#CHEFSSECRET

 NILS HENKEL

Burg Schwarzenstein

At Restaurant Schwarzenstein by Nils Henkel guests are spoiled with haute cuisine dishes and a very attentive service, in the elegant designed dining room with a pleasant terrace and stunning views on the vineyards. With his cuisine in close touch with nature Nils Henkel stands for his own special style. The Fauna Menu is convincing with the best products from the countryside and the water, intelligently paired with the aromas of the world. The Flora Menu showcases all types of vegetables and wild herbs from the region, without fish or meat. A perfectly matching selection of wines as well as an extraordinary alcohol-free accompaniment complete the two menus in an exciting manner. Restaurant Schwarzenstein in one of the best restaurants from the region, holding 2 Michelin stars, 18/20 in the Gault&Millau Guide and previous nominations for the list of The Best Chef Awards 2018.

Dining in a calm, stylish and exciting setting

 

After an exciting drive through the romantic and beautiful scenery around the Rhein and the Mosel, we arrive at the idyllic location of Burg Schwarzenstein. This spectacular hotel and restaurant is situated in the village of Johannisberg on a hill in the middle of the vineyards with an exquisite view on the Rheingau area. The Schwarzenstein restaurant isn’t only impressive because of its amazing views. The interior design matches the setting perfectly with its warm and elegant fabrics and colours that resemble the authentic look and feel of the old castle at Burg Schwarzenstein. The modest, yet very stylish basis is balanced with a lovely type of light and shadow play, some fancy touches of gold and creative plants and flowers.

An impressive team, an impressive experience

 

Chef Nils Henkel has an impressive track record, being a chef in one of Germany’s best restaurants Lerbach. Henkel was also voted Cook of the Year 2017 by the magazine "Der Feinschmecker" and Gault&Millau named Henkel Chef of the Year in 2009.

But in the dining room as well, they’ve got an experienced team in place. The host Marina Saldaña Alonso has a natural flair that makes everyone feel at ease in no time. Together with her team she stands for a relaxed, attentive service. The sommelier Michel Fouquet was voted Germany's best sommelier in the Falstaff WEIN-TROPHY 2018. He’s always looking to make an exciting wine selection – both via the wine list and the wine pairing – combining classics and interesting wines from the region with the best wines from all over the world.

Meet chef Nils Henkel

 

With his Pure Nature culinary concept, Nils Henkel represents a unique cooking style. He serves his guests a new kind of German cuisine that confidently and imaginatively plays with various textures and aromatic surprises, paying particular attention to seasonal herbs and vegetables. Old varieties of vegetables and wild regional herbs often take centre stage here. With many dishes, fish and meat form the logical accompaniment, but it is clear that Henkel’s passion lies more and more in menus composed entirely of vegetables, wherein he foregoes meat and fish altogether, and yet the dish feels complete.

His sophisticated creations are akin to little works of art, in which the flavours of the top-quality products are always the number one priority. Nils Henkel wishes to offer his guests the utmost in quality, as well as pure, unadulterated enjoyment – and he and his team achieve this with great success: Gault&Millau named Henkel Chef of the Year in 2009. 

Nils Henkel began training to be a chef in 1986 at the Romantikhotel Voss-Haus in Eutin. He then continued his career in Hamburg, at the Raphael Hotel’s Le Jardin, as well as at Heinz Wehmann’s Landhaus Scherrer and at Il Ristorante. He then moved to the Münsterland as a sous-chef, where he worked at Pascal Levallois’s Valkenhof in Coesfeld, and at Averbeck’s Giebelhof in Senden. The finishing touch, initially as a sous-chef, took Nils Henkel to the Dieter Müller restaurant at the Althoff Schlosshotel Lerbach from 1997. He took over the role of head chef from 2004, as well as filling in in Dieter Müller’s absence. In 2008, he became the sole head chef, and in 2010, the restaurant was completely redesigned and renamed: Restaurant Lerbach – it was the start of a new era. When the restaurant closed at the end of 2015, Nils Henkel took a creative break and worked as a freelance chef and consultant for 2 years. In 2017 he started in his position of head chef at Burg Schwarzenstein, where he managed to obtain the 2 star recognition of Michelin within 9 months.

Curious to learn more about the philosophy, passion and challenges of Nils Henkel, we take some time for a relaxed chat with this amazing chef.

#INTERVIEW

Chef’s Secret (The Best Chef & Hungry for More): What a nice place Burg Schwarzenstein is! How did this new chapter in your career got started?

 

Nils Henkel: After working at Sloss Lehbach for about 18 years, the restaurant closed in 2015 after the ownership of the location had changed. So basically I lost my job and I needed to look for a new challenge. As I immediately knew it wouldn’t be easy to find a new position as a chef at the same level in a similar location, I decided to work as a freelancer at that time. In the next years I have spoken with many people, but it was clear to me that I didn’t want to work in the city, so I kept thinking about new opportunities where I could work in the nature and the gardens again. But that’s not so easy to find.

 

Back then I had good contacts with some chefs who worked for Relais & Châteaux establishments and that’s how I was introduced to the Teigelkamp family. They had just built a new, very modern pavilion at Burg Schwarzenstein and they were looking for a chef to take their new restaurant Schwarzenstein to the highest level. I really liked the location and believed that this project had much potential, so I took on the challenge. In the beginning our restaurant was located in the space next to the current restaurant, where you’ll find Restaurant Grill & Wine nowadays. And the latter was located where Restaurant Schwarzenstein is today. So we had only 8 tables and about 18 seats, and soon it became clear that we were always fully booked on weekends. So we decided to switch the location of both restaurants last year, which was a great decision as we have a more spacious dining room with much more potential now. So luckily we were just as successful as we had hoped. And after two years we have a fully refurbished new restaurant, two Michelin stars and an interesting clientele.

Chef’s Secret: How would you describe your own cooking style here at Burg Schwarzenstein?

 

Nils Henkel: It’s a Nature’s Cuisine with local products and influences from around the globe. Regional products are combined with international herbs and flavours, as starting from the best quality produce is the single most important thing to me. But in the same time I try to work locally as much as possible. I believe we as chefs need to follow the seasons and stay connected to nature. I think well about which products I use or don’t use, like wild fishing, aqua culture and so on. A sustainable way of working is the right and only way for me. It’s the philosophy of the future. 

Chef’s Secret: Isn’t it difficult to be inspired every time? Especially when you’re cooking with what nature has to offer at a certain moment.

 

Nils Henkel: Our menu changes about every 8 weeks. So every month one of the two menu’s changes. Not only are all dishes changed at the same time, the non-alcoholic drink pairing is also adjusted at that same moment. So it required much effort and dedication to keep up that pace.

I must say at times it can be difficult to find the space in your head that you need to create a new menu. When there’s much day-to-day stuff to do – like the phone that is ringing or people asking questions – then it can be challenging to be creative. In order to come up with new ideas you need to free your mind. That’s why it’s important to go running in the vineyards from time to time, or to arrive really early in the morning, so I can sit at my desk thinking about new ideas when I am the only one there. But on the other hand it can also be very easy to be inspired sometimes. Nature has got so much to offer, and ideas just pop up. The biggest part of the creative process happens in the head, and only in the second place it happens in the kitchen. Another way of getting inspired is to talk with our suppliers. In many cases they can tell me a story about certain top quality products they have and that gives me ideas for combinations with certain vegetables or herbs. And what I also do is start from existing dishes to look for an optimized version or a new interpretation. Guests sometimes like to eat what is familiar to them, but at the same time they always want to discover something new, something different.

Chef’s Secret: Do you have a certain signature dish? A dish that people would

always want to eat?

 

Nils Henkel: I think my most famous dish is the arctic char with elderflower, capers and cress mesh. It’s something I don’t necessarily present every year, but I know it’s quite popular among the guests. This year we have another dish on the menu that many people really like. It’s the prawn with octopus, tomato and Greek salad. With the fresh seafood and vegetables it tastes like vacation.

 

Chef’s Secret: Do you have a favourite ingredient?

Nils Henkel: Actually I like all spices and vegetables. I like to combine the freshness in my dishes with a spicy component. I also like to work a lot with fish and seafood, combined with vegetables. I believe my menu’s don’t need much meat.

 

Chef’s Secret: What has made you to the chef you are today? 

How did you develop your philosophy and style?

Nils Henkel: Every chef has to go through a process to find his personal approach. In my cuisine I use lots of vegetables and not that much meat. It reflects my personal opinion as I don’t think it is sustainable to eat that much meat. It’s going to be a problem for our planet and one day or the other the system will collapse if we’re not prepared to make changes. I think we’ve got to take our responsibility. 

 

The first time I created a vegetarian menu is already more than 10 years ago. I was working together with Dieter Müller back then and he asked me to develop a totally different menu, something new and innovative. In the beginning the vegetarian menu wasn’t chosen that often by the guests, but people liked the idea. And throughout the years we’ve seen it get more and more popular. When I started here at Burg Schwarzenstein I immediately knew I wanted to present a cuisine with lots of vegetables. So we introduced the names Fauna and Flora for the menu’s, as it’s immediately clear what they stand for. Although the Fauna Menu contains seafood, fish and meat, it also has about 50% vegetables in each dish. So whether you choose one menu or the other, both options reflect

my love for the nature and the gardens.

Many people that come to our restaurant are happy to try our vegetarian menu. About 30% of the guests chooses the Flora Menu. Many of them aren’t vegetarians and they often eat meat in their daily life. That’s why they think it’s interesting to try our Flora Menu, to discover the flavours nature has to offer. It’s something they cannot find everywhere.

Chef’s Secret: Have you ever thought of pursuing a career other than that of a chef?

 

Nils Henkel: Before I pursued my dreams as a chef, I thought about becoming a carpenter or an architect. I thought about an education in that field. But when I started a carpenter job, I already knew after a couple of weeks it wasn’t going to be the job where I could fully use my creative energy. At that time a friend of mine started off as a chef and I immediately had the feeling that that might be something I’d like to do as well. So I pursued my ambitions in cooking and it’s something I have never regretted since. 

Chef’s Secret: What do you like the most in your profession?

Nils Henkel: The creative process is certainly the most exciting part. When you have certain ideas in your mind and there’s that moment where you actually succeed in representing this on the plate, followed by the happiness and positive feedback of the guests, that‘s very satisfactory. Besides being able to create, my greatest happiness comes from the fact that I’m blessed to work with a young, motivated and talented team. 

 

Chef’s Secret: And what’s the most difficult aspect of the life of a chef?

Nils Henkel: It’s not the easiest job. Let’s say not every day goes smoothly. But it doesn’t matter if you have a bad or a good day, for the guests it needs to be perfect every single day. They have certain expectations and we need to make sure we deliver that 110% quality level each and every day. And of course being a chef is a special lifestyle, you have to learn to live with the fact that you’re working when everyone else has time off on weekends.

Chef’s Secret: What are your dreams and ambitions?

Nils Henkel: Of course getting that third Michelin star is the big dream. It’s not the single most important thing. But still, it would be a huge boost for the motivation of the team, for the occupancy in the restaurant, for our reputation, and so on. We’re already very happy with what we have and what we can do here, but let’s say we keep on giving the best we have day after day, so we keep on evolving and optimising. And we’ll see what will happen in the future.

Fauna or Flora: the exciting menu’s at Restaurant Schwarzenstein

 

Nils Henkel presents a nature’s cuisine via two different menu’s: Fauna and Flora. The first menu consists of vegetables accompanied by seafood, fish and some meat, while the second one is made without fish or meat. Every six to eight weeks the menu changes, so usually one month the Flora Menu is updated and the next month there will be a new Fauna Menu. Guests can choose between an interesting wine pairing or non-alcoholic drinks that are created to go with each specific dish.

 

The menu starts off with the ‘Prolog’, which is a selection of four refined appetizers.

‘Prolog’

Pork belly, peperoni, soy pearl and coriander.

Lamb’s lettuce, lemon meringue and ossietra caviar.

Beef tartare, octopus, mojo and a tapioca cracker.

Gazpacho Andaluz, king crab and japapeño foam.

From the Fauna Menu we tasted an interesting variety of dishes, full of flavour and creativity. Although the menu consists of no less than eight dishes, it feels perfectly harmonious. Definitely more than enough, but incredibly well-balanced and not overly heavy.

We start off with a fresh dish made of kingfish, ceviche, celery and grapefruit. Although the plate consists of many small creations and a large variety of textures, this dish is characterised by the balance and simplicity of its

central flavours.

Next there’s lightly smoked Danube salmon, tarragon, apple and horseradish.

An exciting dish in our opinion: pike-perch ike jime, calf head barley, redwine and sorrel. The briny fish and the flavourful and lightly sour calf head barley match incredibly well.

Gambero rosso, calamary, Greek salad and sheep yogurt, is one of the favourite dishes of many guests.

Followed by an unusual choice of meat: frog leg, chicken brew, parsley and onion.

The only red meat in the fauna menu is the roebuck with sunflower root, juniper vinegar and cassis.

A fruity seasonal dessert is made of apricot, sesame, green tea and sweet umbel.

A more classic dessert is built up around chocolate with cru Virunga 70%, raspberries, paprika and lavender.

From the Flora Menu we tasted another selection of dishes. At Nils Henkel the vegetarian menu doesn’t start off from the ingredients of the Fauna Menu, where the meat simply is replaced by vegetables or other condiments. All dishes are completely unique creations, getting the best out of the main ingredients. You’ll never have the feeling that something is missing in a dish because there’s no meat or seafood in it.

A fresh starter: watermelon, green almond, cream cheese and verbena.

Followed by a rich and somewhat exotic flavoured dish with roasted avocado, coriander tapioca, peas miso and lemon.

A very flavourful and pretty creation is served next: courgette blossom, smoked potato, mimolette and capers.

The main course is violet carrot, quail egg, carrot jus and chanterelles.

A fresh, lightly sour and creamy cheese dish is next: deichkäse, spiced cucumber, borage and remoulade foam.

A sweet dessert to end the meal: black cherry, corn, porcelana chocolate and piney.

Coffee and tea are served with a selection of sweet bites, called the ‘Epilog’.

Stocked sour cream, lemon and red currant.

Pate de fruit: peach and elderberry blossom.

Macaron: coriander and coconut.

Perilla sorbet: pineapple, java pepper and mango.

Caramac: caramel chocolate and salty caramel.

More culinary delights at Burg Schwarzenstein

 

Many people choose to make a weekend out of their visit at Nils Henkel’s Restaurant Schwarzenstein. And that is something we can highly recommend. The property is located at a beautiful location on a hill in the middle of the vineyards, spoiling you with stunning views during the dinner but even more so when having breakfast. The rooms at the Relais & Chateaux hotel Burg Schwarzenstein are luxurious, elegant and very comfortable. And having lunch or dinner – while sampling some local wines – in their brasserie the Burgrestaurant or in the laid back atmosphere of the Grill & Wine Restaurant is definitely a nice extra that turns a fine dining experience into a full gastronomic weekend.

In short

At Restaurant Schwarzenstein chef Nils Henkel presents a ‘Nature’s Cuisine’, focused on vegetables, herbs and spices. All dishes are perfectioned in every detail, mouthwathering eye candy, outstanding thanks to its simplicity, elegance and balance.

 

Practical information

Burg Schwarzenstein, Rosengasse 32, 65366 Geisenheim-Johannisberg, Germany | +49 (0)6722 – 99 50-0 | info@burg-schwarzenstein.de | www.burg-schwarzenstein.de |
instagram.com/burgschwarzenstein | facebook.com/BurgSchwarzenstein | facebook.com/GourmetrestaurantSchwarzenstein | instagram.com/restaurantschwarzenstein | www.nilshenkel.com | Nils Henkel on Facebook | instagram.com/n.henkel

Interview by Sarah De Hondt

Photo by Adriaan Van Looy

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