Higher is not possible. Joachim Wissler—who was named Germany’s best chef by The Feinschmecker—earned three Michelin stars and 19,5 Gault Millau points for his Cologne-based restaurant Vendome at Bensberg Castle, which is among San Pellegrino‘s worldwide Top 10. One might think that he already saw everything that has meaning in gastronomics. But he is far from sated. During our conversataion, it turns out that it is his ongoing curiosity that drives him. On a constant search for something new, he experiments with smells from his childhood and memory. Thus, he combines the alchemy of the art of the avantgarde kitchen with old tradition. As he says, it is very important that you create those kinds of „windows of inspiration“ in everyday kitchen life, spaces where you can allow things to happen. And we learn that chance can also be an important ingredient.
CFL: Yesterday I watched a film portrait about you. You mentioned you would like to reinvent yourself. Who is sitting in front of us today?
W: Still the same guy I was yesterday, except perhaps with a different perspective. In life there are always changes and these can do you good. As a chef, practicing my profession as I do really is a blessing. Doing what you believe in and doing what conforms to the mainstream are two different things that drift far apart sometimes. It’s usually a financial risk that keeps you from doing the former. If you do the right thing in the wrong place, then at some point it’s no longer realizable. I enjoy reinventing myself every now and then. Here, I’m referring to the past and what I’ve learned. But I don’t want to limit myself too much to my perspective and focusing on new things. If you connect this definition of “reinvent” to the dishes we serve at the table, you can safely say we reinvent ourselves four times a year. We offer our guests ever-changing menu courses. The basis of this reinvention is doing what you believe, what interests you and where you see a certain potential.
CFL: Was it always your dream to be a chef?
W: That’s a difficult subject. A dream can form over time. Let’s pretend Michael Schuhmacher had never driven a go-kart. He would have never become a Formula 1 driver. Perhaps you have to be inspired first to have the dream. That went similarly for me. I grew up in gastronomy — it was my parents’ business. So for me the obligation came before the dream. From the age of 10 I had to help my parents every Sunday in the kitchen instead of going to play soccer. The conviction I have today came gradually. So it isn’t just about dreaming, but mental maturity and imagination as well. That it developed as it did is perhaps the result of my very personal strengths and weaknesses. Perseverance, discipline, modesty, humility, stamina, curiosity — all these things make me who I am somehow. It’s this combination, and this combination is apparently successful in Germany.
CFL: In your opinion, is there a talent you don’t have but would like to have?
W: What I hugely regret is evading languages in my youth, as this creates boundaries for me as a chef. Languages either come easily to you or not — if they don’t you have try harder. That’s something I would really like to catch up on in my life
CFL: Concretely speaking, that’s English and French for you?
W: French, yes. English is not really a problem for me. But I see it is for others. Two months ago I was in London at the announcement of the Pellegrino list. I ran into some colleagues there I’ve known for 10 years who only speak Spanish and nothing else. That’s a problem. With globalization you meet a lot of people from all over the world, like my colleague Atala from Brazil. You say hi, but then there’s immediately a language barrier. Maybe it’s just a small obstacle, but it’s still a shame.
CFL: How can a non-specialist imagine such an exchange among these top chefs?
W: It’s like a school reunion. You have about eight or nine chances a year to be invited somewhere to give a lecture at a cooking symposium. At such conferences, of course, you always meet people making global waves because they’re especially revered and often invited to such things. When you travel a lot to certain countries, like we do to Spain, you meet these colleagues over and over. You eat at their places and connections are made. You’re happy to run into these people in London, of course. They’re the top 50 in the world and you get to say, “Hey, how are you doing?” It’s really like a school reunion. You chat about this and that, and due to time constraints usually just superficially.
CFL: So how does it work? Is there robust exchange or does everybody do their own thing and share later?
W: There are always those who strongly polarize and are in the spotlight. They get everybody else going. Once you’re in this echelon — and we’re talking world-class here — you get energized but not overwhelmed. If a chef has something to say somewhere in the world, he sparks a new trend. Currently we have a strong South American trend. There they|re combining ingredients from Asia and South America. Five years ago nobody gave one culinary iota about the continent. And suddenly one of its restaurants is in the top five in the world rankings. Next year it could be somebody else, maybe somebody from Africa, you never know. And that makes it all so exciting. You have to approach it all with curiosity and openness. You can’t get stuck. When you try something new you should let it really affect you and then decide if you like it.
CFL: May I ask you how you maintain such youthful curiosity? How do you tap into it on a daily basis?
W: The most important thing is keeping a realistic daily schedule. That’s how you create time for reflection on the things you’re busy with. These could be a childhood memory or a lingering taste or something you’d like to express on the plate, the scent of hay, for instance. I grew up on a farm. I was just at my parents’ house last week in fact. As the hay is being cut it has a smell of its own. Something like that can inspire me. But to experience all that in reality you have to clear a time frame for yourself to get busy with it. You come in in the morning and have a look at what day-to-day operations are. And then you have to delegate as much as possible. That’s an art. You learn that once you’ve understood that you can’t do everything alone. Then something materializes with which you can maintain your youthful curiosity.
CFL: You just mentioned hay, which I find really exciting. Memories — that’s something we’re concerned with a lot with at the Contemporary Food Lab. There’s the well-known example from Proust: He takes a bite of the madeleine and sees his entire childhood before him. Is there a dish for you that triggers such memories?
W: My childhood wascharacterized by Sunday roasts. Roasts made in the oven, not in these modern convection ovens. It gave it a completely different aroma. At noon when the roast came out of the oven, the smell was sensational! We’ve even made a dish based on this smell. It developed dually: one the one hand out of the idea of reproducing the smell as a taste on a plate, and accidentally.
CFL: What kind of dish was it?
W: It was made of pig tails. They’re a delicacy in Spain. There they cook the tail with the gristle and slowly roast it till crispy. The cooking happens in a bag, which produces a certain juice, a jûs. We collected the jûs in a little pot located on the edge of the stove. As pork is very collagen-heavy, the collagen collected on the surface of the pot. And because the pot was hot underneath and cooler on top the collagen started to coagulate. To give you a better idea: the skin of the milk is to milk as a kind of collagen paper is to the juice of the roast. We put the thin sheet of paper on the teppanyaki grill and baked it until crispy. That’s how the dish came about. We named it Edible Pork Juice Paper. The collagen made it taste like the pork roast that used to come out of my childhood oven. I don’t sit down and say, “I’m gonna make a great dish now.” Things emerge out of a combination of accidents, ideas and vision. So there are a lot of catalysts that get you moving and inspired.
CFL: What subjects are you currently busy with?
W: The forced refinement of gourmet restaurants. I want to free myself of that. In my work it’s about the dish itself and my personal ideas of visual aesthetics. And these aren’t predetermined or cliché. Just because you’re sitting in a 3-star restaurant you don’t have to eat off a porcelain plate that costs 80 euros each. There are many more exciting ways to inspire, excite and affect people. You can electrify people from the get-go with the menu — you just have to consider how you describe the dishes. That goes for service, too: If a guest comes into the restaurant who had a bad day we let him relax a bit and offer him water or champagne. If the first dish is a hit, the guest’s focus is completely on us and he lets the worries of the day fade away. That’s our way of saying, “Hey, forget whatever happened today.” Those are the things I’m busy with — exhausting the possibilities you have as a cook to reach and excite your guests.
CFL: Is there a message you’d like your guests to take with them?
W: Yes. Curiosity! Yesterday two Italians were here who had driven up from Italy in their car. One of them told me that he was totally fascinated not only by the taste but also by the whole vibe of the restaurant. These people go out to eat and they want to have an experience. They don’t just want to eat lamb, they want to “inhale” the entirety of Wissler. For that you need curiosity.
CFL: Do you prefer to have the layperson or the connoisseur as a guest?
W: You would think the layperson is easier to excite but that’s not true. Taste-wise he or she is in a much smaller playing field. With ordinary people you have to exercise a certain caution; you can’t totally overwhelm them. The experienced eater is only looking for a certain provocation in some things. But generally, when you go against the grain, you’re polarizing. So you distance yourself even further from the 100% satisfaction guarantee for all your guests. That’s just how it goes, and you have to be able to live with that.
CFL: Is there somebody you’d really like to cook with some time?
W: I’ve been crazy about Spanish cuisine forever. Recently, Asia has been very exciting for me. I would really like to work with a sushi master some time and absorb the ceremonial spirit for two or three months. Japanese cuisine is broken down as minimally as it gets. Very interesting.
CFL: You mentioned expensive porcelain. There’s currently a large trend toward more simple cuisine. In Berlin there’s Street Food Thursday, and it’s been a raving success. Is there a dish you can imagine preparing for such an audience?
W: I was probably one of the first to disabuse myself of the notion that pork has no place in a top restaurant. I’ve worked with various parts of the pig, with the chin, for instance. Braised pig chin is a special thing. It tastes sensational. I could just keep making that. Something with a rustic elegance that isn’t architecturally that complex.
CFL: Which restaurant would you take people to eat to show them your love?
W: There are restaurants I really love. I think they’d all work as an expression of my love. One of my favorite restaurants is in Spain near the French border in Basque country. The restaurant is legendary because the owner is a former carpenter. I love going there. Unfortunately, I haven’t been there yet with my wife. But that would definitely one of these kinds of restaurants.
© Erik Chmil
CFL: Where do you see yourself in the next three, five and fifteen years?
W: The daily life of a chef is hard to plan in advance. That goes for all lines of work that are a bit more creative or artsy. I always want to remain sensitive to the development of people who enjoy eating. I want to capture this development and realize it in restaurant concepts that open themselves to all people. I would like offer people something that’s premium quality. Perhaps something entirely new: a restaurant concept which in terms of status is far below my current one but qualitatively on par, a place imbued with my spirit. I think that’s something I’ll take on in the next three or five, even fifteen years.
CFL: Have your dreams been fulfilled until now?
W: When I look back at myself as a young person and at what I do today, I can say, yes without a doubt. It’d be off-base to say otherwise.
CFL: Were you responsible for that or was it a kind of divine fate
W: Well, I do pay church tax but I see the subject of God and belief from a different angle. I don’t believe in destiny but in life’s unfolding. That starts with childhood experiences and character. This combination is the starting point for human becoming. Coincidence and of course luck are in there, too. Whether God’s in the game, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s the combination of everything one personifies and designates as God.
CFL: What could you best do without? The Fatherland, the homeland or foreign lands?
W: Tricky question. I couldn’t do without my homeland — I enjoy the few moments I’m there so much. Based on my experience I actually wouldn’t miss the Fatherland, although I would have probably preferred to live in the U.S.up to 10 years ago. If I had to do without something today it would probably be foreign places. After all, if you’ve traveled a lot then foreignness isn’t all that foreign anymore. Plus, you realize what you have at home. When I was younger I always wanted out — Tokyo, the U.S., but now I really appreciate how we’re able to live here.
CFL: Would you rather be dead or live on as a healthy animal or plant? If yes, which one?
W: I’d rather be dead. It’s hard for me to imagine such a thing. Most of what animals do they do on instinct. No, no animals and surely not one that you can eat!
CFL: What makes you human, Mr. Wissler?
F: Mistakes. I admit to my mistakes every day. Maybe that’s what keeps me grounded — the certainty that there will always be more mistakes and bad choices.