Michael Kempf is a young star among German chefs. He cooks for the TV show ARD-Buffet and is head chef at Berlin’s Restaurant Facil that recently got decorated with the second Michelin star. Relaxed and honest, young and creative, without too many squiggles, his contemporary dishes enchant his guests and reflect his character. Michael Kempf stays down to earth. We talked with him about seasonality and Michelin stars, about colleagues and his wife and about the most important ingredient for cooking: humanity.
CFL: Mr. Kempf, you are passionate chef. What is cooking most for you: art, craft or science?
K: A craft, absolutely! A little bit of science also plays a role in the cooking processes, but mostly I use my experience and routine. Experimenting and testing – this is what leads to a technically well-founded kitchen.
CFL: Lothar Eiermann, André Jäger, Diether Müller. These three names appear often as your main teachers. What are the most important lessons they taught you?
K: You forgot one name, perhaps the most important, Klaus Aswalt, the head chef from my teaching. He created an initial spark for my career, and has taught me something that I have never forgotten: the importance of humanity in the kitchen. Later, with Lothar Eiermann, I got to know classic cuisine at the highest level, which has brought me a lot professionally, but humanity-wise I didn’t learn anything. At André Jäger’s kitchen, the atmosphere then was very good, from him I learned some Asian influences. After that, I was with Diether Müller, a great mentor. He actually succeeded in integrating humanness with an exceptionally high level of craftsmanship. He reached everything possible for one to reach – 3 stars, 19 points – and yet he is still down to earth. Despite all the pressure, the atmosphere was always familiar in the kitchen. I think that this is what made me a rather liberal head chef. And I am convinced that otherwise, it does not work at all. In the end, one requires employees to work 12 or 13 hours for wages that are not really that high. You have to motivate them. Apart from that, a good and diverse team is crucial.
CFL: With whom would you love to cook together one time?
K: With my wife! She is a very good hobby cook, but I always have too little time to cook with her. I work so often until late at night six days a week. If I come home midnight, she is already asleep.
CFL: Who do you think is the best cook in the world and why?
K: That is very subjective thing. I would never presume to say that one is better than another. I am not a fan of rankings. But if you ask me about my personal favorites – Joachim Wissler and Nils Henkel are definitely among them. Andree Köthe from Essigbrätlein in Nuremberg is also very good. He “only” has two stars, but the overall concept is just right.
CFL: Are you the best cook in Berlin?
K: Me? No! I would say that the others must decide. But I don’t get crazy about such questions. Of course, the second star was great for me. It was a true accolade, a nice reward for the last few years, but I have not worked on getting the star like crazy. I like to cook creatively, and I like working on a more differentiated taste of an individual product – and simply delight the guests! Besides that, the economic part is also very important, to have healthy growth. Finally, there is no use in cooking well if you have a half-empty restaurant. We were able to grow from year to year and that counts for me.
CFL: Yes, and that is not self-evident in the star gastronomy, where the cost of sales is known to be a little higher than normal.
K: That is particularly hard if one is not subsidized, for example from a hotel. But it can work. Daniel Achilles does it quite successfully – he made himself totally independent. He is a good cook, a valued colleague, and a role model. But we are also self-sufficient, it just doesn’t look like this because we are located in the Mandala Hotel. In fact, we are a small, independent restaurant and only have 7 employees for our daily 70-80 guests we entertain at lunch and dinner. What I want to say is: It is possible to cook at a high level and still have competitive cost of sales.
Facil © Lukas Roth
CFL: What culinary trend do you find most interesting at the moment?
K: Basically dealing with vegetables, fresh things, wild herbs, and moving away from the filling side dish… This of course leads to the issue of seasonality, which I find very interesting. I also deal with that subject in my own kitchen. I work closely with farmers and customize the menu accordingly. Sometimes you have to spontaneously make changes, because nature cannot be planned. But this is exciting! If only I had the evening service, I would also create a garden. Michael Hoffmann has shown us how this can work. His garden is really great. Something like this would be my dream, but there is just not enough time.
CFL: Speaking of Hoffmann, in the restaurant business, a change is taking place, with many people claiming to have no desire for the classic constituents of gourmet cooking such as endless menus and stiff service, etc. Where do you see the future of gourmet cuisine?
K: I think that everything will align more to the customer. The customer must be able to choose. In our restaurant Facil, it is already like that – we have the big 8 course meal, but in addition there are my classics , which are all a la carte courses. We also have a kind of mixed calculation. That is, the guests can choose how many courses they want – 1, 2, or 3 – and compose them themself. The price depends on the number of courses, and not on the selection of individual dishes. And the customer orientation continues in the service. Everything has to be discreet and attentive and not run from the top down. Everyone should just feel comfortable, even guests who are not used to Michelin star gastronomy.
CFL: Do you think that the Michelin guide is still the measure of all things or it has lost its relevance?
K: For me personally it is still the measure of all things. We even exchange ideas with the Michelin Guide, going once a year to the headquarters in Karlsruhe. There, you get a detailed report from them about the restaurant. Since not everybody comes out, you don’t know how often you will be tested annually. But there in Karlsruhe, you have the chance to find out who came when and what kind of positive or negative criticism they had. There is a variety of criteria – from craft things on the menu to service. Additionally, I tell them about us: What concept we have, where the journey is going. I also introduce the employees by name, which is very important to me.
CFL: Where do you see yourself in 3, 5, or 15 years?
K: At the moment, I think I am very balanced and mostly relaxed in spite of all the pressure, and I really want to keep that. I want to continue working creatively, building a great team and always remaining human. There is little free time, but I want to use it to take care of my little circle of friends…
CFL: At the recent Berlinale, the film El Somni was presented by the Roca brothers. It is about a whole new way of eating, in which all the senses are involved. Have you seen the movie? Do you think that something like that has an influence on the future gastronomy?
K: Of course there are restaurants in which something like that fits well and they will probably do it. I would like to experience that one time, as a guest. It sure is a nice experiment. But for enjoying, it is not essential. What is on the plate is enough for me. This whole molecular gastronomy is simply not suitable for everyday use. In my restaurant, guests come several times a week. Here you can enjoy at a high level, quite simply, without having to think too much. This is how my dishes work. Everything must be self-explanatory.
CFL: Where and how do you collect inspiration for new dishes?
K: Mostly when I’m out of the kitchen, away from stress. When I’m doing sports, for example! For lunch, I often do an hour or two break. I air my head a bit, and then the ideas for different combinations come, which are then tested and refined.
CFL: When did you first get in touch with cooking and why did you become a cook?
K: In the home economics classes. We had the choice of technology, housekeeping, and French, and I decided on housekeeping, where I cooked the first time. It all was kicked off in teaching, that’s why I am so convinced that teaching plays an extremely important role.
CFL: And the dreams of the past are so far fulfilled?
K: They came true , yes! I always wanted to have a star and now I have two.
CFL: Why do the best cooks always come from the south of Germany?
K: This is certainly due to the proximity to France. In Baden, especially, there are a lot of star restaurants. French influence simply spills there.
CFL: What is your favorite dish?
K: I have a favorite product, octopus. It is always in my menu in one of its thousand variations.
CFL: And your three favorite restaurants in Berlin?
K: For Asian: Mr Wu’s Hotspot. This is not a particularly beautiful restaurant, but the man cooks excellently. His rieslings are genial and they go well with spicy food. Good wines are generally rarely found in Asians.
For breakfast: The Bateau Ivre in Oranienstraße, truly trashy in Kreuzberg. The menu is the same since 6 years. Totally relaxed.
What else? I really appreciate Marco Müller’s wine bar Rutz. The combination of a wine bar in a basement with a star restaurant above it is well done. I feel very comfortable there, whether I eat a nice roulade or a liverwurst sandwich or something out of the star cuisine.
CFL: And your favorite restaurant in the whole world?
K: The Oaxen Krog&Slip by Magnus Eck and Agneta Green is brilliant. It is on an island 70km south of Stockholm – it is the absolute highlight of Scandinavia. I find it better than Noma, just perfect.
Otherwise, in Portugal: Vila Joya directly on the cliff, where you can sit on the terrace and overlook the sea… And there we have the issue again: If I have good food and nature, I simply do not need music or video installations. It was a great experience just as it was. Tito Koschina cooks there now. He might not be one of the world’s best chefs, but the overall concept is outstanding – similar to Essigbrätlein in Nuremberg.
CFL: What could you live without? Home, fatherland, or abroad?
K: Fatherland, clearly.
CFL: Do you believe in God?
K: Yes, I do, before it was stronger, I lost my faith a bit when my brother died. Generally, I do.
CFL: Last question: Would you rather be dead or keep going on living as a healthy animal or a plant? If so, which one?
K: Good question! I never thought about that! Perhaps as an eagle! Yes, being free like a flying eagle, that would be right up my alley!
CFL: Or as an octopus?
K: No, it’s too tasty! As an eagle, I could look at everything from a distance. Absolute freedom, unbound awareness… That would be amazing.
© Kennan Ward PhotographyQuestions: Ludwig Cramer-Klett