German chef Nils Henkel is one of the leaders of the modern German kitchen, his ‘pure nature’ approach to cooking is one that has seen him win a number of accolades including a Chef of the Year award from both Gault et Millau in 2009 and Rolling Pin Magazine in 2012.
His food is a focused on playing twitch the texture and aromatic properties of ingredients to surprise diners and he admits his main focus lies on old varieties of vegetables and wild herbs - happy to skip meat and fish entirely and compose entire tasting menus of vegetable driven dishes.
He’s been cooking since 1986 when he first started training at the Romantikhotel Voss-Haus in Eutin, Germany, and worked his way up the ranks at the Althoff Schlosshotel Lerbach hotel, where he started in 1997 and took over as head chef in 2004, steering Restaurant Lerbach through a redesign and rename - he is set to leave this post in January 2016 when he moves on to work on new challenges.
With such experience under his belt and a strong career at the forefront of Germany gastronomy, Henkel is also one of the Mentors of S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2015. He has been helping the finalist for Germany and Austria, Tobias Wussler, perfect his dish of milk ice made with fir sprigs ahead of the Grand Final in Milan. (read the interview with Wussler).
We caught up with Henkel to find out more about his own cooking approach and get some of his advice for the young chefs of the future.
How would you define your style of cuisine?
Modern german cuisine with a focus on vegetables (old vegetables).
Soft smoked char, eldercaper-vinaigrette, cress mash, char caviar.
Who was your most important mentor for your profession?
Dieter Müller, we worked together for 12 years.
What’s the best advice you were ever given when you were training?
Always focus on quality.
Do you remember one of the big mistakes you made in a kitchen when you were training?
I was told to bring egg white to the fridge. From several buckets standing there, I chose the wrong one – and during the evening service the team wondered, why the consommé was full of egg white.
Is there one mistake you see young chefs making very often?
What should they do do instead? A lot of young chefs try to cook very avant-garde, very edgy. But often the basics are missing though. Focus should always be a very comprehensive training.
What are the best characteristics a young chef can have, nowadays? What are the worst?
Best: Curiosity, a strong belief in his/her own way, perfectionism. Worst: Thinking he / she already knows everything. You never stop learning.
What’s your main focus in advising the S.Pellegrino Young Chef candidate of your region?
In an international challenge like the S. Pellegrino Young Chef I think it is very important for each participant to represent his/her region, country, origin. The candidate of my region is from the Black Forest area. He combines many specific tastes from his home region in his dish – and I support this.
What’s your message to all the finalists of S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 worldwide?
All finalists at Milan have given much thought to their dishes. Always keep looking left and right, you hardly ever get the chance to have so many international young chefs gathered in one place. Good luck!