Sven Elverfeld is a chef with a conscience. His restaurant Aqua in Wolfsburg may be one of the best in the world (it has three Michelin stars since 2009) and is currently 33rd in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list) but he is thinking not only about the current refugee crisis but also how to raise awareness about proper eating among children.
When I sat to talk to him at Chef Sache in Cologne a few days ago he started talking about the current refugee crisis and how he recently organised a charity dinner at Aqua with the Wolfsburg football team to raise money for refugees. So even though I am interested in his creative process (which we discuss later) my first question is about the current crisis. I asked him why he felt the need to do something and he said: “At the moment, I have the possibility to do it. If you are known in your community then it is easier to do something like this. It is not all about glamour. This is a problem and it does not scare me but makes me sad. When you see families with babies and children who have lost everything except for their clothes and maybe a plastic bag, how can you be celebrating without thinking as a human being about what is happening,” Sven said.
The German chef told me he is concerned that winter is coming in Europe and in some places it will be very cold. “People need a place where they can be warm, they need things to eat, they need clothes. In the hotel, we have started collecting clothes from employees which we then pass on to Caritas. If you are popular in your community, you need to do it. I don’t do it because I have to but because it is a human thing to help when needed,” he says.
Sven rarely if ever misses a service in his restaurant but when Massimo Bottura asks him to go to Refettorio Ambrosiano, the soup kitchen in Milan, to cook with ‘food waste’ he does not think twice even if the event could be held on a Saturday and that would mean closing the restaurant. “When I look back 15-20 years ago, I never thought I would be so successful. But you need to give back particularly when it is such an important topic.”
In many ways this is significant because Sven is always at the restaurant. “For the past 15 years, I’ve been at the restaurant 99 per cent of the times when it is open. I might miss if it is a special occasion like my mother’s 70th birthday but then guests would understand when you explain,” he said.
We must educate the children first on food
The German chef has his ideas of how the problem should be tackled. “We need to educate the children first. We need to start teaching them about food from when they are in kindergarten even before they go to school.”
As a father of two young children he says it is important for his daughter and son to learn to sit together with other children at table and eat together. “This is a very important lesson not only about food but about eating together, enjoying the moment. This is something that we need to bring back. It is sad to see young children go to school with money to buy something. But how do they know what they should buy? How do you teach them what is good and what is not good? How will they choose what to eat when all they see are posters of fast food wherever they look.”
It is here that we have to start, Sven tells me. “We need to teach them when they are young, we need to give them fresh ingredients as much as possible so they can develop their taste. If they have never tried a raw cucumber when they were young, they might not like it because they have never tasted it before. If you do not eat things in the first five to six years you may never touch them. That is why we need to start early,” he says.
He tells me that schools in Wolfsburg have started to teach cooking like they teach English or French. “This is really important. When I was at school we were given a choice and there was only me and another boy in class. The rest were girls. But I believe that everyone should learn how to cook, whether they are boys or girls. You need to learn why we have to farm, why water is important and why it is essential not to waste water. You need to learn how you can far, what you can grow even without a garden. You need to visit farmers, visit people who have animals. As a human being you need to connect with nature, not with industrial farming but with sustainable farming,” he tells me.
Sven, who is known for his very independent culinary style and for dishes ‘that tell a story’ has a word of advice for young chefs but its also a lesson in life.
Don’t set yourself targets
There is no question about his work ethic and the importance he attaches to being present at the restaurant. But he did not set targets or put any pressure on himself. “We opened the restaurant in 2000 and by November 2001 we had one star. We got the second Michelin star in November 2005 and in November 2008 we were awarded our third star. It was rather quick but the point I want to make is that many young chefs today put a lot of pressure on themselves. When I started, I did not put any pressure on myself. It was a new restaurant and nobody was expecting anything from us. If you set yourself targets that you want to achieve in five years time, you put yourself under pressure and you cannot work like this. You need to free your mind to be able to concentrate on what you want to develop. You need to develop your ideas without any pressure,”
He says pressure will come once you achieve success because you need to maintain that each year. “People come to the restaurant from far away. The impact of the World’s 50 Best restaurants is huge because people come specifically to Wolfsburg for the restaurant. We are not in a major city like Berlin, Munich or Cologne. Wolfsburg is one hour away from Berlin. Not many people know it but many of our guests come by train at 6pm and take the last train back to Berlin at 11.20pm as Berlin has no 3 Michelin star restaurants.”
Sven says the importance of the list is huge, particularly for getting known outside of Germany. “Our international customers increase every year. Michelin is also very important but the list is growing in importance each year.” He half-jokingly tells me he hopes that he will be on the list next year when the award-ceremony moves to New York since he thinks it could be bigger. There is also the fact that the restaurant Aqua is in the Ritz-Carlton hotel which is a US chain.
He repeats its the wrong approach to put yourself under pressure. “My word of advice to young chefs is to concentrate on the kitchen, on their dishes, on the team and on the service and the rest will follow.”
“It is as Massimo Bottura says,” he tells me, “over the past 20 years, the field has become like a tree that continues to grow. In the past, there were a few great chefs but they have had lots of sous-chefs who have left to open their own restaurants. Everybody wants to be a chef in the top 100 or 2 or 3 Michelin stars but it is not possible to have so many restaurants. Don’t give yourself too much pressure as a young lady or gentlemen. Don’t grow too quickly but just grow with love and passion for what you do and success will follow.”
‘Social media sometimes scares me’
Sven worries about the impact that social media could have on dining in general. “When I was young, if I wanted to see what a chef like Michael Bras was doing, I needed to buy a book or invest money to go there and see him work on my days off. Today, young chefs can just go on Facebook and Twitter and see what is happening at Alinea in Chicago or Le Bernardin in New York. They think that they can copy a dish just like that and this is scary. People have to understand that flavour is the most important element, then comes the idea and the vision behind it.”
We start to speak about his creative process. “What I do when I have an idea is to write it down. Let’s say I want to use three ingredients like carrots, ginger and mackerel. I will write everything that I could do with the carrot, with ginger and the mackarel. Will the latter be pan-fried, marinated, rare, as a carpaccio? That is where I start.
“This is where inspiration comes from. Sometimes the best ideas come when you are not at work. They come when your mind is free, you might see something like a salad on the floor or see my daughter holding something in her hand. When I think about something, I write two sentences down otherwise I might forget it,” he tells me.
After you have the idea you can start to combine the techniques and the cooking knowledge to create a dish. “Ideas come from your brain and from nature. When I was in 21, I worked in a French restaurant on the Greek island of Crete. I used to go with two friends to dive each week and catch fish. This is how you build a direct relationship with nature.”
He recalls how when he was in Crete, not a lot of things were imported so he could only make use of one type of salad. “But just outside the kitchen, there was rosemary, lemons, thyme. I could not order fois gras or a certain type of salad but I had to work with what I could find. That still defines how I work today,” he said.
I ask him why at the highest level German chefs can compete with any other chefs in the world but German cuisine is not so well known outside Germany. He boils this down to food culture not being a top priority for consumers. “I was lucky because when I was young my parents travelled a lot by car and whenever we went we would stop to eat. In all these countries like Italy, France and Yugoslavia, food is one of the most important things in life. It does not need to be fine dining but to just be able to sit and eat together and communicate. This culture does not exist in Germany.”
Sven says people are thinking about other luxuries but not about eating. “It is a different culture but we need to get people back to the table to communicate and eat. It is not just fine dining. All you need is good bread, sausage and cheese. But I despair when I see restaurants preparing fresh things from scratch and then people prefer to go somewhere slightly cheaper even if the food they buy is frozen.”
The re-design of the Ritz Carlton, Wolfsburg and the award-winning Aqua restaurant is a contemporary update of the original design concept created by Andrée Putman. The restaurant was designed by American architect Elliot Barnes with an additional window that opens into a private garden area, where a large shell filled with water creates a Zen-like atmosphere.