I woke up the next morning at 6am as usual- ugh! Another hour or two would definitely have done me good- but alas, old habits die hard, and despite my exhaustion from the previous day, I was wide awake, if not particularly ready for action. Unfortunately, every muscle and bone in my body was reminding me of its existence and protesting, but they were forced to lift me from my bed and propel me to a refreshing shower and do as they were told. Being as I had realized after my baptism of fire in the kitchen, that the work days were going to be long and hard, I decided to head out into the fresh sea air and enjoy the sound of the crashing waves before it was replaced by the sound of clashing pans.
At 10 am, breakfast again with the team- finally some strong coffee and some home-churned honey on crusty rolls, cold cuts and cheese and down-to-earth fair, whilst we discussed the plans for the day. As Mr. King was doing business elswhere, I pulled on my apron and asked where I could join in- and before I knew what was happening, breakfast was being cleared away and we were on our way into the kitchen to get busy again. It was a wonderful experience to work with a team of young people that were focussed and dedicated to what they were doing and their enthusiasm was infectious. I felt ready for anything, but as everyone knew I was supposed to be heading out to Keitum with Mr. King, I expected to be given smaller, more menial tasks than the 3-4 roasted carcasses of venison that needed to be taken care of... onions or herbs would have been enough! But no, I was shown how to lay the spine on a towel, fold over the ends so as to not hurt my hands so much and twist it and using brute force to snap it into smaller, more manageable sections to chop through. By the time I was finished I felt muscles in my arms that I had never felt before and felt a little bit like a caveman... but in a haute-cuisine kind of way :-)
The roasted bones were then added to celeriac, onion and carrots... LOTS OF celeriac onion and carrots, roasted further in a large vat and then in the classic manner, with the addition of tomato paste, 3-4 large bottles of wine, water, and herbs, reduced down, down, down for the next 3-4 hrs... to produce one small saucepan of very, very rich gravy. Following this, a good amount of "jus" was added, to give added richness and this would then go on to be emulsified with butter and become smoother and more balanced. Serious stuff! All this work goes into the production of something that is a mere detail in the grand scheme of things... and with such care and attention, each an every aspect of the Söl'ring Hof menu is prepared anew every day. Sauces steeped in cardamom and espresso beans, fish broth with fennel and Noilly Prat, all these aromas and more so early in the day, when regular folks are just waking up and smelling the coffee... this is the life of a serious chef and a whole new experience for a star-struck amateur such as myself!
Next- racks of lamb... plenty of them! Scoring down the edge of each rib, then sliding beneath the bone with a paring knife, cutting away the flesh, repeating this along the whole length of the rib cage and then cutting the meat away cleanly. Then of course, scraping each individual bone clean of any sinew or connective tissue, so that they would always remain pristine white during the cooking process... I don't think I will ever complain again about preparing 1-2 portions of ANYTHING at home again! And this is one of the most wonderful things that working in a professional kitchen will do for you- to bring things into perspective. Even cooking for 9-10 people at home, for a party or dinner is a breeze compared to what professional cooks do each an every day. I used to have lots of admiration for professional cooks and now I have an equal amount of deep respect for what they do.
King of the Road
Suddenly Johannes King appeared- with a greeting of "Moin, Moin!" which is the North German equivalent of "good morning!" a greeting that can and IS used until the late hours of the evening in that part of the world- and the announcement that we would be leaving in 5 minutes. This gave me just enough time to pack away the meat into the cool house, wash my hands, dispose of my apron and hurry down to the parking lot. I walked longingly past the Rolls Royce ( ;-) ) and waited below to see which vehicle we would be driving in, totally charmed to find that it was a down-to-earth Volkswagen Touran. This is the most important aspect for me I think about Johannes King- that everything is in balance and makes sense, with no unnecessary pretentiousness simply for the sake of it.
Surreally, I found myself sitting in the passenger seat, next to one of my culinary heroes as he drove me across his beloved island, chatting and passing comment on this and that on the way. "There goes the train!" he exclaimed, and just as I was about to shrug, I realized it was the train that transported cars over from the mainland, which is how one gets to the island from the mainland if they do not fly to Westerland as I did. The train zoomed by, as did the lush, green landscape and the sea- and in just 10 minutes or so we were there, at Johannes King's Genuss Shop in Keitum!
Before I continue to tell you all about the shop, the staff and what went on that day, I find it only fitting and absolutely charming to tell you that the first thing that Johannes King did upon our arrival, was to immediately search for his partner Selina. Yet again he had done something to make me find him ever more endearing and accessible as a human being, in my humble esteem. As incredibly busy, focussed and indeed stressed by all of the myriad aspects of his career and his life, it was clear where his priorities were- what a nice guy!
And what a lovely lady Selina was- bright, bubbly... but every bit as focussed! After brief introductions and a quick tour of the kitchen and shop, Johannes was on his way and I found myself in a new work environment with new colleagues for the day. Felix was the friendly, quiet, cool, calm and collected one-man kitchen showmaster, and Lilli and Franziska were the service staff along with Selina. Immediately I felt welcome and comfortable and began helping where I could. The set-up at the shop is much more basic and there is no staff employed to take care of doing the dishes constantly, as is the case at Sölring Hof, so that is a constant aspect of the running of the kitchen. I found myself alternating between doing that, prepping vegetables, skinning fish, and even shaping, coating and packing wonderful fresh and cooled coconut pralines... and everyone else was just as busy, multi-tasking away and keeping things running constantly and smoothly. Selina would come into the kitchen, deliver the orders from the guests and Felix would get busy preparing the salads, sandwiches and desserts which are the staples of the lunch-time menu.
Order a simple snack at Johannes King's Genuss Shop and it will look like nothing you will get anywhere else. Rich, malty bread which is toasted in butter until it is even crispier and more delicious is then topped with herb-infused cream cheese, fish, radishes, spouts, shoots and wild herbs, dressed with such wonderful things as, for example, their own self-made leek oil... the result is at the same time simple, subtle and spectacularly sublime! Salads are assembled from whichever herbs the garden in Morsum has to offer, fresh vegetables and incredible dressings... and the desserts! Oh! I better stop and get back to my story!
The other aspect of course is the shop itself, which sells a number of fine wines, oils and even local fresh meat and fish of the highest quality. And a whole range of products that are personal favorites of King himself, from around the globe, which mingle with all of his signature specialites- my favorite of which are the candied orange peels. Forget even the most exquisite Sicilian versions of this (sacrilege I know!), but these things will knock you for six! Such an explosion of sweet, subtle, citrus flavor- the balance here is pure perfection. No matter what you think- you WILL love these! BEautiful hand-crafted cookies in maritime shapes and delicate colors, herb and spice mixes, cake mixes which are packed in bottles and decorative gift boxes with truffels and champagne... wherever you look you will find wonderful things to inspire and entice!
So again, I had many, many thing to take in and plenty of adjusting to do after my day at Söl'ring Hof- and just as I was settling down, Felix announced that he thought it would be a great idea if I would make the staff meal. Zoiks! There were off-cuts of the crispy bread that get transformed into the wonderful snacks that you have seen above and plenty of them- how about a nice "Panzanella", an Italian bread and tomato salad? Panicking a little, as I had been put on the spot, I began to piece together a few ingredients and get to work... what on earth would they think of my rustic efforts compared to these culinary highlights? Of course there was only one way to find out!
Food for Friends
I put together a dressing out of orange and lemon zest, which I first blanched in sugared water for a minute or so to remain the bitterness, then chopped very finely, then added the juice of both, the centers of the tomatoes, finely chopped, a little tabasco, a little vinegar, a squeeze of honey, salt, pepper and a hint of mustard. I popped into the garden and picked fresh oregano, thyme, mint and sage... sadly there was no basil, so improvisation was the rule of the day. I sliced the tomatoes, some cucumber, radishes and Spring onion and then mixed all of this together with the crispy bread. The result was pretty delicious even if I do say so myself! Felix agreed- the girls ate too... even Selina ate her portion a little later on- and as far as I know, they are all still alive and well today! Best of all though, Felix put together a nice dessert for us with fresh strawberries, cream and crumble- swoon! Already this was becoming a day to remember- but there was more yet to come!
We kept busy until after 8pm, cooking, washing up and cleaning the whole time- but then the cleaning proper had to be done of course. All of the plates, glasses, cutlery, pots and pans... surfaces, stove tops, floors and counters... and at around 9.30 it was finally time to call it a day, take a couple of group photos... and head back to Söl'ring Hof to assist there with the evening service!
Fortunately for me, the lovely Lilly drove me back to the hotel, whizzing along in her little Mini through the still sunny fields and countryside, so that I was slipping in through the side door, sliding up the spiral staircase to the restaurant and show kitchen and reporting for duty at 10pm! I was exhausted but exited still- so much that this all didn't particularly seem like madness... although of course it was!
Warm greetings from my colleagues, a beaming smile from Mr. King and back I was, in front of Söl'ring Hof's elegant clientelle and trying not to look like a wreck! After humoring me for 10-15 minutes, Mr. King called me to one side and invited me down to the wine cellar for a chat and a well-deserved glass of wine. Strangely enough, I think I felt more like the king than he did at that moment! Haha! This was all so very, very nice!
One for the Road
A few minutes later, we were standing together before a selection of fine wines, port, liquors and champagne and of course I was asked the dreaded question of what I would like to drink! Well, what else could I do, other than be honest? "Mr. King", I said "I am no connoisseur- I can't claim to be knowledgeable and I am sure that whatever you offer me will be wonderful." And of course- I didn't feel to good about it... but for sure it was better to be truthful! He smiled and said, "just a moment", then disappeared and returned a couple of minutes later with two glasses of wine.
We sat down and he place the two glasses on the table in front of me and encouraged me to smell them both. "Choose whichever one takes your fancy", he said, "and I will take the other one- no problem". And he smiled. I did as I was told and chose a glass. "This one!" I said and took a sip. His smile faded for just a mili-second, then came back broader than ever. I asked what kind of wine it was that I had chosen and he began to explain in quite some detail, the name of the vintner, the region, the type and the vintage of what I was drinking. Of course, not being much of a drinker, not much of this sank in to be truthful, as after just a couple of sips it went straight to my head. The detail that remained in my memory was that the wine I chose was a LOT more expensive than the one he was left with. But he clapped me on the shoulder, ordered me to relax and enjoy and then make my way home for the night and then returned to his guests. "Good night Francesco- see you in the morning!" had never sounded so good!
I made my way home, more than a little dizzy from the hard work, the new experiences, people and places and stumbled into my little room. into the shower and finally into bed. Sleep had never been so sweet! And there was so much more that lay ahead!