It’s a chilly night in the north German city of Hamburg. On entering the Küchenwerkstatt restaurant I’m greeted with a warm smile by Angela Gnade, my hostess for the evening. Angela, I learn, is the partner of chef Gerald Zogbaum, and shows me through to the back room, where an open wood fire hisses and crackles.
This is a Michelin-starred restaurant. In the ten years since first opening Küchenwerkstatt (which translates into English as ‘kitchen workshop’) has built a reputation for serving innovative, beautifully presented, gourmet cuisine. The Michelin star was awarded back in 2009.
I’m offered one of the 40 seats within the stripped-floor Kaminzimmer, which, in case you’re wondering, translates as ‘the fireplace room.’ The walls bear three-quarter height dark wood panelling and Delft tiles. It’s a remnant of pre-war Hamburg; it was previously a ferry house and, at one point, a popular place for seamen to dine while enjoying a beer or two.
I sip a crisp Riesling from the Rhein-Hessen region and bite into warm, freshly baked bread with sea salt and curd butter. The dishes that follow live up to Küchenwerkstatt’s reputation. They include a delicately flavoured starter with a wafer thin slice of cauliflower, presented like a miniature tree at the centre of the plate. Oysters follow, served with a lime sorbet, placed on a net with sea salt resembling ice. Next come scallops served with a starfish-shaped grilled artichoke and lemon pearls.
The intensity of the elderflower ice cream that follows impresses me. It’s served with a cream of goose liver and a tartare of veal. Poached Norwegian cod forms the centrepiece of next course, served with buttery beans and a white puree of lemon.
When a duck pastille is served I order a glass of La Vieille Ferme red wine from the south of the Rhône Valley. The course of crispy pancake roll is impressive but I have no appetite for more.
The presentation of the dessert – a brioche ice cream with jellies of rum, beetroot and raspberry plus liquorice – convinces me to give it a go. The jelly has been cut into letters and laid out on a slate platter to spell ‘LOVE’. Just when I thought the meal is complete ‘aftertisers’ of iced macchiato, mandarin foam and sesame and mango are served along with Japanese tea with soda.
Impressed by the food, I now have an opportunity to learn about the ideas behind it from the chef.
“Our philosophy is to be true to the product and not make too much with the food,” explains Zogbaum. He is, I suspect, playing down the significant amount of hard work that went into preparing and presenting the meal that I just ate. I learn that a team of eight work in the kitchen. “It sounds a little crazy, but I want to be true to the season and get the taste out of the products we have available,” adds the powerfully built chef.
“We work with the season and the region,” explains Zogbaum, who sources his ingredients from within a radius of 50 kilometres of Küchenwerkstatt. This might mean selecting one or two vegetables from a particular supplier for just two to three months at a time. “We’re trying to change farmers thinking, so they produce quality rather than quantity,” he adds.
On chatting further Zogbaum, who hails from Tübingen in Baden-Württemberg, reveals that he has an interest in Zen Buddhism and Japan. He’s travelled there several times and talks about enjoying the deep flavours of cuisine in the Kanto region and how traditional dashi stock can be interesting to use in modern cuisine.
“Cooking is technical. It’s more about good products and good ideas,” says Zogbaum in his relaxed, matter-of-fact style about what he does at Küchenwerkstatt. He uses traditional French cooking techniques – he trained under the careful eye of Alain Ducasse in Argenteuil and Paris – yet his influences are international.
“The Japanese reduce while the French add to get the essence of food,” he comments, on the essence of the contrast between Oriental and Occidental styles of preparing food. “It’s the first duty of the cook to look at the area and what is has available,” he adds.
So how does he come up with new ideas? Zogbaum shrugs and says it can be difficult. Yet clearly not that tricky for the man I’m talking to; after all, he develops a new menu every six weeks or so. “The key idea is very important but so is working on it. Trying and trying it again.”
In contrast to many restaurants – due to Zogbaum’s constant culinary innovation – Küchenwerkstatt doesn’t have a signature dish. That, I reflect, is as good a reason as any to visit again at some point.
Küchenwerkstatt is at Hans-Henny-Jahnn-Weg 1, 22085 Hamburg, tel. +49 (0) 40 2292 7588.
The restaurant opens for dinner from Tuesday to Saturday and lunch on Saturdays. Booking a table one to two weeks in advance is recommended.