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Chefs World: Christian Jürgens | Clos19 UK

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Chef's World

Christian Jürgens

Presence is what makes a good host

Christian Jürgens is known for being a plain-speaking man, as well as a proponent of a distinctive cuisine. Since 2013, he has been the chef at the Michelin restaurant Überfahrt in the exclusive Althoff Seehotel on Lake Tegernsee in Bavaria and is considered - with three Michelin stars and 19,5 Gault Millau points to his name – as one of the best chefs in Germany. We spoke with the chef, who is from Westphalia, about his qualities as a host; which wine evokes personal memories in him; and where the best strawberry kaiserschmarrn is to be found. All this and more can be found in the big Clos19 interview.

Did you realize at the beginning of your career that you would not only have to learn how to cook, but also how to be a host?

I come from a family of butchers and, when I was sixteen, I ended up in the kitchen more out of coincidence than intention when I helped washing dishes in my sister’s restaurant. I was not yet familiar with gratin dauphinois and duck breast roasted pale pink. But even as a little cog in the works, I realized that cooking and serving and being a host should go together. I teach this to all my employees today. We are a team with a common goal: that is, to present our guests with sensational, culinary moments and to offer them an atmosphere of perfect wellbeing.

How has your awareness of being chef and host at the same time changed over the years?

For me, the quality of a host lies in tending to one’s guests completely, even if they don’t come with a specific request. At best, they should depart with the feeling of having undertaken a culinary journey which they hadn’t even realized that they wanted to take. I try to lead my team by example here. For me, serving and waiting on people is a real distinction. It has nothing to do with servility but rather with the attitude of wanting to give my guests the kind of experience I would like to have myself. My expertise and my creative drive do not disappear when I walk through the kitchen door.

How much of your success do you ascribe to your skills as a chef and to your role as a host?

I wouldn’t want to separate the two. What we are talking about here is the entirety of the performance. Formerly this was certainly underestimated from the chef’s point of view. I look upon my co-workers much more as my marketing department; if they can’t live my vision, then I have not been communicating properly. We work hand-in-hand, we are a team, and we want to be seen as such. The chefs listen to the needs of our service team and vice versa. Team play is crucial. If we play a good game, then it is because we are doing it as a team. I don’t want to single out any particular individual because of his or her spectacular performance. Just as they would not want this either – we are all part of the team. There may be chefs who think that everyone falls into raptures just because a dish of theirs is brought to the table, but I don’t think this way. It is clear to me that if my co-workers in the service team are not passionate hosts, carrying my spirit out there like a banner, then I can send out the most sublime dishes but the guests wouldn’t be completely satisfied, would probably miss sincerity and probably will not return.

Can being a passionate host be an acquired skill or do you have to be born with it?

Certainly one can learn all kinds of things. You can learn professional operations; become skilled in automatisms, and practise crisis management at seminars, but you have to possess this inner mind-set, this passion and spirit for the subject. This is why there aren’t very many restaurants of absolute top quality. This does not mean, of course, that you can’t find passionate hosts off the beaten track of the starred kitchens. You can see it in their shining eyes and from the first moment can feel their ability to sense what is special: small things, like setting the place for a left-handed person without having to be asked. To bring this attitude to all the tables, not just one, and each and every evening – this is what separates the professional from the amateur.

What is your life motto?

Two maxims have accompanied me throughout my life. Firstly, quality is never a matter of chance but the result of precise implementation, sincere effort, and great passion. And secondly – somewhat more poetically – walk the path that nobody has yet walked so that you leave tracks behind you, and not just dust.

 

Is there a difference between a private and a professional host?

Of course. As a professional host, you first have to determine who the guests are and why they are here? Do the guests want to be approached directly as to what preferences they have or what they don’t like? Are they in a euphoric mood or would they rather not be sitting down at a table at all? And then – what must I do so that everyone has a nice evening? As a private host, I don’t have to be prepared for different situations. Usually I welcome guests to my home whom I know quite well and who know me too. Rules are therefore irrelevant in that scenario.

Do you have a trick that makes a guest feel good right from the get-go?

The trick is easy – and it’s called empathy. This is ultimately the challenge for a professional host. To find out for every guest, every time and for every mood what is expected of you, what the situation demands. This might sound a bit cryptic but that’s what it takes. We mustn’t forget that we hosts also have personal obligations and moods. But the moment the restaurant doors open, we are on a world-class stage. When the lights go up, nobody in the audience is interested if we have problems or if we just won the lottery. Guests expect a perfect performance and this is justified. I like to compare restaurants to a theatre. Both take place in real time – and, as one hears from actors, a dozen mistakes are made in each show, but hardly anyone in the audience notices because the ensemble is perfectly attuned. The same goes for restaurants.

As a private guest, do you have a trick to make the host feel good?

I associate it with not only incomparable flavour but also many memories. It was the first big red wine that I drank in my life. It was when I came as a young cook to Munich, the metropolis of top culinary art in Germany. With three colleagues, I visited Tantris, Heinz Winkler’s restaurant, and ate better than I ever had in my whole life. And when they served this red wine with the main course … I don’t know how anybody could have topped that. This made such a lasting impression on me that I made sure I got a job there.

Why is Château Cheval Blanc your wine of choice?

I associate it with not only incomparable flavour but also many memories. It was the first big red wine that I drank in my life. It was when I came as a young cook to Munich, the metropolis of top culinary art in Germany. With three colleagues, I visited Tantris, Heinz Winkler’s restaurant, and ate better than I ever had in my whole life. And when they served this red wine with the main course … I don’t know how anybody could have topped that. This made such a lasting impression on me that I made sure I got a job there.

What would you recommend pairing Château Cheval Blanc with?

Lamb or pigeon roasted over charcoal is the best pairing. You need something with herbs, something hearty that supports this wine. I am not somebody who always sets counterpoints in the kitchen; I prefer a harmony of flavours. I could imagine a pepper sauce here, not pepper-hot but one with the delicate flavour of green pepper. The wine is as finely honed as a duelling foil; one doesn’t want to blunt it with the food.

This wine would be a good gift for what occasion?

In order to give oneself a present.

When invited to a dinner, do you always have a present for the host?

I think bringing a small token goes without saying. Either flowers for the lady of the house or a bottle of champagne.

Does a three Michelin-starred chef even get invited to dinners anymore? Do you think people may feel a bit intimidated?

I get invited to dinners quite a lot. My friends and family appreciate good food as much as I do; nobody has to pretend. One of my favourite meals is Wiener schnitzel, for instance. Here, the quality of the meat is the decisive factor in the enjoyment of the meal. The rest is handicraft. I don’t expect great surprises on my plate; it just has to taste nice. Sebastian Vettel is a professional racing driver, but he still drives with friends who aren’t thundering along a racetrack at 300 kilometres an hour. That’s what it’s like for me too. One thing is work, the other private. Nobody has to be afraid of me. Neither those who invite me to dinner nor those who work with me.

What do you prefer, being a guest or being a host?

I do enjoy being a guest. But cooking never stops for me. When I go out to eat and the food is good then part of my brain is always working and asking what this could mean for my work. Inspiration can be found everywhere, especially when you are having a good meal.

One of your earlier books is called “Fantasie und Perfektion”. Which of these two terms plays the larger role for a private host?

In my case, nothing is served to a guest that is not one hundred percent perfect. I try to achieve this every single day with my co-workers. This is why I am closer to perfection at home. What good is fantasy anyway if it can’t be implemented? Then it is just a nice try. However, I have never made just a nice try.

You have said that the presentation should not outdo flavour and quality. Is this also true for a private host?

This is always true for me. The flavour is essential. This, together with the choice of products of the best quality, must always take centre stage. First and foremost, I want the food to be delicious for my guests. If we can achieve this, then we can start to work on the visual presentation.

What is better for the private host – to cook yourself or have someone else cook?

That depends on the occasion. If it is a wedding and you’re the host, cooking yourself will be difficult. In a case such as this, you need to make sure the you can trust the skills of the person in charge of the food. Particularly, the quality of the products used must be ensured. And you should always arrange a pre-tasting beforehand.

What is the greatest faux pax for a host?

Not being present. If you are a host, being present for your guests and for all those participating in the event is a must. Only with your presence can you take on and fulfil the role of host perfectly.

What is the secret of being a good host?

You should possess nonchalance and pay attention to every comment. In a case, for instance, when the guest merely mentions in passing, “It would be great if we could get a taxi, now that we’ve had a couple of glasses”, then you can assess the situation without insulting your guest by insinuating that he or she looks drunk. As a host, you have to possess similar skills as those of the best top concierges in grand hotels. You have to be able to make an unspoken wish come true. That is hospitality and service of the highest level.

How can somebody make you happy as a guest?

With a strawberry kaiserschmarrn at the Aible Alm in Kreuth-Scharling. Cooked by Georg Ertl, known as the “Aibl Schorsch”. When I get this on my plate I beam with happiness.

And to sum up: The art of hospitality to me is …

All guests departing at the end of the day with smiles on their faces and wanting to come again because they had such a good time.

Mr Jürgens, thank you very much for this interview.