Interview with Chef Sven Elverfeld of Aqua: Michelin-Starred Fine Dining in Germany
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.
The Daily Meal: 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?
Chef Elverfeld: 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.