metals and a bluish tint from the departing daylight coming in through the windows, the restaurant’s name was reflected in its ambiance. Our group split into two beautifully set tables as we settled in for Chef Elverfeld’s wonderful ride.It wasn’t long before the sips and nibbles started appearing on the unique tableware, all of which Chef Elverfeld designed. We received a panoply of snacks to open the meal. One of my first bites was of a caramelized kalamata olive. Conceptually similar to Ferran’s Spherical Olive, this utilized a totally different kind of olive, Crisp, light and nicely balanced with a very nicely concentrated olive flavor, this first bite was an auspicious start to the meal. These other bites appeared alongside the olive and represented contemporary takes on dishes popular in Germany’s present and past, such as the currywürst and the toast Hawaii – a crisped roll with ham, pineapple and blue cheese, which was popular in the 1980’s. The crayfish from Büsum are a local product, interestingly translated by my German friends into English as “crabs.” Each of these bites were crisp and tasty as well as whimsical and fun. As we would see throughout the evening, Chef Elverfeld’s serving pieces were ever interesting reminding me of the creative genius of elBulli and Alinea. Bread is as important a gastronomic element in Germany as anywhere. It is also difficult to find bread that is better than what you might find in Germany. The bread selection at Aqua was quite tempting with a variety that included German pretzel bread, filled breads, olive foccacia, whole grain, baguette and walnut bread. I was not surprised that cultured butter was served with the bread along with some salt for sprinkling, but I was surprised to see hummus, though it was extremely delicious. Aqua definitely has a playful edge to it and this is nowhere more evident than with the first wine that was served to us blind even being poured into a totally black cup so that we could not even see if it was white or red. Aqua’s talented sommelier, Juergen Giesel, enjoys opening diner’s minds at the start of a meal with this fun and humbling exercise. The wine was served to accompany the next set of nibbles. As we all tried to decipher the wine’s origen, we initially noted a “grassy” taste that later on morphed to “peaches.” Guesses ranged from the Loire to a Riesling or Gewurtztraminer. Mr. Giesel came to our table to discuss the wine after we had finished our amuses. We had ultimately guessed Loire with an emphasis on Chenin Blanc. We were wrong, but not totally out of the ballpark. The varietal was indeed one popular in the Loire, Sauvignon Blanc, but this particular wine was from the 2009 vintage in South Africa from Uva Mira high up in Stellenbosch. Chef Elverfeld is known for his amuses, especially the small shots of soup. With the spoons being quite hot, it was suggested that we start with the soups, an exotically flavored pumpkin and carrot soup and a topinambour (sunchoke) and cream soup with a bread crisp with pistachios in between the two. The spoons were filled with a baked camembert with cranberries on the left and on the right a version of a traditional German poached meatball with capers, garnished with potatoes and puffed rice called a Königsberger Klopse. We were starting to get a sense of Elverfeld’s penchant for mixing original dishes along with playful takes on traditional German dishes. Dieter Müller, Elverfeld’s mentor was known for his soups, a skill that Elverfeld apparently learned quite well. Each of the soup shots were elegant, complex and delicious. One of the stated characteristics of the New German School is precision and attention to detail – food that is as much engineered as it is cooked. The pistachio bread chip was a great example of that. Filled with pistachios and bound by the airy, toasted bread, sliced as thin as a histologic specimen, this was but a small element of the flight of tastes that we had received, but all the more remarkable and memorable for that. German cuisine has long had a reputation of being heavy and dense and when it comes to much of traditional German cooking, that reputation may be appropriate. Though that style of food can be tasty, Chef Elverfeld has taken to approaching traditional German dishes and re-making them into something lighter, more whimsical and every bit as (or more) delicious than the original. The next course, a re-interpretation of a traditional Hessian dish was paired with an apple wine from the same area near Frankfurt that the dish originated in, Bruchköbeler Äppelwoi “sußgesprits.” The apple wine, though extremely fruity on the nose, was quite dry with nutty undertones.
Chef Elverfeld came out to discuss the dish and provide the finishing touches to the service. This was “Handkäs mit Musik – Homage to my homeland.” A classic dish from Elverfeld’s home region, he totally re-interpreted it, maintaing its essence, but modernizing it in a way to bring all of its pleasures to the fore.Handkäsis a particularly stinky sour cream cheese usually served with onions and bread. Elverfeld’s interpretation toned down the pungency of the cheese by serving it frozen, which also lightened it. The bread was represented by breadcrumbs. Chef Elverfeld poured a sauce containing onions over the cheese, causing the frozen orb to collapse. This dish was a showstopper on many levels. It was delicious, served wonderfully, imaginative and a great take on a traditional dish. Though the intensity of the cheese may have been toned down, it still had acidity, bitterness and pungency, but at an approachable level. The apple wine was a beautiful match for this most unusual start, leaving a combined taste of ginger or ginger ale on the finish. As with many great courses, this one initiated a spirited discussion of other stinky, but often delicious foods like durian, other cheeses and Chinese stinky tofu.
Our next pairing returned us to grapes, a 2008 Riesling Spatlese from the Berncasteler Doctor region of the Mosel, produced by Dr. H. Thanisch. At a low 9% alcohol, this was a delightfully balanced wine that complemented the next course nicely.This next dish, Foie gras and marinated Iberico pork with onion tapioca, Granny Smith apple and amaranth was certainly not a traditional German dish, though it was quite delicious despite a touch to much salt for my taste. It was a global dish using ingredients from Spain (Iberico pork), Mexico (amaranth), Japan (shiso and tobiko) and elsewhere combined harmoniously and certainly with precision. This dish was an example of German “virtues” rather than ingredients of German origin. It was also a creative way to showcase foie gras, an increasingly difficult ingredient to make standout even if not to make delicious. The wine pairing worked well also.
Sommelier Juergen Giesel chose a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc made by Pascal and Nicolas Reverdy from the town of Mambray in Sancerre in the Loire valley for our next wine. This was quite aromatic and delicious with tons of grapefruit in its flavor profile.
The wine was poured from magnums, which were bottled exclusively for Aqua. It had good acidity and body and matched the next two courses very nicely. Wines and other ingredients from France still feature prominently in the Neue Deutsche School though influences from Spain, Scandinavia, Italy and Japan are clearly present. France most likely retains its hegemony of influence largely because of the way fine cooking has been perpetuated in Germany. Most of the first generation of great German chefs spent considerable time learning their craft in France, while the second and third generations have learned from them with relatively little cooking experience outside of Germany. This relative lack of contemporary foreign experience may yet be another factor in building this particular school of cooking, though the influences and styles of its practitioners remain quite different and show international influences despite their history of having stayed (mostly) close to home.Sorrel, though certainly not exclusive to Scandinavia, is nevertheless something I have come to associate with the food of that region. Elverfeld uses it here with dill, another herb strong in Scandinavia, to go with the immaculately cooked fish, crisp turnip and a lovely Austrian caviar to make a dish that while comfortable in Germany, would also have been just as much at home to the north. The herbaceous elements of the wine, married harmoniously with the the herbaceous notes from this dish. We each received a tail portion of red mullet, which was prepared in a fashion to evoke the Mediterranean. The dish reminded me of the flavors of Sicily with fennel, citrus, pine nuts and the sobressada, though everything combined with a subtle interplay. The saffron aioli gave it a taste of bouillabaisse. The fish’s scales had been deep-fried and placed back on top. Even the tail was crispy and edible, though it wasn’t the best part of the dish.
This was a huge bottle of white Bordeaux, a 1995 double magnum from Chateau Couhins-Lurton, poured carefully for each of the diners. This was the restaurant’s lone bottle of this beautiful, dry 100% Sauvignon Blanc wine., which was to serve for the following two courses, but specifically matched for the next.Based on a traditional dish that was one of Chef Elverfeld’s favorites while growing up, his interpretation clearly expressed the German passion for precision, creating a plate that visually would have been comfortable in any museum displaying 2oth Century canvases, especially those of Piet Mondrian or Mark Rothko. The traditional dish mixes spinach, a Frankfurter green sauce, salt potatoes and scrambled eggs. Elverfeld’s version used a Frankfurter green sauce (traditionally from 7-11 herbs), potato and egg, but in ways very different than the traditional dish. The lamb itself, from Müritz, was incredibly tender and delicious with a subtle lambiness. Each component was individually delicious, but together the results were synergistic. Often, reworking of a beloved traditional dish succeeds intellectually and artistically, but falls short on flavor or creating a real improvement. That was not the case with this remarkable dish, which satisfied in every respect. It was a dish that I would not have ordered off a menu, but to miss this would be a big mistake. This dish is one that the Neue Deutsche Schule could and should rally around as a central example of the school. It is dishes like this one, that expresses a certain terroir and regional personality, that make culinary travel enjoyable for me. The wine proved to be another brilliant match. The next dish, sweet breads buried underneath potato, celery, “nut’s butter” and mushrooms was a study in umami. This was rich and luscious and not at all like any other sweetbreads dish that I had ever had before, even though the flavors involved were classic. The celery was strong, but worked well with the other components adding a nice crunch. This dish also worked wonderfully with the wine pairing. Chef Elverfeld was keeping the progression lively and interesting, not an easy task given the quantity of food that we were facing. Our next pairing was our first red wine of the evening and it was a rarity – a red wine from the Riesling rich Mosel, from a little known winery. The wine was a bit spicy, with cassis aromatics and light tannins with a bit of effervescence and 13.5% alcohol. The winery is quite small and is one of the few in the region to make a red wine. The glassware used for the wine deserves a comment as it was some of the most elegant and beautiful glassware that I have ever seen. The wine was quite lovely on its own matching the elegance of the glassware. The next dish could have been as comfortable on a table in Spain or Italy as it was at Aqua. Unlike some of the other courses that were based on interpretations of traditional German dishes , this one was more pan-European, really more Mediterranean with a bit of a Catalan “mar y montaña” surf and turf feel to it. The Spanish would have used an Iberico pork, while at this meal the pork was not specially designated other than the fact that it was “young” and was from the belly. An important element of this dish was the vinegar reduction, specifically a balsamico. In Spain the reduction would likely have been made with a sherry vinegar. The balsamico used, though, speaks more of Italy than Germany. Other ingredients in this dish included the seeds and gel of a bull’s heart tomato, crustacean mayonnaise and croutons. Regardless of the dish’s national proclivities, the dish was simply delicious and prepared with the requisite precision. Additional tomato under the pork came as a surprise, albeit a pleasant one. The wine pairing was spot on synergistic. If precision and engineering are hallmarks of the new German School, the next dish was a textbook example. A beautiful and elaborate construction, the dish was both gorgeous and delicious. The raw wagyu beef was soft and melting and more flavorful than most wagyu. The broccoli and caviar offered satisfying textural contrasts. Inside the beef contained a sour cream base and cooked wagyu that helped complete the dish. One of the amazing things about this meal was that despite the sheer number of courses and volume of food, every course kept us interested. It is rare to find wild game on American menus. Not so in Europe. Chef Elverfeld came out to introduce the next course, telling us that it was wild venison hunted by a former Volkswagen employee, who used to hunt on the side, but now spends his time hunting for a living, supplying Aqua with its venison. The red deer had been hunted in the nearby woods. We had a new wine for this dish, a 2007 Blaufrankisch Rusterberg by Rosi Schuster in Burgenland, Austria, which was aptly described as tasting like “a Cabernet made in a Burgundian style.” As with the other pairings, this was another great match. The young venison was served with parsley, “vineyard” peach and chicory. The meat had been cooked slowly at low temperature and was extremely tender with a texture similar to that of cooked liver. This texture, along the lines of a texture that is found in many meats cooked for a long time sous vide or in a C-Vap oven, has become somewhat controversial with some liking it and others not, preferring the firmer texture of more traditionally cooked meats. This particular meat had not been cooked sous vide and had not been cooked so long as to have turned to mush. This was merely extremely tender and was quite enjoyable. A great meal deserves a great cheese cart and Aqua has just that. The only problem after eating such a meal is being too full to try each and every one. I chose a variety, all French, all of which were impeccable and delicious. Buche de Puligny, Epoisses, A Casinca de chevre and Forme d’Aumbert starting from seven o’clock and proceeding clockwise. I also tasted a couple others including a maple-syrup textured Saint-Felicien and a Muenster. The A Casinca, from Corsica, was new to me and my favorite of all that I tried. A washed-rind cheese, it was creamy with a slightly sandy textured exterior and a lovely, strong, Muenster-like flavor. This selection was world-class. Bienenstich, Prinzenrolle and Linzer Torte (to the left in the photo above). each was an interpretation of traditional German desserts. In the middle of the photo were two dessert-filled spoons. One contained a carrot pie with cream cheese sabayon & ginger ale gelee and the other milk chocolate, caramelized popcorn and rosemary caramel sauce. On the right was a cup with Greek yoghurt, fig, honey and vanilla vinegar. Dessert wasn’t quite finished as a cart with a beautiful assortment of mignardises was rolled out and presented to us. At this point I was quite stuffed, but still managed to try a few. The quality did not show any drop off from the rest of the meal.
Our introduction to the Neue Deutsche Schule came to an end. It had been a spectacular meal with great company. With the New German School so closely associated with the virtues of German engineering and ordered creativity, it was no longer a surprise to me that such a hotel and restaurant would be located in an industrial setting like that of the Autostadt, which is not just any industrial area. It is pristine and well ordered, even beautiful. Such is Elverfeld’s food too. Though it is immaculately engineered and crafted, somehow, it retains a soul and an identity. The food at Aqua, though flavored by the world, was to me, “German.” Chef Elverfeld utilized many traditional German themes in his cooking and much, though not all, of his sourcing was from Germany or near Germany. While the virtues ascribed to the New German School are inherent in the food at Aqua, to identify those traits as specifically German, somehow misses the volume of top-flight non-German kitchens around the world that embrace and display all of these same ideals – elBulli, for example, was a textbook of “ordered creativity.” This, however, was but the start of my exploration of top German cooking and based on this first stop, I was very much looking forward to a greater understanding and experience of this Schule.