Munich offers world-class opportunities to experience the major culinary trends of our time, featuring regional and vegetarian cuisine, fusion cuisine and the new desire for meat.
My story almost falls apart before it’s even begun… Hans Haas, the head chef with two Michelin stars at Tantris in Munich-Schwabing and one of the best and most famous cooks in the country, turns down my invitation. “You want to write about trends?”, asks Haas. “That’s not what I do. I’m not interested in trends. I don’t just cook whatever’s currently in fashion.
But my article was supposed to be about the most important and exciting gastronomic developments that can be observed and enjoyed at the moment: firstly, vegetarian cuisine; secondly, the new desire for meat (and that’s not a contradiction – more on that later); thirdly, fusion cuisine, so the combination of two national food cultures; and fourthly, the rediscovery of homeliness and regionality. Hans Haas represents the latter like no other. And after much hesitation, he thankfully agrees to answer some of my questions and even serve up a small dish. But only on one condition: “Write that I’ve always cooked regional cuisine. I was doing that before it was even a thing”.
“The difficulty lies in the simplicity. The product has to be right, all the ingredients have to fit, and everything has to go well together.”
Haas comes from Wildschönau in Tyrol, where his parents ran a small farm. He raves about the bacon and beans that his mother used to make for him. You could say that his whole culinary career has only one goal, which is to reproduce the taste of this simple dish. When he took on the role of head chef at Tantris in 1991, he built up a base of local suppliers. His beef comes from the nearby Tyrol, his lamb is sourced in Lower Bavaria, and his vegetables are grown on the outskirts of Munich.
His food is amazingly down-to-earth. Haas rarely serves lobster and smiles when he thinks about his colleagues who work with test tubes and tweezers. He doesn’t see himself as a star in a high-tech laboratory. He’s a humble dinner servant. “The difficulty lies in the simplicity. The product has to be right, all the ingredients have to fit, and everything has to go well together”.
He now proves this by serving the only dish which, similar to his braised beef cheeks, is a mainstay on the menu: lukewarm calf’s head with horseradish beans. He’s very careful and almost shy as he puts the plates on the table. He’s made a terrine out of the calf’s head. You’d have to invent new words to describe it… It’s so tender, soft, juicy, slightly sweet and meaty. It’s the best sweet in the world, and in perfect harmony with the spiciness and crunchiness of the horseradish beans and the thin, toasted bread.
Haas clearly cooks regional cuisine – but on a world-class level. And he obviously doesn’t just follow trends. But he’s never been trendier than he is now at the age of 61, even though he might not like to hear that. But perhaps trends aren’t such a bad thing after all; they just reflect human curiosity and the joy of discovery and rediscovery. “Anyone who goes to a restaurant is always looking for a new and special experience”, says Tohru Nakamura, head chef at Werneckhof by Geisel, also in Schwabing. Nakamura was awarded his second Michelin star in 2016 and is considered one of the most exciting chefs in Germany. He’s described in the newspapers as the “Samurai Chef” and the “German-Japanese Master Chef”.
“Anyone who goes to a restaurant is always looking for a new and special experience.”
The incredibly modern combination of European-French haute cuisine with Asian influences is not just on Nakamura’s menu; it’s also in his blood: His father is Japanese, his mother German. Fusion was part of everyday family life. Nakamura recalls how his mother would always season normal chicken soup with soy sauce. But he also says, “We might have a lot of Japanese elements in our dishes, but it’s not traditional Japanese cuisine. As soon as butter and crème fraîche are foamed up in a classically prepared dashi, I no longer see it as Japanese. I don’t set myself any fixed boundaries”.
Nakamura exudes an almost monk-like tranquillity. He stares straight ahead as he talks, his words spoken in an elegant and flawless manner as if he were reading them off the wall behind me. He occasionally wipes some phantom dust from his spotless tablecloths. Nakamura says the typically German side of his personality is reflected by his precision and discipline. Of course, you could say the Japanese are often described like that as well. But perhapsthese attributes aren’t that important anyway. Perhaps it’s not even important whether Nakamura’s cooking is French or Japanese or even both – it’s just about how well he cooks.
Nakamura serves trout marinated in koji. Koji is a type of mould that is frequently used in Asian cuisine. As I take my first bite, it seems like quite an unusual combination. But the nutty andearthy Asian flavours of the koji mysteriously manage to bring out the taste of the trout. It’s a firm, springy, fresh flavour that I never even knew existed, and one that I just can’t get enough of. As I watch the guests leave Werneckhof between half ten and eleven o’clock in the evening, I catch a glimpse of several happy faces. The faces belong to people who have gone on an adventure and experienced something new.
Perhaps good chefs really are like tour guides who take us on a journey through new worlds of flavours. These are sometimes exotic, and at other times they’re strangely familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. “Many people don’t know how vegetables can actually taste”, says Paul Ivic, the Culinary Director of the TIAN Restaurant in Vienna and at Munich’s Viktualienmarkt food market. His restaurant in Vienna was awarded a Michelin star in 2014, and Munich is soon to follow. When Ivic started cooking at TIAN in Vienna in 2011, almost all his guests were women. They would order a salad and mineral water and leave again, presumably on their way to yoga. But Ivic’s goal is precisely to rid vegetarian cuisine of its avocado and abstinence image. “I want to delight people with my creations”.
“Many people don’t know how vegetables can actually taste.”
Ivic puts in a tremendous amount of effort. And money. “The meat and bones for my gravy cost four to five euros. But I need mushrooms to make my vegetable stock – and lots of them – and that costs 15 euros”. When you eat from the menu at TIAN, you never feel like you’re missing anything, or like you could do with a nice piece of meat or fish. Every piece of carrot and cabbage triggers an explosion of flavours in your mouth. His poached eggs are the definition of eggy heaven, and his celery tastes just the way it should.
“I’ve never considered vegetarian cuisine to be hyped or trendy; it’s another option to showcase the diversity of the cooking world”, says Ivic. 90% of guests at both his TIAN restaurants are now meat eaters who fancy a bit of vegetarian cuisine. “It’s ultimately about serving a good product”, says Ivic. And Dominik Käppeler would surely agree. Käppeler is the head chef and leaseholder of the Michelin-starred Showroom Restaurant. He has a firm handshake, a Bavarian twang (even though he comes from Swabia), and a product made with motherly love and home cooking. “I don’t like the word ‘trend’”, says Käppeler. “But people are now definitely more interested in good meat again”. And it’s true: There’s a growing demand for organic meat – and for restaurants that sell steak starting at 50 euros.
“Appropriate farming techniques are not just important for animal welfare, but also for the taste. Meat only tastes good when the animals are well nourished, have lots of space to roam and aren’t given any hormones.”
Käppeler could talk about good meat for hours. Some of his beef is sourced from a waygu breeder in Tegernsee. “Appropriate farming techniques are not just important for animal welfare, but also for the taste. Meat only tastes good when the animals are well nourished, have lots of space to roam and aren’t given any hormones”. But correct breeding isn’t the only thing. After slaughter, meat has to mature for four weeks at an air temperature of just over zero degrees in a process known as “dry ageing”. This makes it softer and more tender. It also creates spectacular flavours ranging from hazelnut to blue cheese.
The meat is then hung up and slow cooked for hours before searing. When I ask Käppeler which temperature he uses, he shakes his head in horror like a magician might do when asked to reveal his best trick. He then serves a small slice from the shoulder – “this is streaked, which means it’ll be tasty. Sirloin is really just for meat eaters who don’t like meat”. The slice looks so nice that you hardly want to eat it with its dark brown crust and red shimmering core. If you do end up putting it in your mouth, you hardly want to chew it, because the flavour is just so intense. It’s like an organ being played right in your head and then getting louder and louder. Its taste is deafeningly, nerve-rackingly and breathtakingly good. And Dominik Käppeler is standing next to me, grinning and nodding happily. He knows his efforts have paid off.
And being a top chef is all about perfecting enjoyment. All four cooks on our trend trip have completely different talents, interests and stories. But they also have lots in common. They all shy away from the word “trend”, and they all get very enthusiastic when talking about life’s simple pleasures: Besides his mother’s bacon and beans, Haas loves buttermilk; Nakamura raves about a bowl of pure rice; vegetarian chef Paul Ivic is infatuated with the Tyrolean bacon sent by his father; and meat chef Käppeler could live off fried eggs for the rest of his life. At the end of the day, all four of them strive for the same thing: “The most important thing is making our customers happy”, says Hans Haas. And that’s probably a trend that will never go away.