Interview with Chef Sven Elverfeld of Aqua: Michelin-Starred Fine Dining in Germany

This chef presides over Aqua restaurant in the Wolfsburg Ritz Carlton
Sven Elverfeld

Sven Elverfeld

Aqua earned its third Michelin star in 2009.

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.

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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.