“I'm never really satisfied, at least never complacent.” This is how Juan Amador describes his personal desire for perfection. The son of German and Spanish parents is one of currently 10 three Michelin star chefs in the country. Restaurant Amador in Mannheim is located in a former doll factory – a location to his liking. "We have found this wonderful industrial ensemble and I have absolutely fallen in love with it. There is something very special about it.” For Amador it doesn’t matter if it’s located in the Mannheim industrial area or any big city; for him it comes down to atmosphere and the charm and energy that radiates from a building – and his restaurant has it all. Colours and shapes are reduced and decidedly modern. However, in the kitchen he has now taken the opposite direction.
Amador was known for many years as a master of molecular cuisine. Role models such as Albert Bouley, known as "Germany’s machine of creativity”, or Ferran Adrià, co-founder of molecular gastronomy, have opened his eyes to what is possible in the kitchen. But today he keeps going back to the original product. "Most important for me is the harmony on the plate. As far as technique is concerned, that’s of course still very important for us in the kitchen. But that’s now more likely to take second or third place, while previously it was perhaps even in the first place. And so everything has changed in recent years."
Crucial for Amador’s cooking is – apart from the product – to make his head free. "Don’t think too dogmatically – ‘what goes together' or ‘that you cannot do'. Above all, be careful not take too much inspiration from your peers – you must remain faithful to yourself.“ To keep in line with his own authentic cuisine, Amador made a point of not looking at cookbooks for several years. "Because when we want to do something new, something might pop up in the subconscious. And that's why I don’t look too much left or right."
Instead, he devoted himself to experimentation. His new dishes have been created in a long process. They never work outright, he says, but the important thing is that at the end of the day, the complexity and harmony simply work and deliver on taste.
Enthusiastically, Amador recounts an experiment many years ago that has succeeded perfectly and which is now used everywhere: "We have invented the foie gras ice cream, actually quite by accident. We were in the pastry kitchen, making very classic butter ice cream. Then I had the idea, let’s replace the red and white wine, and let’s not use butter, but foie gras instead. I think that was in 2000. And then we continued with the experimentation. We combined it all with a caramel pear and liquorice." This foie gras ice cream was not received well by gourmets at the time. Detractors said that "perversity knows no limits”. Amador thinks that people at the time simply didn’t understand him. "An ice cream has a different texture and a different temperature. Whether you use liver, cheese, vegetables , vanilla or pineapple doesn’t matter. And so we started to experiment with other things in the region of ice cream. Many of them clearly didn’t work out. But the foie gras ice cream really works, and it is still cooked everywhere to this day."
One of his most outstanding dishes is Dove Mieral, a combination of classic cuisine, modern techniques and a trip to Asia. It started with the purple curry spice, which was invented by Ingo Holland, Germany’s so-called spice pope. Holland took curry powder, usually yellow, and replaced the turmeric with hibiscus flowers, making it pink. When Amador got his hands on it, he and his team put their heads together. They experimented with coconut cream and mango, Thai flavours like green coriander, and a red wine sauce flavoured with purple curry. One of Amador's biggest hits was born. "We have often reconsidered and tried out different things with it. But this just remains a dish that simply works for us. It has tradition, product, creativity, technology – we couldn’t do better if we tried and we always come back to it."
Discoveries of new products and ingredients constantly challenge him to new creations. One of his favourite products is carabinero, a special shrimp. Though exorbitantly expensive, "it just tastes of the sea – for me it epitomises the sea," says Amador. Therefore it can often be found on his menu. Another of Amador’s discoveries is fermented garlic, or black garlic, which has little to do with taste or consistency of garlic, but rather goes towards liquorice. Even old and perhaps forgotten products are newly discovered by Amador: "What might seem as mundane things at first glance, something like veal tripe or a really good bloos sausage, can be wonderfully combined with other things."
Compromising on quality is no longer possible for Amador. "I must say, I think very little of this radical principle of regionality. For me it's about finding the best product for the dish, and when the best product comes from Brittany or from Scotland or Denmark, then we will always get it from there, no question." At the same time he praises his "sensational tomato growers" who pursue their craft with absolute passion. In addition, Amador gets supplies from a great baker who works only 10 kilometres away from the restaurant, and a butcher directly in Mannheim, who slaughters the animals himself and who dry ages the beef for a good six to eight weeks. Amador is clearly passionate about his producers and he regrets that the cost of producing threatens the existence of these suppliers.
The competition is never asleep, but Amador admits that he hardly ever dines out at other Michelin star restaurants. "If anything, I'm more likely to visit friends and colleagues that I have not seen for ages.” But it hasn’t always been like that: he has already “eaten” 538 stars – Amador keeps count. In the past, each trip or holiday was connected to a gourmet experience. Today only to a lesser extent. "Honestly, I deal with food all week and I don’t want to stress myself out on weekends, too. Because you really tend to compare. I want to enjoy my food and not discuss at the table whether the person has really earned three stars, two or one. I have become very relaxed about this."
Amador doesn’t rest on his laurels, however. "If you don’t do anything, you won’t make any mistakes," and Amador has already done a lot. He openly admits to having made several mistakes. His Amador AG filed for bankruptcy late last year. "Just because you have three stars, a restaurant isn’t necessarily successful. It isn’t necessarily our own fault, but ultimately it is always the case that we have skipped some steps." Now he knows that, before you establish a restaurant abroad, you also have to operate branding and brand management. As in every economy, a chef also must sell. "We have quite simply neglected this. And then it becomes difficult. I learned a lot." The next steps in the long term are already planned. He looks to the Far East, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, because the Asian market is far ahead regarding the mentality, culture, and the understanding of good food, says the three Michelin-star chef.
For Amador, ultimately, cooking is like music. "Writing a new song, performing it and then to have the feedback, either positive or negative, is very similar to what we do in the kitchen."
He sticks with cooking and loves to swing his specially made Japanese knife. "Every time I take it in my hand, I realise there is some spirit in it. Of course we have the most modern equipment in the kitchen, but for me the most important item is my hand-forged Aritsugu knife."
A cook by the book? Rather: one of Germany’s most exceptional chefs.