What’s the next generation of German chefs doing? To be sure, the development on the top, in the three star segment, has been breath-taking in the last couple of years – chefs like Juan Amador, Christian Bau, Thomas Bühner, Klaus Erfort, Nils Henkel and Joachim Wissler have improved significantly and developed very distinctive own handwritings, all at a consistently high level. This poses the question whether they are the only culinary pacemakers in Germany? In other countries, there are many young chefs that left their mark in the culinary world by creating a unique approach or selling a comprehensive and coherent dining experience. Among others, René Redzepi (obviously needs to be mentioned here but he is already somehow established), Kobe Desmaraults of In de Wulf, the whole bistronomia movement or more recently the ‘le fooding’ group in France have demonstrated that you don’t need three or even any Michelin stars to become a destination dining restaurant.
And how’s the situation like in Germany? Between 25-35 there are a couple of upcoming and very promising chefs – but, most of them are known only in Germany and have not yet achieved bigger awareness. Let us start a new series on the most promising young chefs and apply the case study method to investigate.
Kevin Fehling has a somewhat different CV than many of his German colleagues of this generation. After his apprenticeship at the Hotel Thomsen in Delmenhorst he served several mostly one-year stints in Bremen (Parkhotel and L’Echalote), Hamburg (Wollenberg and Piment) and on the MS Europa before he worked for Harald Wohlfahrt at the Schwarzwaldstube in 2004. One year later he was the Sous-Chef of a very traditional one star restaurant in Travemünde called Wullenwever. Then, at age 27 he became chef cuisine at the restaurant La Belle Epoque in Lübeck-Travemünde, received his first star early on and the second in November 2010.
Obviously, without being coined by an important chef over a longer period of time there was no need for a long and hard emancipation period and thus he had been able to work on a distinct style from his start at La Belle Epoque (LBE henceforth).
La Belle Epoque is located in the Hotel Casino Columbia in Travemünde just at the see promenade. The hotel has been re-opened in 2003 in the old Conversationshaus of 1914 that also houses the Travemünde Casino. Overall, the interior is quite settled and builds on many Belle Epoque elements from the early last century. The clear and modern restaurant itself is on the second floor and offers a spectacular view of the seaside – if it would be open for lunch that would be my favorite choice for a meal there.
When I dined at LBE in January one could choose from two menus – as it was too difficult to actually make a decision I let Kevin Fehling cook for me. Brilliant decision because he served both menus with one classic course and one dessert:-)
This closely resembled the current offer as now there is only one menu left starting from 4 courses at 95€ to a full 9 course journey at 170€ (comprising two alternative cold starters, two main course choices and two desserts).
The evening started off with one of my favorite Champagnes, Jacquesson Cuvee No. 734. The ‘7’ series of this small house is produced as a Grand Cuvee with the 734 being based on the 2006 vintage and some reserve wines from 2005 (22%) and 2004 (5%). It consists of 54% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 26% Pinot Meunier. With its characteristic low dosage, distinct Chardonnay nose and its subtle but distinct minerality it clearly stands out in the price range (retail about 35€). A perfect start…
The first nibble, a crustacean macaron with basil pesto and aioli, resembled a modern version of a Bouillabaisse and Fehling tried to present the essence of the well-known accord of freshness, intensity, herbal notes and slight spiciness due to the aioli. As for many macarons serving both sides (top and bottom) let the macaron texture and its crustacean flavor dominate the other elements. With only the bottom this would have been perfect.
Then, a nice cigarette style presentation where the glass cylinder was filled with coconut jelly and caviar. Unfortunately the coconut was to strong for the caviar. The kitchen team served this ‘sniff’ for the first time and removed it from the menu after the evening…
Another deconstruction as Fehling played with the flavors of the famous Prairie Oyster cocktail traditionally made of raw egg yolk, Worchester sauce, salt, pepper and Tabasco. His version was quite refined and captured the core of the cocktail: a slightly hot marinade for the tartar, a real oyster, a quail egg yolk and an (indeed useful) air of Tabasco/tomato aroma. Quite refined and excellent!
This last amuse was very easy to approach but then showed much more complexity than expected. At first, the gooseliver ice cream stated: ‘This is just yummy’, then the Jerusalem artichoke espuma kicked in as it broadened the flavor interplay. Digging deeper, there was a fig ragout that added sweetness and found its counterpart in the deliberately dimensioned sherry vinegar jelly cubes. Finally, some crunch from the dried artichokes balanced this dish. Excellent to outstanding.
Interestingly, Fehling served the foie ice cream with Jerusalem artichoke espuma before but only with some orange zests. This new version is clearly more advanced.
After the rather ‘loud’ last amuse the first course was toned down, a subtle, delicate and elaborate cold starter with perfect langoustine pieces being the stars. Fehling gently marinated the medallions with red pepper and ginger oil such that the langoustine still shined but had a slightly hot touch. For the diner, the degustation was straightforward as every medallion had its accompanying elements (a tiny piece of almond, blood orange jelly, shiso cress, a thin slice of buddha’s hand lemon) centered around it and thus a spoon could automatically capture the right combination. Only two almond pieces were slightly too big such that the resulting accord was a bit out of balance. Overall, a very refined and almost ‘quiet’ course where the diner must listen carefully – excellent.
This (other and normally served alternatively) cold starter was a bit louder and came up with a surprising element as the truffle cubes created a nice earthy counterpart to the salty sea flavors of the fresh scallops. Basically the truffles picked up on the beet chips that added more than only texture whereas the acidity of the apple served as the perfect backbone. Excellent to outstanding.
A signature dish of Kevin Fehling, a very astonishing accord that creates suspense and delicacy. The combination of caviar, beetroot and the pickles crowned the wonderful tartar all best on the fresh and hot horseradish. Overall a very fitting mosaic of seemingly unrelated parts. Excellent.
The taste of the sea! A wonderful beach association as the seaweed and algae formed a kind of ‘sea ragout’ as the fundament for the perfect loup. The intense but not to dominant ‘unagi’ eel (freshwater eel grilled, marinated in a kind of terriyaki sauce and then grilled again in a quite complex and time-consuming procedure) and the wonderful sea sand (on kroepoek basis with algae) were perfect companions. As a contrast a bit of yuzu gel added the necessary freshness as well as acidity and balanced the dish. Only the basmati rice air could not really contribute much – excellent to outstanding.
Another step-up in intensity: the tender carabinero served with a broth based on roasted potato and cold sour cream espuma (together resembling an oven potato with sour cream) was intrinsically yummy, whereas the different beetroot structures, the pulpo as hearty seasoning, the Jamon(potato peel combination and the different temperatures made this dish really special. Excellent to outstanding.
The most problematic dish given my expectations when I saw the ‘4x chicken’ on the menu. I thought to get a transparent variation around the chicken theme. The dense cocotte presentation struck me and the accord was too classic for me… Fehling used four chicken elements: sot l’y laisse, chicken broth, an egg yolk and some chicken skin crumble served with a classic parsley puree, Alba truffles and a false Pamesan risotto – false as this was jellied parmesan in form of little rice corns. Somehow this was a bit of over-engineering as the surely delicate ‘risotto’ could not stand up against the other flavors. Also, I had the feeling that a bridge between all these elements was missing and it would have needed a bit more seasoning. Yet, an overall very good dish but without the surprising edges of the previous dishes.…
A parade of lamb pieces was up next: fried leg confit, braised leg, and back whereas the back parts were a bit chewy. In our discussion later Fehling told me that he recognised that in the kitchen but the whole delivery was like that as it was not aged enough. Somehow, like the chicken this was less structuralistic and the flavors were more on the classic side. Only the interplay of the hot japalenos and the goat cheese cream turned out to be interesting accentuated by a contrast in temperatures. Again I had the feeling that less would have been more, especially the pointed cabbage was a bit repetitive herbal and was rather unremarkable in light of the intense peas-mint combination. Very good to excellent.
The second main was more purist and clear in presentation with the sea buckthorn adding an intense and surprising touch. I had to ignore the strong Maggi emulsion and then it turned into an excellent course…
The main plate (depicted above) was accompanied by a bowl of lukewarm white chocolate espuma on top of quite an amount of dill jelly. As I am a big chocolate lover I had to try the espuma first and this ruined the degustation as it was much too strong for the other ‘green’ protagonists. Moreover, I was missing a link between the chocolate and the rest… I still wonder whether the service had told me to eat the espuma with the dill jelly underneath. Maybe a thin coating of dill jelly over the espuma would have worked in that it could have programmed the diner for the herbal core…
Two petit fours, one interpretation of the ‘Sex on the Beach’ cocktail and a combination of yoghurt sorbet, passion fruit and pistachio concluded the meal…
A splendid dinner, excellent and in terms of execution, creativity and product quality absolutely worth two stars. Especially the scallops, the loup and the carabineros were memorable dishes – although I had a slight feeling that both the chicken and the lamb course seemed more classic in flavor construction and less transparent – somehow a bit less would have been more… Service was impeccable and maître and sommelier David Eitel accompanied the courses with interesting and really fitting wines.
In my discussion with Mr Fehling afterwards two aspects really stroke me that I find really interesting to share:
1. Compared to other European chefs of this generation, the German approach to excel in high-end gastronomy is to build on a solid fundament of product know-how and technical mastery. If a solid level is reached (and some laureals have been awarded), then they start to think about developing a comprehensive distinct style. Somehow a safety first principle. As it is obvious form the three star chefs, their identification process started at two star level or even later. In contrast, young chefs in Benelux, Spain or Scandinavia often start out with a comprehensive concept and then worry about technical perfection, products and nitty gritty details later. The good effect is that this makes them more unique and fuels destination dining (like at In de Wulf) but also exposes the diner to significant risks that would never happen here in Germany. Whereas this makes many experiences there at 1-2 star level more interesting, the overall quality seems to be higher here… Without valuing these different approaches, I can only wish that more German chefs will be brave enough to cook different, to develop a style out of the ordinary and simultaneously rely on their technical abilities. This could really bring Germany forward.
2. Contrary to many other countries (most notably UK or the US) we do not have a broad range of really knowledgable food critics but we have Jürgen Dollase who has made an enormous contribution to the culinary evolution (and theory) here in Germany. But akin Robert Parker in the world of wines many especially young chefs recently started to cook in a way that they thought the critic would like it. If then the recognition comes they carry it like a monstrance with them. I can only wish that the young generation do not blindly follow suit – otherwise we will share similar cooking styles across Germany, to exaggerate a bit…
Overall, I believe that Kevin Fehling is aware of these challenges! In my humble opinion he is one of the most talented chefs in Germany at this age and that he will scupture his unique handwriting in the coming years. Surely, we will hear more from him and Travemünde is already worth a visit (apart from its seaside resort beauty). It also makes a nice douple feature with Christian Scharrer who cooks across the street at the Restaurant Buddenbrooks in the A-Rosa resort.☺
Thanks to the whole team for this fantastic evening – can’t wait to come back!
Restaurant La Belle Epoque
Phone: +49 4502 308-0