A conversation with Chef Michael Hoffmann

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MICHAEL HOFFMANN is an old school Michelin-starred chef. After years of working with chef legends such as Eckart Witzigmann and Lothar Eiermann, he took over Berlin Restaurant Margaux in 2000. It didn’t take him long to secure a position among Germany’s top chefs. Hoffmann became famous for his vegetable and herb cuisine in which he uses products from his own field outside Berlin. He recently surprised the public with the announcement to close his restaurant and give back all awards. We spoke to him about the reasons.

CFL: You’re planning on giving up your restaurant Margaux, which has grown to be a Berlin institution over the course of the last number of years. How did you arrive at this decision?

MH: It’s a decision that arose gradually. At some point, I started looking into cooking more sustainably. In 2008 I had a crucial experience that steered this process in a whole other direction. To understand this, you have to know that the cooks from my generation, who were taught by the big chefs, are very much driven by the desire for stars in the Guide Michelin and points in Gault Millau. We study the guides and wait nervously for December, when the new awards are published.

Since the beginning of said year, we were totally fixated on making the breakthrough to the second star. My team and I had worked incredibly hard and were sure it would happen. But then it didn’t. On the day we received the message that we hadn’t been awarded the second star, my sous-chef of many years had a nervous breakdown. He had invested so much energy into this. He’d refused to take time off over long periods and had taken on a great deal of responsibility. The message was a huge shock for him. On that day he left the kitchen during business hours without saying a word and went missing for a while.

The message dealt me a considerable blow as well, but fortunately I was able to come to terms rather quickly. In the end I had enough confidence in my abilities and knew that we had nothing to hide from. Something that became particularly clear, however, was that I would have to take good care of my team now. I’d have to build them up again and determine some new guidelines.

I was determined not to allow the joy my job gives me to be ruined. I wanted to cook for my guests and myself again and not be worried about getting a good report card at the end of the year.

This was a crass change of heart that freed me up immensely. It allowed me to understand sustainability in a much more comprehensive manner. I wanted to handle human resources much more sustainably as well, move away from directing the kitchen with a whip, the way I had learned to do from my teachers. It was very difficult to leave these old patterns behind.

Around the same time there were a number of food scandals and one morning I stood in my kitchen and felt disgusted. All those pictures in the media of mass animal breeding and industrial slaughterhouses were having an effect.

I flipped the switch and started using only meat of which I knew exactly where it came from. Step by step I shifted the mode of operation and crossed things like foie gras and tuna fish off the list. In the end it led me to the vegetable and herbal kitchen I am known for today.

Since 2010 we’ve been working exclusively with products from our very own garden. Getting our hands in the soil had a whole other effect of its own. It has grounded me as a person and has given me the courage to take on responsibility.

At first it was a considerable challenge to do without so many ingredients in the kitchen. We were entirely dependent on the regional production in our garden and had to draw heavily from traditional conservation techniques to accommodate the seasonal circumstances in our climate.

Of course it was amazing to see that our guests in what we were doing were supporting us. If this wouldn’t have been the case, I would have had to abandon my philosophy, considering that in the end everybody has to make a living.

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CFL: You’re considered one of the most creative chefs in Germany. A lot of people can’t understand why you didn’t get the second star. Moreover, what’s distinctive about your cuisine is the vision it’s based on, which entirely embodies the spirit of the time. Is this nothing that’s considered by the Guide Michelin? What is essential in being awarded one of these heavily coveted stars?

MH: What exactly the decision is based on, the Guide Michelin doesn’t tell you. Supposedly, all that counts is what’s on the plate. In general, it is assumed that certain criteria, based on French kitchen tradition, are part of the basic prerequisites. For example, the scale of the wine menu, the type of service, but also if classic delicacies like foie gras are incorporated into the dishes. But as I said before, these things are not stated officially.

The testers of the Guide Michelin are meant to appear anonymously, but after a couple of years in the business, of course, you know who they are. When they came to our restaurant, they ordered only meat dishes. Considering that I am known best for my vegetarian cooking, this is enough of a statement in and of itself.

The only restaurant tester that ever ordered my 8 course vegetable menu was the editor-in-chief at the time of “Feinschmecker“ magazine in 2009/10. After the meal he said to me: “Mr. Hoffman, I’ve “grubbed out” on many a meal in my life, but this was indeed something new. This was world class!” Afterwards I learned that Feinschmecker had named me Chef of the Year, which, of course, was a huge validation.

That same year I got two visits from Gault Millau. At some point I got a call:” Mr. Hoffman, you’re being nominated Chef of the Year in Gault Millau.” This is like Bayern Munich winning all trophies in one year.

Gault Millau and Feinschmecker both asked us not to mention the upcoming award to anybody. We honored this request, but somehow word got out nonetheless. Eventually I got a call from Gault Millau, telling me they weren’t making me Chef of the Year, as I was already receiving this award from Feinschmecker. It would damage the credibility of the Gault Millau if it were to appear like they were copying Feinschmecker. As you can see, these awards are tied in no small degree to politics and ego.

At the time, our disappointment was huge, of course, but now all that isn’t as important to me. I’m speaking my farewells to everybody and am having the star removed from the guide.

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CFL: You just mentioned that guides like the Guide Michelin appear to base their awards heavily on the values of classic French gourmet cuisine. It seems like abroad it’s other values that matter. “The Spotted Pig” in New York, for example, has been awarded a star for seven years for their burgers and french fries. Is Germany lagging behind other countries?

MH: Restaurants like Noma show that in other countries new and different concepts are receiving stars. They don’t use fine tableware, only simple cutlery and people are seated at wooden tables. Meanwhile you can find tables without tablecloths in good German hotels as well. But in comparison, concepts abroad are more holistic. There, testers are open for these things, but this is only the case abroad.

Interestingly enough, Michelin testers have visited me from abroad as well. They were much more open than their German colleagues. When it became known that I would be quitting, the editor-in-chief of the Michelin called me and wanted to know if there would be an opportunity to meet again as my new endeavors unfold. I said, I would certainly remain within the realms of the culinary world, but that I wasn’t so sure whether he would have much appreciation for my new enterprise. He asked whether I was intending to take a more easy-going approach. I told him the times had changed and I wanted to enter an area in which there was more space for flexibility and joy of living. To this he responded that they had also noticed the larger picture shifting entirely as of late. Regarding my encounter with the foreign Michelin testers he replied that they were now sending out foreign colleagues in Germany with full intention.

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CFL: At this point I would like to know what the next step is for you. Have concrete plans manifested?

MH: I’ve received a range of offers that I’ve all turned down. I’m not interested in star gastronomy, big castles and luxury hotels anymore. I want to find my way back to the roots. Also, after 30 years of spending 6 days a week behind the stove, I would like more freedom.

I’ll be baking bread. Bread baking at a high level. I’ve partnered up with the bakery Soluna, with which I’ve been working closely for a long time. We’ve conserved vegetables and then used these to bake bread. In the fall, a cookbook is going to be published. What comes next, I will allow unfolding in its own course.

Interview: Ludwig Cramer-Klett
Photos: Michael Hoffmann

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