Contemplate German food. It's a sea of brown and white characterized by meat and potatoes, sausage and bread, and cabbage that's been fermented until all the color has drained away.
German cooking is often described with the rustic adjectives herzhaft and deftig, or "hearty" and "hefty." It's thought of as comfort food, not fine dining. But in the last few years, at least as far as the haute cuisine kingmakers at the Michelin Guide are concerned, Germany has bucked this stereotype to become an anointed powerhouse of European gourmet cuisine. With the 2013 "Michelin Guide," unveiled at a ceremony last week in Berlin, the number of two-star restaurants in Germany has doubled in the last two years, from 18 to 36.
German chef Kevin Fehling also received his third Michelin star to become Germany's 10th chef with the world's top culinary designation, awarded for his work at La Belle Epoque, located at the Columbia Hotel in the northern city of Lübeck. Germany now has more three-star restaurants than any European country after France. German chefs are "breathing down their neck," said the worldwide director of the Michelin Guide Michael Ellis last Wednesday at the release. There are now a total of 311 Michelin stars between 255 German restaurants.
Lightening Up Heavy Staples
"It's a bit unusual that it came so fast and at once, but that's the way it is," says Ralf Flinkenflügel, the editor in chief of the "Michelin Guide Deutschland 2013," about the recent influx of stars. There are simply that many restaurants that deserve the distinction, he explains. "We have to reflect the situation."
For the last 20 years, Flinkenflügel has also been one of the Michelin Guide's test-eaters, a shadowy cabal of anonymous diners who pay for their gourmet meals in cash and whose numbers are unknown. Before a restaurant can be awarded a third star, he says, testers from the head Michelin office in France and editors in chief from other countries dine there to make sure the restaurant upholds the international Michelin standard.
The guide's testers from Germany and beyond ate in Fehling's restaurant about 20 times in the last three years before the third star was awarded, Flinkenflügel says.
Contrary to what one might assume, the gourmet food being served in Germany isn't necessarily a rejection of traditional recipes and ingredients. One of Fehling's best dishes, for example, is Eisbein -- or pork knuckle, German peasant food -- with sauerkraut and parsley, according to Flinkenflügel. "Europe hasn't really discovered the German kitchen," he says. "I think the German chefs deserve more attention."
So what does a three-star Eisbein entail?
First, Fehling takes the most tender filet from a cured suckling pig haunch and serves it with a Gillardeau oyster and grated horseradish, along with an emulsion of pureed parsley leaves and sauerkraut formed into a half-moon with the help of agar-agar powder. Then, instead of traditional Bratkartoffeln, or "fried potatoes," he serves potatoes that have been oven-cooked for three hours with chicken stock that is later mixed with gelatine to create a geleé.
"Because German cooking is very heavy," he says, "it's important that you cook with less fat and that you employ modern technology to bring lightness into the dishes."
An Economic Indicator
Flinkenflügel cites an increased number of television shows in the country that involve cooking, which might have increased the public's interest in fine dining. Indeed, a Jamie Oliver-influenced culture seems to be taking shape in the larger cities, with shops opening up to cater to gourmands and several new cooking magazines hitting newstands as well. More tourists are also making short trips into Germany, he says, eating in the best restaurants on their getaways.
Because gourmet restaurants can't exist without gourmet consumers, Michelin stars aren't just a token of a country's gastronomic savvy, they're also an economic indicator -- and one that is now catching up with the reality that Germany is the biggest economy in Europe.
"What do you need for a three-star restaurant?" says chef Stefan Hartmann, whose eponymous restaurant Hartmann's in Berlin's Kreuzberg district has one star. "You need a lot of money, and you need people who can afford that." He points to examples like Sven Elverfeld's three-star restaurant Aqua at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Wolfsburg, where carmaker Volkswagen is headquartered.
Three of the 10 three-star German restaurants are in the prosperous southern state of Baden-Württemberg, where companies like Mercedes, BMW and Bosch are based. Meanwhile Berlin, where not a single company traded on the country's blue-chip stock market index the DAX is headquartered, has a total of 16 Michelin stars but no three-star restaurants.
But Hartmann says that better domestic produce in Germany has made cooking Gourmet cuisine more financially feasible for German chefs. "The farmers are getting better -- especially the East German farmers," he says, citing an increasingly large appetite for organic vegetables. "Those farmers in the 90s, they were still working like they did before reunification, and now they're really doing their own thing. You can get great produce from them, like great tomatoes from Brandenburg."
Chef Matthias Schmidt, whose restaurant Villa Merton in Frankfurt, the financial capital, received its second star last week, is one of the chefs who chooses local ingredients to cook gourmet food on German soil.
Schmidt, along with chefs like René Redzepi of the two-starred Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, is a pioneer of "Nova-Regio" cuisine, an emerging style in Northern Europe that emphasizes creative and often spare uses of wild and natural ingredients from the surrounding region. For dessert on his six-course, 111 ($141) menu, Schmidt offers beetroot with grapes, roses and black beer. "The last few years we have worked with beer because it connects us with the culture," Schmidt says. He also serves Handkäs mit Musik, a typical Frankfurt dish of marinated cheese formed by hand. According to German tradition, the music comes later.
Schmidt says that one reason German food is traditionally so heavy might be the long years of hardship following the two world wars. "People were just happy to have a lot on the plate," he says. But this aspect of German cooking is also what poses the biggest challenge for gourmet chefs. "It's big, it's a lot, it's hot and it's heavy," he goes on. "It's very difficult for us to combine our modern cuisine with the culture."
But another challenge is that the French, whose food is traditionally much lighter, are the ones setting the world's gourmet standards with institutions like Michelin. As such, France naturally has a comfortable lead over Germany in the Michelin rankings, with nearly 600 starred restaurants and more than twice as many three-star establishments.
A Complicated Rivalry
Indeed, the Michelin rankings are a window onto the complicated rivalry between the European neighbors. German chefs pride themselves on their modesty and precision. French chefs pride themselves on, well, being French.
"Some of those big chefs in France, they always say 'We are this, we are that, we will be this and we have always been that,' and a German chef would never do that," says Berlin chef Hartmann. "They are more concentrated on what they are doing and not what somebody is reading about them."
Early last week, Hartmann represented Germany at a meeting of the two culinary camps at the Goethe Institute in Paris, part of events arranged to celebrate 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, the French-German friendship agreement. Hartmann appeared onstage with French chef Christoph Pelé, who has two Michelin stars to his one, for a dialogue de chefs scheduled just hours after the new German Michelin Guide was unveiled.
Hartmann found himself having to defend his national cuisine to Pelé, who alleged that all Germany has to offer is sausage. But the next day, Pelé attended a five-course dinner served by Hartmann at the German embassy. It featured only traditional German food -- roasted rabbit with vegetables, and eel with red beets -- and the French chef ate it up, Hartmann reports proudly.
"I think how embarrassing is it that French chefs are not looking to Germany or to Scandinavia," he says. "They just staying in their country, thinking 'Hey, it's great here, and everything else is nothing.' It's not true! It's their mistake. A lot has happened. There's so much more in Germany than just kraut and turnips and sausages."