Sunday, 21 July 2013

Seeing Stars (Part 1)

Northward Bound

If you had told me a year ago that I would spend a week in the kitchen of a Michelin Star Chef, I would have told you that you were crazy. If you had mentioned the name Johannes King, one of the Chefs that I admire most in the whole world,  I would first have laughed out loud and THEN told you that you were crazy! And yet 2 days after the event... after a week assisting and participating in the creation of undoubtedly the most wonderful and awe-inspiring food I have ever had the privilege to taste... I look back at what has been the most exciting week of my life!

The whole story is unbelievable... based on a harmless exchange on the internet, I received an invitation from Mr. King himself to come visit and cook for a couple of days at the beautiful Söl'ring Hof in Rantum on the island of Sylt. Although I assured Mr. King that I am no more than an avid amateur, dates were arranged, plans were made, flights were booked and in a state of extreme nervousness and excitement I was on my way...

As coincidence and luck would have it, a fellow internet friend from Frankfurt was flying to Sylt at the same time- so my departure was doubly exciting as I got to meet someone new and share the flight in company... for the incredibly short time of one whole hour! Oliver was a charming fellow, full of smiles and good humor- and the short trip over was not to be the only time we would meet... but that's another story!

Land Ahoy!

Upon arriving at the tiny and oh-so-quaint airport, Oliver introduced me to his friend Miriam and her children Merlin and Maud- sweet kids! And yes- I would meet them all again too... but later! Whilst being introduced, another jovial fellow turned up having overheard my name being mentioned... Rainer from Söl'ring Hof who had arrived to pick me up! This kind of attention to guests was something that I would learn is commonplace and part of the philosophy of Johannes King's wonderful hotel and restaurant: the staff observe and register meticulously their guests likes, dislikes, wishes, without comment, without being intrusive... and as if by magic, each guest is treated and served just as they wish... without them ever needing to ask! For example, if a guest orders a dish from the menu on one night and it happens to be on the menu again a day or two later, should they return, they will receive an alternative dish offered on their menu, so that there is never any repetition and so that the experience is always new and exciting... unless of course they should expressly wish for the same again. This was all totally new and so wonderful to me! A whole new world!

Chatting with Rainer on the drive through the lush, green landscape of this tiny, windblown North German island, I soon became a little more relaxed, although I was indeed very nervous about what lay ahead. And just when I began to feel calm, there we were- at the gated driveway to Söl'ring Hof, Rolls Royce parked before the door, a beautiful residence sparkling white and elegant... and my legs began to tremble again! Inside- pure luxury wherever I cared to cast a glimpse- and there was so very much to see! But first- a warm welcome from Melanie at the reception desk and strong coffee to calm me down!

I was then given a quick tour of the hotel, given bed linen and towels and taken to the little guest house across the way where a couple of the other cooks stayed whilst on the island- oh no, of course I did not stay at the hotel itself for the duration! But the house was small, charming and perfectly adequate for my needs... which I would discover would consist of a quick shower and a deep sleep from exhaustion and little else! 

I quickly dropped off my case, changed into black pants and the cooks jacket and apron that would become my daily attire for the next week and rushed back across the road to a 10 o'clock breakfast with the rest of the cooking crew. On my way, I bumped into Andreas Sondej, the head chef and Johannes King's right-hand man in the kitchen, who I already recognized from the internet. A firm handshake and a few minutes later, we were colleagues and before I knew it I was sitting at a bustling table with many more... Lars, Marius, Anja, Moritz, Maximilian, Bernd, Florian... all new faces and names that I would become familiar with over the course of the next few days. Nibbling on my breakfast and trying not to show how nervous I was, I tried to make sense of the exchanges being made... but of course it was much to complicated and new for me at that stage. Cautious smiles and nods were probably as much as I could manage if I remember correctly! But sure enough, people wanted to know who I was, how I came to be there and as soon as I began chatting, it became clear that these were good and friendly people who were going to take care of me for the week- even if I wasn't a real cook. And before I knew it- we were clearing away the breakfast trolley and heading towards the kitchen! Real cook or not- just an hour after my arrival on the island I was getting ready for work! 

If you can't stand the noise...

The first thing that struck me about the kitchen, was how loud it was! It took me a while to get used to the sounds of fans, clashing metal of pots and pans, fetching, carrying, just simply real work! This was no home kitchen here! And the smell- which to this day I have not managed to place- something other-wordly for me; a blend of herbs and rich sauces, fresh vegetables, meat, fish... but some strange aroma was the result of this all that I cannot for the life of me describe! I think the best word I can use is RICHNESS. Not in the sense of exclusive or expensive- which of course many of the ingredients were, but even the simple fruits and vegetables were all here in their purest form and essentially that is the way they are presented to the clientelle. King's cuisine is one of pure flavors- spice is used sparingly, herbs abundantly and I would say that 80% of ingredients used are of local or at least of German origin. Of course there are things like chocolate, vanilla and spice, a few exotic fruits or vegetables, but on the whole it is regional and sustainable in essence. Many of the herbs and vegetables are indeed grown in the gardens in Morsum, and even much of the fish is angled on the coast by Rainer himself! Oh yes- this IS an amazing place!

So I was soon given chopping and peeling to do, filling the huge pans with roasted venison bones, celery, onion, carrots, wine and plenty of them to cook down to a rich, luxurious "jus" to be used to make the sauces for the evening... it soon became clear that the whole day would be spent simply preparing for when the guests arrived, so that the exquisite dishes could be created in the "show-kitchen" above. There is no lunch at Sölring Hof, only breakfast and the outrageously wonderful evening meals. In the background, young Marius was taking care of creating the patisserie, the sweet nothings that were indeed like nothing I had ever tasted! Maximilian was busy preparing the cauliflower focaccia which was as delicious tasting as it is simple sounding. Bernd was busy serving up fresh breakfasts still to the guests upstairs... Andreas organizing and orchestrating along with Lars and Anja keeping me busy and explaining the procedures for the preparation of what lay ahead. The fact that these culinary works of art are created before the guests very eyes in the evening began to sink in... I would be standing right there in front of them too! Ouch! There was yet another thought to keep me nervous and under pressure! And just as I began to deal with that thought, I felt a hand on my shoulder, turned around- and there was Johannes King himself!

Enter The King

There are a number of things that make Johannes King my favorite German cook and indeed a favorite of all the cooks I admire. He is a very straightforward and down-to-earth fellow, very clear and concise at all times, passionate about what he does, always concentrated and concerned with offering his guests only the best at all times... oh- and he is not any taller than me! lol! Always jovial and with an undeniable charisma, this guy is all about cooking, creating and the un-translatable German word "Genuss", which essentially stands for enjoyment and appreciation of food and drink. After a quick hello, another firm handshake and an unavoidable question of whether everything was ok, he left me to it! Just like that- back to work- just like everyone else! So, now that I had finally seen my mentor and was over the initial nerves, I got busy, working blindly and doing whatever was asked... thrilled that I was able to manage- but still having no idea what on earth the result of my labors was going to be! 

I was given 2 big crates of langoustines to prepare- not that I had ever eaten one before in my life, never mind cooking them! Large, spiny and rather vicious looking, Anja showed me what I needed to do... twist off the head and the spiny legs and pincers, then wrapping them in a towel and cracking the outer scales with gentle but firm pressure, snapping them open and gently pulling out the flesh and then pulling out the intestines with tweezers- easy! Now, just do that with 40-50 of them Francesco! My hands were sore, scratched and freezing cold by the time I was finished, but I felt good! This was exciting new stuff! This is what I was here for after all! And just as I was starting to get into the swing of things- a call from the far side of the kitchen, "Francesco!"- the man himself was calling! Suddenly the nerves were there again! Off I went, ushered into a wine-tasting room and library situated next to the wine cellar, for a little chat with one of my cooking heroes! 

Of course, Mr. King wanted to know a little more about this fellow he had invited all the way from Frankfurt... who at 45 was almost twice the age of the other members of the team! So I told my little story and he was interested in the fact that I am an experienced packaging designer... my Sicilian background, growing up in England, the size of my family, this little blog of mine and my most beloved hobby of cooking and photography... and it suddenly became apparent that this was a warm, kind and good person. He was happy to give me the chance to experience, first hand, what cooking in the serious, professional and elite class was all about. If there is one thing that is for sure, it is that Mr. King is a man that likes to give and share- both knowledge and experience. Suddenly I WAS calm and everything was good- the only excitement I was feeling was about having so very many new things to learn ahead of me. And before I knew it- I was back out in the kitchen, it was around 4.30pm in the afternoon- and the scene that welcomed me was pretty chaotic! One shock after another on my first day- but here I was, in the midst of it all and still in a crazy adrenalin rush!

Will Work for Food

All of the food, sauces, bits and pieces were gone, there was steam everywhere and the floor was inches deep in water! Anja had tipped up the huge vat of sauce for the venison, disposed of all of the bones and vegetables and was scrubbing out the gigantic container, Marius was spraying water over to the stove top in order to both clean and cool it, all of the grates had been lifted from the floor and smaller pieces of waste that had fallen were being rinsed away and the other guys were scrubbing the surfaces clean... so, what else could I do be join in! This felt strange- it wasn't even 5pm and were were tidying everything away! But of course we had transported everything upstairs to the show-kitchen in the restaurant on the first floor, ready for later- many containers of selected herbs, all of the meat, fish and sauces, vegetables and desserts had made their twice-daily migration... first everything went UP- and much, much later in the evening, the left-overs would all be transported back down. This is a rather stressful undertaking, but it allows Sölring Hof to let the guests see the magic that these wonderful young cooks perform- along, of course, with the Head Magician himself!

It was suddenly 5pm and I realized how tired and hungry I was! And time for our break and our meal for the day- a huge pot of pasta with tomato sauce... simple and filling and perfect to feed the hungry staff! The staff meals are always simple and very down-to-earth, but it is a good time for all to sit together, calm down and rest from the break-neck tempo of the day and to start building up some strength for the evening! After eating, we all headed off down to the beach- just a 2-3 minute stroll along a private  boardwalk... time to take in the view, the clear sea air and to hang out and relax a little.

This was time to call loved ones on the phone (there is no cell-phone or internet during working hours in the kitchen), check out online what had been going on in the world and to clear our heads and get ready for the evening. The other boys from the kitchen (I felt so old!!) were all chatting with their girlfriends or families, who often times were located far away... this is a small island after all and the majority of people working there come in from the outside. All the time, vacationers would pass us going to and fro along the boardwalk, and I would wonder how on earth they could stand to do so in such windy and chilly weather! People in North Germany are tough cookies! But as cold as the weather is, they are good natured, jovial and have warm hearts- I do have to say, they were some of the friendliest people I have ever met!

The Calm before The Storm

Back indoors and up the spiral staircase to the restaurant and show-kitchen. Girls clipping and arranging flowers, the young cooks heating a myriad of sauces gently, a million and one delicate components for the edible artworks that were about to be created before the very eyes of the Söl'ring Hof guests... and my first glimpse of exactly what kind of dishes have earned and rightly so, the numerous Gault Milleau points and the Michelin stars. And still, everything, though busy, was calm and organized, a polished machine that was simply beginning to warm up. There was a sense of anticipation in the air and we all congregated stage right, out of sight for the meantime until the evening guests began to arrive. Because once things got going, we would be in plain view the whole time and I was very aware of the standard that needed to be maintained. Everyone else was calm... but I was battling with a strong case of culinary stage-fright!

Food fit for a King

The first dishes I saw of course, were appetizers... but like nothing I had ever seen before to put it mildly! One, served on a spotless, white, beautiful calf bone rather than a plate, was a mild cream cheese, flavored with herbs, which was piped onto the bone and then decorated with Spring onion, carrot or swede, delicate roasted potato and a variety of wild herbs- whatever the garden had been good enough to offer on any given day. The principle of the dish remains the same, but it is reincarnated each day according to what is freshest and best. Sprinkled with "earth", made of roasted, or even charred fennel, this looks like mini vegetables that have freshly been dug up from a Spring garden... adventurous and delightful! 

Another, served on an oyster shell, was a different cream cheese, piped in 4 spots, with 2 crispy tail-ends of a North Sea shrimp on one side and 2 heads on the other- looking like they were ducking under and diving out of the shell- pure whimsy of course- and surprisingly edible and awesomely delicious- crispy and intense in the most wonderful way.

Little roasted jacket-potatoes are wrapped in brown paper and served piping hot as a welcome, bite-sized paper-thin bread chips with creamed goat cheese and fresh herbs, radishes and fish, all delicate, light and other-wordly... this isn't you average restaurant and the meal has not even begun!

Other dishes like the signature bouillabaisse, with 4 kinds of fish, a number of assorted muscles and the richest, creamiest, foamiest soup, langoustines served on a pan-fried cauliflower focaccia, with fresh, delicate vegetables, guinea fowl breast on a cream of mushroom, turbot... lamb... langoustines... oysters... it goes on and on!

On that first evening, there was too much going on for me to take it all in- I was in overdrive and had been the whole day since 5am! Just as I began to discover the dessert creations and assist with preparing them, came Johannes King, with a beaming smile (as always) and announced I should have an early night after my long day and get some rest... and that in the morning I would travel with him to his "Genuss Shop" in Keitum.

Dancing in the Moonlight

So I stumbled out of the door, the house now more beautiful than ever, illuminated in the twilight (it stays light till at least 11pm there!) and took a deep breath of the sea air. I walked- no... I actually RAN to the beach and almost had to wipe away a tear of happiness- this was the most exciting time of my life- and I was right there in the middle of it with so much more to come!

I made my way back to the house, made my bed and stumbled into the shower... yes I DID smell of every possible food smell you can imagine (as cooks simply must!), but I got myself refreshed and lay down in bed, exhausted and aching all over. I picked up my cellphone and tried to send a message back home, but found that nothing I was typing was coming out as a coherent word at all... I was SO TIRED! This was not like me at all! And it was a feeling that I liked very much. I rolled over and slept like a bay- which is also not like me at all! 7 full hours of sleep was a good thing! And tomorrow was another day... and another adventure...


  1. Such a nice story and trip, Francesco. Thank you for participating.
    Cheers, Birgit

  2. I'm glad you like it Birgit! I will post more this evening :-)