Interview- Chris Kümper, Schwein Head Chef
There are people in this world that are professionals. They do their work and don’t take themselves too seriously. They see their place in the world and know the work that they do. They work their ass off to do it as good as they can. There are no bells and whistles. The ego pyrotechnics displays are limited and they put their head to the grind stone and work. And by sheer dint of their tenacity, clear mindedness and passion they seem to find a balance in what they do and it is truly admirable. Chris Kümper, head chef of award winning new restaurant Schwein, is one of these sons of bitches that has achieved this lauded state of being. And moreover, he is a handsome SOB as well!! With model good looks, a pleasant countenance and a charming Colgate smile, as a heterosexual male, (as Mr. Eatler is,) one might simply want to punch him in the face, or maybe question one’s own sexuality. Chris was gracious enough to grant Mr. Eatler an hour of his time for an interview. And let it be known, Mr. Eatler did not punch Chris in the face.
MR. Eatler: So how did you find yourself in the food world?
CHRIS: Actually I was never really interested in food and beverage. I actually just wanted to get out of school. You know when you’re 15 or so you have to go do an internship for like three weeks as a part of school. You have to apply for a job and do a report about it. You have to find it by yourself and its like a big exam. But I was always very lazy. And if you don’t find a job by the deadline, the school is just going to assign you one. Which was something they had prepared anyway because they knew how lazy I was.
MR.E: Were you a trouble child in school?
CHRIS: Sort of, you know, I was never in trouble. I was always smiling and I got away with everything. But in any case, I had one day left before the deadline and I didn’t have any job. So I called my dad and told him I had a problem. That if I didn’t get a job by the next day the school was going to assign me to do some kind of police work, or a street cleaning or something. So he told me I could have a job working in the cafeteria in his office building. So I thought, maybe its a good idea. I thought it could be fun. I always wanted to know how to cut fast, like a chef.
MR.E: You wanted to learn how to chop fast?
CHRIS: Yeah, that was the only thing I knew about chefs, was that they knew how to chop fast. I thought it would be cool to learn how to do that.
MR.E: Did you learn how to do that in the end?
CHRIS: Yeah, I think now I know how to do it pretty well. I took chunks out of my fingers every now and then, but I figured it out.
MR.E: So at 16 you became a chef?
CHRIS: Basically, but in a cafeteria, it was all convenience food. It was catering service basically. I didn’t use a knife for the first year, we had one knife for ten chefs. Everything came prepared. Cans, bags and so on. They offered me a job for when I finish school. It was actually great. It was a 9 to 5, I had weekends off. I could do my sports and skateboarding or whatever. But the problem for me came when I had to go to my apprenticeship. In the apprenticeship you work everyday but two days out of the week you go to school. Then I met all the people who were actually working in real restaurants. They were telling me about mise-en-place, about breaking down fish. “I worked as a saucier with my chef de cuisine.” I was like what are you talking about? This was so far from my background, we never went to restaurants. If we did it was like the Greek place across the street where we had fries and souvlaki. I had no idea what a restaurant even was. I thought “Wow, am I fucking up my life right now? Look at all of these chefs doing all of these things and I’m working in a cafeteria?” So I decided that at least I could try and catch up at school. I decided to study really hard and it started to feel pretty good to get good grades. First time in my life I was ever opening a book or doing homework.
MR.E: What book did you use?
CHRIS: The book was called Der Junge Koch, which is a book that leads you through your three years apprenticeship.
MR.E: After you did that what was your first real restaurant you worked at?
CHRIS: The first two years of my apprenticeship I was at the cafeteria and mainly teaching myself and studying at home, because no one in the cafeteria could really teach me anything. But then in the third year I wrote a letter to a very good restaurant in our neighborhood. The best one in the area, they did their own ice cream, desserts, sauce from the bone. It was called Hotel Wilhelmshöhe. Ifinished my last year of internship there. I pushed really hard and tried to get the best out of this apprenticeship. After that they helped me get a job in a restaurant in Hamburg, Landhaus Scherrer, which is a one Michelin Star restaurant, and that’s really where I started my career.
MR.E: How long were you in Hamburg?
CHRIS: I was there for two years and then I moved to small city near Kölln to a three Star restaurant called Schloss Hotel Lerbach. Those first years in Hamburg were really where I got this Gastro-Fever and I really found my passion. I knew I wanted to be a chef. It wasn’t on day one.
MR.E: How was the kitchen experience in Hamburg?
CHRIS: In Hamburg it was really tough, like a military kitchen. It was a brutal chefs kitchen.
MR.E: Are you this kind of chef?
CHRIS: Well, no, not really, I can be like that. I was really panicked that I didn’t do enough in my first two years of apprenticeship. So I pushed myself to work harder and harder and do whatever the chef tells me to do. If I have to wake up in two in the morning, Ill do it. Whatever it was. I thought, “Whatever he tells me now, that is the way its supposed to be.” I was empty on education. So this guy took me and made a machine out of me. He was yelling at me a lot, but always in a constructive way. And eventually this is the guy that got me the job for the three Michelin Star chef. And that chef was really the total opposite of the guy in Hamburg. He was very nice, very polite, a real gentleman. He would never yell at you, or curse. He would simply come to you and say, “I’m sorry this is not good enough, we can’t serve this” And then you go home and you lay in your bed and you’re almost crying. If a guy yells at you, you say “so what” but when its someone that you appreciate a lot that tells you politely, you really feel like you fucked it up.
MR.E: But at that point, working for a three Michelin star chef, you must have been quite confident, no?
CHRIS: I still had this paranoia, because even when I was a the three Michelin star restaurant I still thought that I have to push very hard to do something. I thought, “this is my last chance.” I realized that as a chef you have a lot of hours, you don’t make a lot of money, and that if you want to make your life and the life of your family comfortable in the future, you have to do something special. I knew that I wanted to be a head chef one day, but I also wanted to know everything. I didn’t want to be in a situation where someone is coming into my kitchen and they are better than I am. So I was always pushing very hard. I participated in cooking competitions. I was successful because of the hard work. You know, if you work 15 hours a day, if you don’t do it 100%, why are you even doing it?
MR.E: Do you see yourself as an artist?
CHRIS: I see what I’m doing in my restaurant now as craft work. Not as an artist at all.
MR.E: Why not?
CHRIS: Everything I do was there before me. I don’t think I’m really creative. Of course I’m creative in taking things that I’ve learned, classic combinations, I take them and I try to put my signature on it. But I don’t think that chefs are artists. I also try to actually not be an artist. There are chefs that try to cook very intellectual things, but so many people don’t understand it. Sometimes even I look at a plate and I don’t understand what it is. What I try to do is cook as perfect as possible. When I cook a fish with a sauce and garnish, I try to make all three elements as perfect as possible separately, so that when you eat them together, it works well. For me that is professional cooking. I don’t need to show you what’s in my mind, that I need a little acidity over here and this and that, with ten different components and at the end everybody is confused. I think that if the food makes sense to me and I like it, other people would like it too.
MR.E: So how did you get to NY?
CHRIS: After a few years at the three Michelin star restaurant, I wanted to make a change, but I didn’t want to work for any one else in Germany but this guy. But as a young chef you want to make a change and try new things. I looked at all the chefs in Germany and said “I know he’s a pyscho, and he doesn’t care, and he’s a lying etc…” At the time I thought I could run my own restaurant, and I was offered some positions, but something in me told me I wasn’t ready yet. I wanted to learn more and see the world a little bit. I always had a dream to live in America. I wanted to learn English. I wanted to work for the best possible. And I wanted to live in an exciting place. I wanted to use my skills. The beauty of being a chef is you can work anywhere you go. It all just adds on to your CV. So New York fit all of my criteria. I spoke with my chef at Berg Schladbach, and he told me that he needed me for six more months and then he would make a call to New York for me. He knew Daniel Boulud and so he called him and we met when he came to Germany. We didn’t understand a word of what we were saying to each other, but in the end I told him that I can start anytime. He understood that. He told me to get in touch with HR department and they would arrange everything. The lady at HR asks me what I am thinking about salary. I had no idea what she wanted from me. I told her “Umm… Celery… yeah, I cooked with celery before… I like it, it’s good…” so she asked me “how much money did you make in your previous job” and I understood finally that she meant salary.
MR.E: Did you like the life and working in NY?
CHRIS: As a chef its super emotional. Its really wild, you have every kind of emotion. Something works out and you feel great, something doesn’t work out and you feel like shit. You say “I hate this fucking restaurant, I hate everybody here” and the next day you love everybody again. I really miss them all and love them very much. Even people that I hated, I love. They tell you one thing one day, and they yell at you for the same thing the next. We are all friends. We are all still in touch with each other. They come visit, I visit them.
MR.E: How did you make your way back to Germany.
CHRIS: So after New York was Singapore, which was a very important step for me. I was working with a very important chef there, Andre Chiang. I was his sous chef there. As I said, I don’t believe chefs are artists, but if I had to choose one chef to say is an artist I would say its Andre.
MR.E: The artist thing seems to be a point of contention for you, no?
CHRIS: I will add that as a chef you’re not doing art, you’re doing food. It’s wrong if you waste food, if you do something that is not sustainable. As a chef you’re cooking for your guest, not media, or inspectors. You have a strategy or a concept, you cook every day as good as you can. A lot of chefs they try to cook so that they get on the magazine covers. They tell you stories of walking through the forest and seeing a mushroom and a deer runs by so it inspires them to make some sort of fusion and bla bla bla.
MR.E: What’s the big fantasy for you?
CHRIS: Its not that I don’t want to be on the magazine cover. It’s nice to be appreciated. People talk about you, write about you. This year we are nominated by Meisterköche for the top new comer, its nice and I’m very happy about that. It would be a lie to say I don’t care. But I’m not working to get these awards. My goal is to have a restaurant that is financially healthy, that there is a nice team of people that like each other. That we do nice things and we are getting better all the time. Doing real gastronomy, where you have guest that are coming to you to have a particular dish that people love. When you have nice customers and people are happy.
MR.E: Lets get back to Singapore, and Andre Chiang.
CHRIS: I went to Singapore and I knew I wanted to work with the best. I didn’t write anyone or make any introduction. I just walked in one day and asked to speak with Andre. I didn’t even really know who Andre Chiang was, but you know, in New York all the French people were telling me that in Singapore I have to work with Andre. We spoke and I told him about my time in New York and I told him “I would like to be in Singapore for a year or two and I would like to work for you as a sous chef.” He asked me when I want to start and I said two months and he said that, okay and I had enough experience.
What he does is very smart. He is a great chef himself. He studied in France and knows a lot. But what is smart is he hires very good people. Good chefs that bring something special with them. Of course I had to prove myself to him. He tried to give me a few tests here and there, so you just say “Oui Chef, next time it will be better” But in the end the good thing is that he trusted me. He said to me “If you see anything in this restaurant that you want to change, tell me, show me and if I agree we change it okay.” He gave me the opportunity to really be creative.
All the other restaurants I worked at before, I was a machine. There was a recipe, you weren’t allowed to change anything and they say just do it. You were copying other chef’s food, you could probably cook better then the chef themselves because you have to make a perfect copy and they are sometimes in their office all day, or doing interviews. Boulud’s signature dishes, I cook one hundred a night. I can probably cook better than he can by now because it had to be a perfect copy. But with Andre it was different. He would say to me “go ahead, make a dish” and if it was good he would put it on a lunch menu to try it out. He would give you an advice sometimes and say “if you make this more crunchy and a little more this or that it will be perfect” So the learning process was very important. It taught me to create a dish. Because before when someone taught me to create a dish I would create the sea bass from Daniel, but it wouldn’t be my dish, it is his dish.
MR.E: So you think these two years defined your style?
CHRIS: These two years were very important for me. Had I not had these two years, and opened a restaurant right after my time in Boulud I wouldn’t have been able to truly create a menu. It would all be copies.
MR.E: Then how would you describe your style of cooking now?
CHRIS: For me its very important to match my menu to the concept, to the restaurant and to the customers. So when I started working at Schwein I had to figure out what the restaurant was about? What do they want? What is too much? What would people appreciate? So if you have an old style restaurant, with wooden tables and so on, you can’t start cooking molecular things. If you have a super clean restaurant that looks like a surgery theatre it makes no sense to serve a roast with mashed potato. For me it all has to match together with the concept. Of course I pulled things I learned from Andre but I created it over about six months.
MR.E: So what brought you back to Germany?
CHRIS: Friends, family. I kind of missed home. If you are a few years in New York City and then two years in Singapore it goes by so fast and all of a sudden you’ve been away from home for four years. I was offered a few jobs in New York, but my theory is if you accept a job as a chef de cuisine you should be there for about five years, at least. I don’t like chefs that are there for six months and then run away. I thought if I stay in New York and I succeed than I’ll never come back to Germany.
MR.E: So you are staying in Germany for now?
CHRIS: Yes, for sure.
MR.E: How do you see the food scene changing here in Berlin?
CHRIS: To be honest I cant really say, I’ve only been here for two years and when ever I’ve come here before it was to visit friends and I was mainly drinking, not eating. I can only compare it to other cities in Germany and I can see that the scene here is growing a lot. On one hand you have a lot of foodies, which is not a really a word I like, but in any case, people that care about the quality of the food. Doesn’t matter what it is, you’re not going to eat a shitty sandwich any more. This is something that is very important for Berlin. On the other hand, now everybody thinks they know better. Everybody has seen everything, there is a hash tag for this and a hash tag for that. Everybody has an allergy and so on. Its good for the industry, people care about food and think about food. Restaurants are becoming hot spots here in Berlin, like in New York or in London or Paris. People are starting to go out and spend money on food here and that is different than other places in Germany.
MR.E: You’ve worked and known the New York scene quite well. Do you see something similar happening here?
CHRIS: Yes, I think so. Recently I was talking with a friend about “Grandmas Food” and grandmas knew how to cook, to really cook. They knew how to pick vegetables and braise beef. Our mothers, nothing! Because there was Nestle and Magi and all of this convenience food that people used. There became a thirty year gap between generations. But now people are really starting to cook at home. To cook real things. They go to farmers markets and pick good produce and so on. People start to think about what food it and what it is about. This generation now is probably going to cook very well for their children. I think people are starting to love food again here.
Well, since Chris spoke with Eatler alot has happened. That nomination that Schwein and Chris got from Meisterköche ended being an award and Schwein has taken a different path. They have planned a location and concept shift are moving out to the west. Stay tuned, Mr. Eatler will keep you up to date on opening times, but it looks like its going to be ready to go later this fall. Its going to be Chris and the same team over in the west.