An interview with Michelin-starred chef Macro Mueller
On the occasion of the cooking competition "Bocuse d'Or" we talked to Michelin-starred chef Marco Mueller about food culture and top gastronomy in Germany.
On January 29 and 30, the final round of the biggest and most important international cooking competition “Bocuse d’Or” will take place in Lyon and in February the new star ratings for restaurants in the Guide MICHELIN Germany 2019 will be announced. This is an occasion for us to talk to one of the best Michelin-starred chefs in Germany, Marco Müller, about food as a cultural asset that creates identity and the appreciation of gourmet cuisine in Germany.
On his menu, the slogan “The Rescue of German Food Culture” leaps off the page, along with scrumptious-sounding dishes. Written down for the first time from a passionate impulse, the adage has long since proved true as the philosophy of the Michelin-starred restaurant “Rutz” and the “Weinbar Rutz” in Berlin. Regional products of exquisite quality find their way into an exceptional, refined cuisine.
How do matters stand with German food culture? Does it need saving?
Definitely. It did and it still does. In Mediterranean countries there was and still is a much more sophisticated eating culture. The Italians brought their food culture to France. The French have perfected what they learned from the Italians. Due to the shorter summers in Germany, it used to be more important for us to preserve foodstuffs and only then to see which dishes could be made from them.
But I think German cuisine is on the move. We have the opportunity to talk a little more confidently about German food culture and to re-invent it. To see where our roots lie, which vegetables and which products we have always had in the region. It is a matter of rediscovering and redefining this – the connection between tradition, the region and a new identity.
Is that the reason why you have devoted yourself to German cuisine?
I grew up like this. At home we cooked with local products and I loved that. We had everything in the garden and Grandpa cut up the kohlrabi and we ate it right away. Later I became a chef and saw that opinions about the value of local products diverged. People like to say, “A prophet has no honour in his own country.” For us Germans, the local products always seemed somehow inferior, perhaps because they were not prepared perfectly.
We always found other cuisines more interesting. The question is, where is our own identity? Because the French and the Asians already exist. How can one overcome the prejudices that there are only inferior or mediocre products in Germany? If, when I started cooking, I had said that trout would be served at a Michelin-starred restaurant, people would have laughed at me.
We have the opportunity to talk a little more confidently about German food culture and to re-invent it
Are we in the process of creating a new culinary identity for ourselves?
A lot has happened between the good old home cooking and the cuisine we have today. After wars and times of renunciation and deprivation, nowadays we see developments such as globalisation, the transformation of the work life and changes in role models. Time became increasingly scarce, supermarkets emerged, vegetables were not only available as seasonal goods, ready-made products were tempting. In addition, cooking was often seen as a burden rather than a form of relaxation. The slogan “Save the German Food Culture” was purely an expression of me missing something. Sometimes things have to disappear before we learn to miss them. Especially in Berlin, one could practically watch the demise of bakers and butchers. These are things we need to reclaim now. Skilled trades must be preserved and promoted.
On the other hand, there is a growing dissatisfaction. If the tomato doesn’t taste good, you don’t buy any more tomatoes and you don’t prepare them anymore. There are still many people who don’t give a hoot about good food, but they’re getting fewer and fewer. More and more people are realising that cooking has a certain sex appeal, that eating can be fun. People are increasingly interested in good products, in eating well and simply in living in a more health-conscious way. And that tells me that this is not the end of the story.
For us in Germany, eating is still more a matter of food intake than real enjoyment or respect for individual qualities.
The comparison with France, where food is perceived as a national treasure, is always a popular one. Will we ever get there?
Never say never, but I think it will be difficult to achieve the same status of the culinary arts in Germany as in France. For the French there is a completely different attitude to life at the bottom of it. Food is a completely different focal point of social life.
I have worked in restaurants for 30 years now and there has already been an amazing development. I don’t think that there is a standstill. But Berlin-Mitte is not Germany, and if I’m in Schleswig-Holstein and go to an inn, for example, it is just like 20 or 30 years ago. There are occasional changes, but many people don’t want to change and they are happy with it. So this great trend exists, but not everywhere.
However: In high-end cuisine we will definitely be able to measure ourselves against the world standard at some point and France has not been ahead of us for a long time. Germany now has an incredibly strong top-class cuisine. What saddens me personally is that we have not walked our own path for a long time. We Germans are good artisans, perfectionists, we are constant when it comes to quality, but in the past we have completely lacked our own identity.
You yourself have two Michelin stars and seventeen Gault Millau points. How important are awards of this kind for a top chef?
The decisive reason why I started here at “Rutz” was that I was able to co-develop the concept. I spend an incredible amount of time with what I do, with an incredible passion and I have always had my own idea about what I want to do. And then there was always the problem that restaurant critics either weren’t quite there yet or didn’t think it was of sufficient value, because in the past, we were judged very strongly according to French value criteria and not at all according to our roots, according to our food culture.
But my own self-development was always more important to me than praise. And that’s why we said we’d start without any rating whatsoever. My own sensations, the fun of cooking, the creativity were more important to me and the rest emerged from this. From my point of view, the Michelin evaluations are important, because for me, it is the only tangible evaluation criterion that exists on a national level and worldwide.
I must say I’m very worried about the German restaurant scene.
Michelin-starred chef Christian Bau was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit in 2018. Alongside the joy about it, however, he also expressed frustration about the lack of appreciation of German high-end cuisine, especially by politicians. Is he right?
Yes, that’s true. It is indeed the case that in Germany it is not outrageous to drive a large car, but it is considered a superfluous luxury to dine better. This has partly changed in Berlin, but let’s take a more expensive restaurant somewhere in the countryside. Those who somehow made it wouldn’t go to the restaurant in their town because they would be afraid that someone might think they had too much money. Because among other things, we are also a nation of envy.
People don’t see the quality behind it, the pleasure, the produce, the craftsmanship, the art, they only see the price. If I have a closer look at my menu in the restaurant and consider my 9 course menu, which in fact consists of 15 courses including the small items, I don’t think that’s too expensive. And that is the problem, high-end cooking is not acknowledged and supported by policymakers and also often in society as culture, as an excellent craft, as art. If, for example, we receive a request for a state banquet and are offered a cost of goods of 35 euros per capita, then this is a disregard for our staff and our work. These are people who will later have to feed a family. In addition, we want to use decent products that do not come from a chemistry set. I don’t stand a chance with this budget.
At state receptions one presents one’s country and could be proud of one’s own food culture and local products. But for us in Germany, eating is still more a matter of food intake than real enjoyment or respect for individual qualities.
Children need to know what is good for their diet and their body from the very beginning of their lives.
What are the challenges facing restaurateurs today and what support would you like from politicians?
Quite frankly, I must say I’m very worried about the German restaurant scene. We can’t complain ourselves, we are fully booked every evening, we always find very, very good staff. But when I started here 15 years ago, I had 10 applications sent to me every day. Those days are long gone. Many people today are no longer willing to do this work, to accept these working hours. Being a chef is not the only profession where you have to work shifts, just think of police officers, firefighters, nurses, doctors etc.. But it is a profession in which you are paid very poorly, partly due to disrespect. And if you not only think about following your passion, but also about starting a family later and wanting to feed it, leading a good life – this has become very difficult with the salary structures that we have.
This is also due to the lack of appreciation of food and the lack of respect for the chef’s craft. If I dine at a Parisian colleague’s restaurant, the menu costs two and a half times as much as ours and it’s not any better. But he can pay his people and we really have to do a lot of things here so that we can create satisfaction among our staff. These are definitely levers that need to be used. The baker’s trade is on the verge of extinction, the butcher’s trade is on the verge of extinction and what is happening now is that restaurant owners are often unable to find employees and are even forced to close down.
What would have to change specifically?
The appreciation of good and healthy food would have to increase. I think it’s important to already address this at school: How do I feed myself in a healthful way, what does food do to my body, what food culture do we cultivate? This should also be reflected in canteens. Then, of course, this is a monetary matter where the government must also intervene.
Children need to know what is good for their diet and their body from the very beginning of their lives. This will have an impact on them and they can then pass it on. In other words, eating culture is already being created in kindergartens and with it the appreciation for food and for the craftsmanship behind it.