Perfection doesn't exist

Gault Millau Chef of the Century Eckart Witzigmann was his teacher, kitchen artists like Christian Bau, Klaus Erfort and Thomas Bühner were his students – and Harald Wohlfahrt himself will defend his three Michelin stars this year for the 24th time in a row. But how does that work: Creativity AND perfection?

text: Anke Pedersen  //  photography: Frank Depping

The phone rings at the appointed time. "Good morning, Mr Wohlfahrt, you are very prompt indeed!" "Precision," he replies in a matter-of-fact manner implying that he actually meant: "Of course! It's normal! What else?"

Mr Wohlfahrt, since 1992 not a single year has passed in which the critics from Aral, Gault-Millau, Guide Michelin & Co. have not awarded you their highest accolades …

That is true, but it was a long journey to get there, and sometimes a tough battle as well. I wondered time and again if I was able to assert myself.

What helped you in this?

Tenacity and pure willpower. When the third star came in 1992, I had reached a milestone that I had been working towards for a long time.

You were just 37 years old back then. But obviously you didn't rest on your laurels after this success.

I always knew that I had to stay on the ball. The star rating principle is comparable to professional football: After the end of the season, the cards are reshuffled and the stocktaking is done. We have to confirm what we have achieved every year from scratch.

And with this annual stocktaking, how have you managed to achieve top marks time and again, as well as for the past dozen years?

I don't do much, but when I do something, I do it with a passion. You have to constantly develop yourself to do this, whereby less is now more. I don't spread myself too thinly any more.

Developing yourself is one thing. But how do you maintain this unbelievable level in doing so? Don't perfection and creativity actually get in each other's way?

Perfection doesn't exist, but precision certainly does. Who could judge what perfection is when taste is entirely subjective? Thus you have to ask yourself: How can I become better and more precise?

And how would that be?

Firstly, I need the best possible product. Of course, that comes at a certain cost, and I have to consider whether it is worth it. Then the skill comes into play, to process each ingredient in the best possible way. And experience helps. In the end of the day, you have to live and love this task.

So creativity at your level is the result of experience coupled with passion and precision?

Absolutely. Above and beyond this, the inspirations you get from around you are significant for your own creativity. The seasons always play a very important role for the cuisine in my Schwarzwaldstube restaurant. Thus, in the autumn, I ask myself: Mother Nature, what are you giving me? That would be porcini, roe deer venison and lingonberries. But creativity also lives from retrospectives. By going through my recipes from past years, I may possibly discover something or other which I can improve on with today's appliances and techniques – adapt it to the zeitgeist, so to speak. That is how you can continue to develop yourself and still remain true to your style. And of course, development can also consist of leaving things out. However, the most important thing remains that the guest is delighted with the dishes. And the worst thing is when the kitchen ignores its guests when it is cooking.

Of course, it is an accomplishment of the entire "Harald Wohlfahrt" team that the guest feels at home and is happy. Several of your students have also joined the ranks of the Michelin-star chefs in the meantime. What is your recipe, since you are obviously also an outstanding instructor?

I am a chef, and I am a head of department with 25 employees. The comparison to professional football works very well here too: How does Bayern Munich always succeed in forming a team that is always at the top of the league? Despite a constant stream of new challenges, I have to produce top performances with my team and can never be satisfied with what we have achieved. You always have to look ahead and support the willingness to change. Older people generally tend to be keepers, whereas the young are revolutionary. The task of a manager is to wake up dormant capabilities. To observe the development of the individual precisely and integrate it in such a way that talents can be tapped specifically. Gastronomy, like team sports, is a Gesamtkunstwerk. My pâtissier, for example, is a genius in his sphere, but works highly autonomously. Nevertheless, the kitchen is a team. We have five executive chefs, and even my sous chef has been with me for 13 years. What I am trying to say is this: If someone is able to do their bit, I am well advised to retain them and let them grow alongside me. You have to let the power of innovation take its course. I can vouch for my twelve chefs, even if you cannot always guarantee every element. After all, we aren't machines. There is a lot of trust involved too.

Your students have obviously taken this basic attitude to heart: They all cook in a completely different way to you, but with an equally masterful touch.

Of course, you can't copy one on one. Each student has to introduce their own changes and try out new things. But the basic cooking skills, the ambition and the knowledge are there. And the chefs – my former students – then add their own creativity on top of this ABC of cooking. With a little luck, this leads to chefs developing their own style. I am happy to say that this has often worked.

Trying out new things – like what you did, when you left the protected space of your own kitchen for the first time with Harald Wohlfahrt's "Palazzo" and initiated a gourmet theatre in Mannheim (southern Germany) as a "recipe supplier, name and idea provider" with a four-course menu and four-hour variety show.

Yes, you have to make sure to keep your hand in all the time. But you can only compare like with like. In the "Palazzo" we produce good cuisine, but we do not fulfil the expectations of three-star cuisine. For that, you have to go to the Schwarzwaldstube.

But because the name Wohlfahrt stands precisely for that, the "Palazzo" was definitely a risk too.

Yes, but I kept training the "Palazzo" chefs time and again, I write the recipes myself, and after a while they get the practice they need – and then it runs. Of course, the hand movements cannot be of a very complicated nature either – you have to remember the volume and the number of guests. It is an extremely harmonious and professional interaction between reliability and innovation among all participants. The "Palazzo" is 15 years old now. At the beginning, we had 12,000 visitors a year, now we have 50,000. And all those guests cannot be wrong.

Professionalism, harmony in the team, trust, reliability and total guest orientation – that does not just apply in your kitchen. The Finkbeiner family's team in the Hotel Traube Tonbach also makes a considerable contribution to this.

Of course, we could not have been so successful either without the unconditional backing we got from the family and the team spirit in the hotel. We all pull together, profit from one another and in my case, we've been doing that now for forty years already. That does not mean that we cannot all be of different opinions now and again either – but we share key ideals and the same high quality standards when it's a question of implementing the best for the restaurant, our employees and our guests. That generates trust, and I have always been able to rely on that.

How should we envisage this? Do you make up a team together, like in professional football?

Something similar. And to stay with the comparison with football, just like in a successful team, in a good hotel it does not depend solely on having the right line-up of the team, but also very decisively on the team management, the trainer, the kit manager, the team doctor – and even on the team chef. Everyone integrates into the team with their skills and their character. At the Traube Tonbach too, we can only create the perfect stay for the guest when we all pull together. Like in football, one person on their own cannot achieve anything at all there – but the right colleague in the right position can combine creativity and precision into one with the greatest of ease.

You say: Chefs cook the way they look. Although no one would know it to look at you, you have been working in the kitchen for 46 years and you turned 60 last winter. How did you celebrate this round birthday? By grabbing a sandwich or in the Schwarzwaldstube?

For heaven's sake, at least on a day like that, you don't want to have to work yourself for once. I celebrated with my family at the house of my friend of many years, who is also a chef, Jörg Sackmann. That was a gorgeous and unforgettable day.

Wow! But cuisine is hard graft. What would happen if you were to lose your third star again one day?

My maxim is: When the third star drops, then I'll drop too.

Mr Wohlfahrt, thank you very much for the interview.

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