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.

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.

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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!.