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Chef: Nils Henkel

German chef, Nils Henkel, strives for culinary perfection. His passion for fresh ingredients and penchant for flora makes his dishes unique.

Words Rob Crossan

When it comes to finding the menus and moments that define a country’s cuisine, some nations are easier to work out than others. From the moment the wine is uncorked in a French restaurant or a ‘primi’ arrives at your favourite Italian trattoria, you’re immediately immersed in the joined up thoughts and flavours of coherent national cuisines.

For Germany, however, the concept of a philosophy, style or even a starter that encompasses the nation’s gastronomic flavour, is trickier to define. Chef Nils Henkel, however, has been giving the matter some thought: ‘German cuisine is regarded as being sausage and pork knuckle to the outside world,’ he says.

‘But that’s just one part of the German kitchen. In Spain or Italy it’s easy to understand and see the national cuisine through so many kitchens that offer their food around the world. In Germany, the full range is more hidden.’ Hidden perhaps, but definitely not unheralded. For the restaurant Schwarzenstein Nils Henkel has just been awarded its second Michelin star in the 2018 guide.

‘I wasn’t always a chef,’ he says. ‘When I was 15, my first job was making plastic windows! I was frustrated. But when I got my first job in a kitchen and saw how creative it was and how I could create plates for guests within my first week, I knew I had the perfect job.’

Located in the heart of the Rhine Valley, Schwarzenstein is the latest step in Nils’ culinary journey that began in the mid-1980s, firstly at the Romantikhotel Voss-Haus in Eutin, then in various kitchens in Hamburg and the Munsterland before finally landing as a sous chef at late Dieter Müller’s Lerbach restaurant in 1997.

‘I wasn’t always a chef,’ he says. ‘When I was 15, my first job was making plastic windows! I was frustrated. But when I got my first job in a kitchen and saw how creative it was and how I could create plates for guests within my first week, I knew I had the perfect job.’

That quest for perfection has driven Nils ever since. From 2008 until the restaurant’s closure in 2014, Nils was Head Chef at Lerbach, creating a menu that delighted both guests and critics with its emphasis on fish, vegetables and local produce.

‘It’s interesting to find perfection,’ admits Nils. ‘I want to look for the perfect way of doing things. To please Michelin inspectors you have to keep the quest alive, and to be more and more perfect. For me, I need to use the best products, to work with creative people, to work with German ingredients and to create our own distinctive style.’

Schwarzenstein’s menu is a showcase of Henkel’s desires to fuse flora, fauna and locality together whilst also asking diners to rethink the traditional Germanic devotion to red meat being the focus of a meal. To replace pork and schnitzel with sunflowers and roots without triggering some kind of ‘aufstand’ before the end of ‘mittagessen’ is perhaps the ultimate testament to Henkel’s refined skills.

With a fine dining section and a more casual wine bar, both seating 28 customers, Henkel’s working days are immense – typically 12 to 15 hours long. ‘It’s not perfect,’ Henkel says. ‘But when you make a restaurant like this you simply can’t accomplish what you want in just eight hours. It’s a long journey to a Michelin star, and then two and then, maybe, three.’

Hearing the passion with which chefs talk about ingredients is one of the crucial markers which separate culinary innovators from merely competent cooks. Nils’ devotion to local flora and fauna (his two different menus are titled in this way with the former entirely vegetarian) is gently rhapsodic in tone:

Schwarzenstein’s menu is a showcase of Henkel’s desires to fuse flora, fauna and locality together whilst also asking diners to rethink the traditional Germanic devotion to red meat being the focus of a meal.

If I’m ordering from my own menu today then I’d start with the kingfish with celery in a ceviche style. Then I’d have venison with violet curry and cherries, and finish with apricots and almonds with chocolate.’

In between discussing his foodie travel dreams (‘I’d love to go to Asia – especially Japan’) and his dream guests to cook for (‘I’d rather cook for my wife and two young daughters before any famous person’) Nils reflects on whether German cuisine can ever become as globally recognised as some of its European neighbours. ‘The best German restaurants have a huge diversity – some with a Mediterranean and some with an Asian influence,’ he says. ‘I don’t think we have just one ‘typical’ design which is instantly recognisable.’

Finally moving beyond the bierkeller, Henkel’s fusion of sustainability, style and sunflowers shows no signs of abating. Those sunflower seeds are more than just a dish; they’re sown for a new season in the tale of German cuisine.