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. With three Michelin stars and 19.5 Gault Millau points to his name, he is considered to be one of the best chefs in Germany. We spoke with the chef from Westphalia about his qualities as a host, which wine evokes memories in him, and where the best strawberry kaiserschmarrn, a type of shredded pancake, is to be found. All this and more can be found in the big Clos19 interview.
Christian Jürgens, 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. When I was sixteen, I ended up in the kitchen more from coincidence than by intent when I helped wash dishes in my sister’s restaurant. I was not yet familiar with gratin dauphinois or pale-pink roasted duck breast. But even as a little cog in the works, I realized that cooking, serving, and being a host should go together. I teach this to all my employees today. We are a team with a common goal: to present our guests with sensational culinary moments and to offer an atmosphere of perfect well-being.
How has your awareness of being a 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 have a specific request. At best, they should leave with the feeling of having undertaken a culinary journey that 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 service 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 culinary art, and how much 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 consider my coworkers much more as my marketing department: if they can’t live up to my vision, 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. Working as a team is crucial. If we play a good game, then 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 will be extremely impressed 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 coworkers 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. They would probably miss the 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 practice crisis management at seminars, but you have to possess this inner mindset, this passion, this spirit for the subject. This is why there aren’t very many absolute top quality restaurants. 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, standing symbolically for my character and my restaurant – 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 in the first place? 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. I usually welcome to my home guests who I know quite well and who know me. Rules for retaining my composure are therefore irrelevant.
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 us hosts also have personal obligations and moods. But the moment the restaurant door opens, we are on a world-class stage. The lights go up and in the audience nobody is interested if we have problems or have just won the lottery. The guest expects a perfect performance and they are justified in doing so. I like to compare restaurants with a theater. Both take place in real time and, as one hears from actors, a dozen mistakes are made in each show, but hardly any of the audience notices because the ensemble is perfectly attuned to one another. The same goes for restaurants.
If you are a private guest, do you have a trick that makes the host feel good?
I am glad when a restaurant is particularly assiduous due to my presence in the room. Usually the ice – if there even is any – is broken right from the start. I haven’t come to test anyone or to search all over for the hair that isn’t in the soup. I have come to enjoy myself, and I always approach people with an open mind. I am what I am – and so far this has always worked.
On the choice of your wine. What made you choose the Château Cheval Blanc?
I associate it with not only incomparable flavor, but also many memories. It was the first important red wine that I ever 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 serving as the best pairing to Château Cheval Blanc?
Lamb or pigeon roasted over charcoal. This is the best pairing for this wine. You need something with herbs, something hearty that supports this wine. I am not somebody who is always setting counterpoints in his kitchen. I prefer a harmony of flavors. I could imagine a pepper sauce here, not pepper-hot but one with the delicate flavor of green pepper. The wine is as finely honed as a dueling 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.
Do you always have a present for the host when you are invited to dinner?
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 star-chef even get invited to dinner anymore? Or are people afraid of making a fool of themselves?
I get invited to dinner quite a lot. My friends and family appreciate good food as much as I do, and nobody has to pretend to be something they are not. One of my favorite meals is wiener schnitzel, for example. 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 good. Sebastian Vettel is a professional racing driver, but he still drives with friends who aren’t thundering along a racetrack at 185 miles 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 the 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 coworkers. This is why I am closer to perfection at home. What good is fantasy anyway if it can’t be implemented? Then it’s just a good attempt. However, I have never made just a nice try.
You have said that the presentation should not outdo the flavor and the quality. Is this true for a private host also?
This is always true for me. What is essential is the flavor. This, together with the choice of products of the best quality, must always take center 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.
Cooking yourself or having someone else cook – which is better for the private host?
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 that the person entrusted with the cooking is actually good at it. In particular, the quality of the products used must be ensured. And you should always arrange a pre-tasting beforehand.
What is the greatest faux pas that can befall a host?
Being absent. If you are a host, being present for your guests and for all those participating in the event is a must. Only by your presence can you take on and fulfill 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 drinks,” 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 to 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 my face beams.
And to sum up: The art of hospitality for me is …
That all the guests leave at the end of the day with smiles on their faces and want to come again because they had such a good time.