Top of his game

“I became a chef by coincidence,” Christian Jürgens admits quite openly. Of course he always liked experimenting in the kitchen, after all he grew up with the pleasures of his mother’s and grandmothers’ cooking. But by rights he should have become a butcher, being from a butcher family in Unna near Dortmund. However, when, as a young lad, he helped out in his sister’s restaurant and showed some aptitude, the head chef asked him if he wouldn’t want to consider a career as a chef. It was in the mid-eighties and cooking slowly but surely advanced in popularity, so Jürgens thought: “Slaughtering pigs wasn’t ever really what I wanted to do.” A decision he probably never regretted.

After his training in Bad Homburg, Jürgens joined Feinkost Käfer in Munich which, for him, was “an admission ticket to a different world”. Käfer was a party service like no other. Streets were closed down, whole kitchens were loaded onto 30-tonne trucks and the brigade was flown to Paris or Rome. Jürgens remembers: “It was incredibly exciting to see how Gerd Käfer was able to turn food into an adventure. That really impressed me.” The enthusiastic young chef was hungry to learn and after a dinner at restaurant Tantris he was so taken with Heinz Winkler’s cuisine, that he applied for a job. But getting an appointment for an interview with Winkler proved more difficult than expected. It took five attempts to finally meet the great master chef—Jürgens stuck to his guns and his efforts were rewarded. He was given the chance to start at Tantris two months later, but when he notified Gerd Käfer, he immediately called up Winkler to haggle over the starting date. Thankfully, Winkler took Käfer’s protest as confirmation that Jürgens must be an exceptional chef. As indeed he was. After a year at Tantris, he stayed on with Winkler when he opened restaurant Residenz. “I learned from [Winkler] how important it is to persistently season and taste each and every dish. Heinz Winkler has an inspired taste and he doesn’t give up until he has the result he wants.” For nearly seven years Jürgens took Winkler as his role model. What followed was a stint as poissonier with Jörg Müller on the northern German island of Sylt for one season. That’s where he acquired a certain calmness and composure in the kitchen, although, he admits, it took quite a while until he was able to implement it. He also learned how to process each product on a full-scale basis, “so that guests can utterly enjoy their food, but that the whole enterprise keeps being lucrative at the same time,” he explains. But Jürgens was soon pulled back south, to Munich, to fulfill one of his dreams: “Being lucky enough to work with Eckart Witzigmann or to work for Eckart Witzigmann.” The first phone call was done, the last evening service in Sylt completed, and Jürgens drove through the night to be in Munich in the morning. He stayed over in the car, parked in front of famous restaurant Aubergine and was standing on the doorstep at 10am sharp for the interview. The Grand Chef invited him in and when he heard that the young chap hadn’t had any breakfast, he said, “come on, I’ll quickly throw something together”. “This ‘I’ll quickly throw something together’ consisted of five courses, each more sublime than the other” Jürgens laughs. The Chef of the Century (a title awarded to Witzigmann by Gault Millau in 1993) had a profound influence on Jürgens, particularly his interaction with products. He gushes: “This creativity, this artisanal perfection, this combination of diverse aromas. Anyone who watches him cook, even inexperienced cooks, is touched deeply. Frankly, I am very proud to have been able to work with all these personalities.”

Developing one’s own entirely new and unique style after spending that much time with Germany’s culinary elite can’t have been an easy task. Jürgens opened his first restaurant in 1997 on Maximilianstraße in Munich, the Marstall. There he tried to set up a gastronomic business to reunite all of his acquired skills: sensational food, a memorable experience for each guest, and, on top of that, the products should be processed in the best possible way. Proof of his success came in the form of his first Michelin star in the first year. In 2001, Jürgens started as head chef at restaurant Kastell at Burg Wernberg. There he continued to follow in the footsteps of his mentors, while at the same time leaving his own mark—and promptly the second Michelin star was awarded.

“I think my most important move was coming to Althoff Seehotel Überfahrt. Here, I have the opportunity to focus exclusively on the restaurant, which is what I want to do. Mr Althoff [Thomas H. Althoff, hotelier] has given me a great stage and it is my duty to deliver a great performance for our guests. For me, restaurant Überfahrt is where the penny dropped.”

Today, Christian Jürgens has both feet firmly on the ground and can still hardly believe that he has reached the highest goal in his career: three Michelin stars. He sees the three stars as an impetus for questions like: what else is there, what else could be implemented? He is planning and developing new concepts that aim at making gastronomy more attractive for guests as well as employees, “so that in 10 years’ time, we will still have employees that love this beautiful profession”.

The first impressions upon entering restaurant Überfahrt are the natural colours and the absence of tablecloths. “We were the first German high-end restaurant that dared to do away with table cloths,” he says proudly. The blank wooden tables and the untreated wooden colours reflect something traditionally Bavarian, a notion that also shines through in the plates that Jürgens uses. For these, he works with a local ceramic manufacturer from Rottach. However, the most important part will always be to strike a chord with the guests through the food and the dishes. If you succeed in doing that, says Jürgens, you can then proceed to think about all the frills. These frills already become apparent in the names of the dishes: Hausberg (local mountain), Hong Kong Crayfish Tea, Hans Dampf (jack-of-all-trades), Kartoffelkiste (Potato box) und Reh aus dem Feuer (venison out of the fire) are only a few of the imaginative names that can be found on the menu. The Crayfish Tea (recipe on page xx), for example, is showcased to guests at the table in a thoroughly impressive way: A kind of tea is produced by brewing Langostino essence in a transformed coffee machine. Liquid is heated on a Bunsen burner, rises in a flask, passes the Langostino carcasses and different aromas such as ginger, lemon grass, coffee, lime leaves, tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, coriander and parsley. The steam rises and absorbs these aromas. When the flame is extinguished, the coloured and strongly aromatic steam descends as a fluid and is then poured into a plate by the service team, similar to a clear soup. The dish Out of the Fire (see page xx) is no less dramatic: the guest is served with wrapped venison that is literally on fire and continues to burn for 5-8 minutes. The perfectly cooked meat is then removed from the coal, sliced and placed on your plate. The presentation of both these dishes is quite extraordinary, but without a doubt it’s the taste that leaves the biggest impression on every guest.

Both the large and the smaller menu beautifully showcase what each season has to offer and over time, Jürgens’ creations have matured into a courageous, expressive and harmonious style.

“I have to say that I have found myself here at Tegernsee”, says Jürgens. “I am amazed by the nature surrounding us”. And local produce does indeed feature in his cuisine, however, top quality matters most of all and he spreads his search world-wide—this applies to carrots as well as beef and the humble onion, says Jürgens. But the region is omnipresent, especially in the aperitif: Balls of potato filled with sour cream that look like the black pebbles from the nearest riverbed. Or little acorns, hung up on mountain pine branches, filled with foie gras that adorn certain stones collected by the kitchen team from the Weißach river. Jürgens reunites the whole region on the plate with a menu that only really finds its value in the Tegernsee region. The perfect taste and sense for seasoning, which he has so admirably picked up from his mentors, is best visible in his champagne sauce: Jürgens likes to add a pinch of Cayenne pepper—a little extra, not brutally spicy, but a delight for the taste buds. Also similar to his mentors, he demands constant creativity from his kitchen staff. He asks them to continuously deliver meticulous work and also to be able to transfer the joy at the work place onto the plate. For him, the most essential virtues are quality, authenticity, loyalty and honesty. It is important that everyone “pulls together, which brings us closer to our goal”, says Jürgens. As a result, a long list of successful chefs have emerged from his kitchen.

New dishes are created according to the availability of products. Every two to three months, these new dishes will make it onto the menu, and Jürgens is always aware that the ‘bells and whistles’ of modern technology don’t always make more sense than time-honoured techniques.

Jürgens finds his balance in sport, with his family and on holidays, which he does not consider as creative inspiration, but mere relaxation—and rightly so! After his television appearances on the German cooking programme Game of Chefs, Jürgens has been working on new projects these past few months, that will, he assures me, be of interest in as well as outside the restaurant. Other than that, there is just one thing left for Jürgens: polishing his three stars so they will shine even brighter than the previous year.