“Internationally, nobody knows what’s going on in Germany,” says Sven Elverfeld, the three-Michelin-starred chef of Aqua restaurant in Wolfsburg. “It’s picking up though – we’re starting to get tables from Asia and Scandinavia, because slowly, slowly people are getting to know what’s going on here,” he says.
What’s going on here, at The Ritz Carlton hotel in the rather unlikely setting of the industrial town of Wolfsburg – previously only famous for its Volkswagen manufacturing plant, currywurst and football team, is some of the best, most inventive cooking in the whole of Germany.
As the chef rightly points out, though Wolfsburg may seem remote, it’s only an hour from Berlin, which is comparable to the time it takes to get from London to Bray to visit Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. “People read ‘Wolfsburg’, and think ‘where’s Wolfsburg?’, but when people know we’re not far from Berlin it’s better.”
It’s this lack of perception that Elverfeld, with his modernist, deconstructionalist approach to cooking his native cuisine, is working towards changing, this year coming in at an impressive number 22 in the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. “It’s been amazing,” he says with a big grin. “We’ve felt the effect very strongly and we’re getting more and more international guests, which is important in Germany – especially if you’re not in a big city.
“People don’t expect something new and different from Germany,” he says. “Maybe they think we are very traditional and not imaginative, but if you travel around the country you will find different kinds of cuisine at a very high level, all very innovative. It’s taken us a long time to get to where we are today, but we still need more people to open their eyes to German food.”
Elverfeld opened Aqua 12 years ago, to a baffled reception. He tells me the opening was laughed at because of the hotel’s unusual location, in the industrial depths of the Volkswagen manufacturing Autostadt with its ominous looming chimneys and concrete landscape. In fact, the restaurant’s dramatic backdrop – all stark lines and shiny glass curves – is a constant source of inspiration for him, and he draws on the aesthetics of his surroundings when plating his food. “The Autostadt is a very unique place,” he says. “Some guests say it feels like you’re in the harbour in New York or somewhere, and the architecture inspires me.
“Nobody thought we’d be this successful, even I doubted it. But if you cook food that shows you’re dedicated to quality, and you’re innovative, it doesn’t matter what the place is like – the people will come.”
The food at Aqua certainly does both of these things – with the chef utilising some of the best of Germany’s suppliers and produce for the imaginative dishes he creates using cutting-edge techniques. As well as drawing on global influences, and culinary memories from countries he’s worked in and visited (see the marinated mackerel with Cretan salad recipe), Elverfeld is known for deconstructing and re-imagining regional and traditional German dishes, like his famous ““Simmered corned beef from Müritz lamb with Frankfurt-style green sauce, potato and egg” (pictured on P52).
One recipe that he’s particularly excited about when we speak is 'Iced hand-formed cheese – homage to my native land’(pictured above) – his modern take on “Handkäse”, a culinary speciality of Hessen,
Elverfeld’s home region. It’s a small, translucent, sour milk cheese which gets its name from the way it’s hand-made, and is often served as an appetizer or as a snack. Many people find its rather pungent aroma too strong, but the chef has found a way of making it lighter and texturally intriguing, by Thermomixing it into a cream with the ingredients it’s traditionally served with – chopped shallots; Hessen apple wine, caraway seeds and cream, then forming it into balls and freezing it with liquid nitrogen.
The result is a cool, light, brittle, hollow cheese ball that he serves at the table with fried, buttered bread croutons and the traditional white wine vinegar and chive vinaigrette that begin to melt it in front of the guest. It’s an almost unrecognisable version of a dish that, once tasted, evokes childhood memories for many of Aqua’s native diners, and it represents Elverfeld’s pledge to play with ideas of ‘luxury’ ingredients.
“For me, luxury is something whereby you take a traditional product and remake it in a new dimension. As chefs, we have the power to show the guests that a simple, humble or traditional product rendered in a new, improved way can be more interesting that just the usual lobster or turbot.”
Like the resourceful, traditional recipes he riffs on, his starting point is local, seasonal produce. “Mostly it’s the product that gives me the ideas,” he says. “For me, there might be a traditional thing that inspires me – but it’s also about the product, the season and the supplier keeping you up to date with what they have.” And after a significant amount of time in the same kitchen, he’s built up a network of trusted suppliers that includes his own hunter, who provides the restaurant with freshly shot deer and homemade sausages from the surrounding area.
“It was funny because I went hunting with him once and I saw a deer. He asked me to shoot it but I just couldn’t. I said, ‘I can cook it but don’t ask me to kill it’. I’m very proud that I have my own supplier hunting in our region here, it means that I know where my meat is coming from and that it’s not vacuum packed. He hunts at the weekend and gives me all the parts of the animal I need – like the liver which has to be very fresh.”
With regards to kitchen technique, Elverfeld is renowned for his clever manipulation of ingredients using progressive, sometimes even scientific techniques. For his featured recipe of langoustine with char-grilled pork belly, bulls heart-tomato, crustacean mayonnaise and balsamic emulsion, the chef uses a centrifuge procured from a laboratory to create a smooth emulsion of aged balsamic vinegar. “As a chef you have to be like a small child – to try everything and be curious,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t work and you have to forget it, but we’re using these techniques so there’s more variety for our guests. I want people to leave Wolfsburg wanting to come back because it’s a unique experience.
“I think the future is getting back to the product, but in a clever way, with all the knowledge we have now – presented with nice technique, but there needs to be a harmony between the presentation and the flavour, because the flavour is what lasts in the guests’ memories and minds. You can’t lose the product.”
Sven Elverfeld’s cookbook has been a major project for the chef over the past year. The elaborately illustrated, 500-page book features more than 75 recipes of signature dishes as well as culinary memories of the last four years at Aqua, allowing insights into Elverfeld’s distinctive style, as well as the motivation behind it. The book is available in a limited edition English version for € 110. For more information see
© RITZ-CARLTON WOLFSBURG