Torsten Michel makes his regular rounds around Germany’s most lauded restaurant, chatting up the diners. But before he’s even reached the center table he’s asked the same old question: “What happened to Mr. Wohlfahrt?”
The chef of Germany’s most-decorated Michelin-starred restaurant, the Schwarzwaldstube, just smiles at the guest on his fourth glass of wine. “You know, we’re a middle-sized operation, we’ve got to look ahead,” he replies.
Harald Wohlfahrt was Mr. Michel’s predecessor who led the Schwarzwaldstube’s team to 25 three-star Michelin ratings in a row. Last summer, a court battle between Mr. Wohlfahrt and the Schwarzwaldstube’s owner, the Hotel Traube Tonbach, thrust the prestigious fine-dining venue into controversy. Long story short: Although Mr. Wohlfahrt had readied the kitchen for Thorsten Michel to take over for years; he wasn’t quite ready to leave yet.
The details are rather unclear and Mr. Michel does not want to talk about it. But it still doesn’t bother him if a guest asks.
“It would be bad if that bothered me,” said the 40-year-old chef. “The people here had 40 years of contact with Mr. Wohlfart. He is one of Germany’s best chefs. All of us here cannot understand why it had to end this way. That also goes for the guests.”
The Schwarzwaldstube is located in Baiersbronn, a small town deep in the Black Forest region. Extraordinarily, the sleepy village is one of world’s culinary capitals, home to 16,000 inhabitants who have two restaurants with three Michelin stars and one with two stars to choose from.
On any given evening, Mr. Michel’s clients are treated to an array of rare luxuries: duck barnacles, caviar in a sea urchin sauce, joints of suckling lamb, Gillardeau oysters, and woodruff sorbet. Critics say his work offers a robust French cuisine, unafraid of contemporary touches.
You would think the man running Germany’s number one restaurant, number five in the world, would be a little more uptight. Even when chasing his own three Michelin star rating, after Mr. Wohlfahrt's departure, he preferred an even-tempered approach to a serious art.
“We are here in Tonbach and not in a metropolis," said Mr. Michel, who took up cooking after a sight condition stopped him from becoming a jet fighter pilot. "Because of that, I take having a relaxed kitchen as a compliment."
Gourmet cuisine does not usually make much money. It requires expensive ingredients, costly wines, elaborate service, and there is a limited clientele: the kind of people happy to pay €225 for the Schwarzwaldstube’s dinner menu. Sometimes profit margins only run at about 1 or 2 percent.
When matched with long hours and stressful services, it's an industry that you don’t enter into without great passion. But according to Mr. Michel, times are changing on the gourmet circuit. There are more employees and less overtime hours. The menu takes shape around guests' work-life balance. The head chef brings his son to the nursery and picks him up everyday, which would never have been possible a few years back.
“[Fine dining] has become more realistic,” he said. “It is much more often considered whether certain things make sense. If it makes sense, we do it. For example, we used to come in Wednesdays at 6 a.m. and leave at night just to open at noon. Then we closed Wednesday lunches and we all won, because everyone came into the kitchen more relaxed and concentrated. That call could’ve been made 10 years ago.”
But Mr. Michel is confident that while some things may keep changing, the fundamental ethos of Baiersbronn cuisine will not. His next aim: to remain at the helm long enough to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his restaurant’s third Michelin star.
A version of this article was published in the business magazine Wirtschaftswoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]