Munich is shaped by extraordinary women. We would like to introduce a few of them. This time: Maike Menzel, head chef in the star-rated Schwarzreiter restaurant. We wanted to know: What do you pay attention to as a top chef when you eat out on a daily basis?
There were murmurs in the gastronomic circles of the city when the decision was announced. The Schwarzreiter, the star-rated restaurant in the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski, was to get a new head chef. Correction: a new female head chef. She is the first woman to manage a star-rated restaurant in Munich. That, at 29 years old, she is still comparatively young, made the sensation all the more perfect.
Her Bavarian roots – Menzel grew up by Lake Ammersee – are obvious. Her cooking is international but she has a particular predilection for “Young Bavarian Cuisine”. This will not be on offer, however, at our meeting – instead, we will be enjoying traditional Bavarian cuisine. We meet in the Sedlmayr, one of Menzel’s favourite pubs in Munich.
I was already helping out in the kitchen as a young child, and always during the holidays as I got older. And like all children I loved the simple Bavarian classics: Knödel (dumplings, Kaiserschmarrn (sugared pancakes), pretzels.
Why are we meeting in this pub in particular?
I really like this pub. I often came here as a child with my father, particularly during carnival season. And I also know the pub well from my time as an apprentice. I trained in the Blauer Bock, not far from here. We used to meet up here occasionally to enjoy a Weißwurst (white sausage).
So you have deep roots in Bavarian cuisine?
You could say so, yes. Although I was born in Neuss, I moved to Lake Ammersee when I was still a little kid. My father works there as a cook. I was already helping out in the kitchen as a young child, and always during the holidays as I got older. And like all children I loved the simple Bavarian classics: Knödel (dumplings), Kaiserschmarrn (sugared pancakes), pretzels.
So what do you want to eat today?
For nostalgic reasons, I will order white sausages. I know that the cook always gets them fresh and that they are very good.
And what would you recommend for me?
I would advise you to try the roast pork. I would be surprised if it was not good here.
OK, cool. But there are also fancier things on the menu such as calves’ feet.
Yes, I know. They are an integral part of Bavarian and above all Munich cuisine – but their availability is becoming more and more rare.
To see how the Japanese chefs filleted a fish or skinned a cucumber with maximum precision and dedication was very impressive indeed.
Is this food you yourself would also enjoy?
To be honest, no. Recently I ate a grilled calf’s heart. It was very good, a bit like tongue. But tripe is really not for me.
Do you feel like you are back in your apprenticeship days?
Yes, the sausages are still very good. With sweet mustard and a pretzel. Ideal as a morning snack.
As of when did you know that you wanted to cook?
I definitively made the decision only after I had left school when I was working out what I wanted to train as. But then I realised quickly that cooking was my thing.
You then cooked your way through the most diverse restaurants in Munich.
My path was not really planned. Often it's coincidences that determine the next step in a career - I've often found new jobs through recommendations. After my apprenticeship at the Blauer Bock, I wanted to develop myself further and started at the Theresa where I had to work a great deal with meat. Then I joined the Occam Deli. This was quite a challenge because the cuisine here is Jewish with an Oriental influence – I worked with many spices that I simply had never encountered before. The time I spent at the Emiko, the restaurant in the Louis Hotel, was also a very formative time for me.
That’s the famous Japanese restaurant in the Viktualienmarkt (food market).
Yes. Here I came into contact with the Japanese style of cooking. To see how the Japanese chefs filleted a fish or skinned a cucumber with maximum precision and dedication was very impressive indeed.
The roast pork is served.
Ah, here comes my roast pork. What do you think of it?
The sauce looks really good. It is not too dark which means that it has not come from a tube. The meat looks tender, with pork that is important. In general pork is regarded as a difficult meat.
Most of the work, shall we say 80%, is done in your head. You constantly combine ingredients, flavours and preparation methods. Only when you are done with all the thinking, do you start the cooking.
There are many reasons for this. For one thing, we know that pigs just like turkeys are often treated with antibiotics. But there is also the meat itself which has a firm bite. People don’t like that so much these days. And the meat has a strong taste. This too no longer appeals to many people today.
Do you serve pork in the Schwarzreiter?
Yes, but only from selected suppliers. And it is not prepared in the classic way. We take a pork belly, and place it vacuum-packed with herbs for at least four hours in a sous-vide container. We cut off the rind and thump it – it then has a structure similar to the nibbling snack “Pom-Bär” (light teddy bear-shaped crisps). We serve it with white cabbage which we pickle like Korean kimchi, plums and Jerusalem artichoke.
How do you actually invent recipes?
Most of the work, shall we say 80%, is done in your head. You constantly combine ingredients, flavours and preparation methods. Only when you are done with all the thinking, do you start the cooking and then check to see whether the dish tastes in reality as you had imagined it.
What was the last dish you came up with?
It is Bavarian prawns with black garlic and sweetcorn. Black garlic is fermented in its entirety and does not taste as sharp as fresh garlic, but in return has a very distinctive, sweet taste. It is a very good match for the Bavarian prawn which is very soft and creamy.
What really matters to you when you are cooking? What is your philosophy?
This is going to sound a bit banal. The main thing really is that everyone works with precision. In such a kitchen as ours, it can often get very stressful. So remaining calm is important at such times.
We work in a very concentrated way. I take care of those who need my help, mainly the apprentices. I am fair to everyone but also demand respect.
What is the worst thing that can happen?
Roasted meat is always the key concern. Once it is cooked, it must be removed from the pan, left to rest for a short while, and then served. But if the side dishes are not ready, then you have a problem. The worst case scenario is having to roast a new piece of meat all over again. This takes at least another ten minutes. The guests do not appreciate this, and quite right too. We now have thirty dishes in our kitchen so everything has to be timed.
You often hear people talk about the harsh tone which prevails in good kitchens for this very reason.
Yes, this cliché exists. We work in a very concentrated way. I take care of those who need my help, mainly the apprentices. I am fair to everyone but also demand respect. Respect to the role that I hold and above all also to the product.
What would make your patience wear thin?
I don’t like it when a fillet of fish is thrown onto the next worktop, for example. It's not about hygiene, it's about respect for food. I learnt this from the Japanese chefs. But my father too cooks with a great deal of emotional awareness. Cooking has to do with concentration.
What other advice has your father given you?
It didn’t involve any specific advice or recipes. It was more of an observation really: I saw that as a head chef, you need to deploy a calm, friendly authority. That corresponds to my personality, and so I felt I was immediately up to handling the position in the Schwarzreiter. Particularly as I had already worked there before and knew exactly what the procedures were.
Has your father eaten yet in your restaurant?
Of course. And he is very proud. He ate several courses and liked everything very much. It was only the desserts that he did not touch. But he never eats those anyway.
Questionnaire: What does Munich taste like, Mrs. Menzel?