More than 40 years ago, the man who was later to pioneer nouvelle cuisine in Germany was hired as the first chef of Tantris restaurant in Munich.
Eckart Witzigmann, 73, has since been proclaimed “Chef of the Century” by the Gault Millau restaurant guide. And thanks to his pioneering work, Germany has more Michelin star restaurants than ever before.
Mr. Witzigmann and his fellow chefs have made a lasting contribution to the eating habits and food culture of Germany, according to food critic Wolfram Siebeck.
At Tantris, a flat concrete building with lobster-red walls and truffle-black chairs, Germans learned what delicacies were and said goodbye to the belief that the only good plate is a full plate. They followed a “path away from the field kitchen to nouvelle cuisine,” said Mr. Siebeck.
In short, Tantris taught Germans how to enjoy food and became a Mecca for foodies from all over the country.
“You can’t imagine where German gastronomy would be without Mr. Witzigmann.”
A seasoned traveler, Munich-based developer and gourmet Fritz Eichbauer longed for the scents and tastes that simply weren’t available in his homeland. So in 1971 he opened a restaurant and named it Tantris, or “search for perfection.”
Mr. Eichbauer hired Mr. Witzigmann, a still unknown chef from Austria, to run his kitchen. The 30-year-old turned down an offer to cook for the Kennedys in order to take the job – and never looked back.
Today, the iconic Tantris still ranks among the best restaurants in Germany, and Mr. Witzigmann among the most prominent chefs worldwide. He brought Tantris its first Michelin star in 1973, and its second in 1974. Later he achieved three stars at his Aubergine restaurant, also in Munich.
Although Mr. Witzigmann has not cooked at Tantris since 1978, he likes to come back now and then. He is still very welcome inside the orange-tiled kitchen. His successor, executive chef Hans Haas, is an old pupil, and fellow Tyrol native.
The godfather of German high-end cooking, calls his life as a chef a “never ending marathon.” He sounds proud when he talks of his 13 years abroad and afterwards taking over at Tantris.
He worked hard for his reputation, he says – including 16-hour days in the kitchens of the Haeberlin brothers in Alsace, at Paul Bocuse in Lyon and at the Operakällaren in Stockholm.
These days, Mr. Witzigmann likes to pop into specialist food shops to “chat about God and the world” with the salespeople. These stores are full of delicacies like red snapper and sea bass and herbs like tarragon and thyme. Back in the early 1970s the chef and his team had to travel twice a week to Paris to get such things.
Over the years, German palates have matured steadily. In 1966, when the Michelin Guide was reintroduced after the war, the country had 66 star restaurants. Today it has 282.
“That shows how the food culture has slowly, but constantly progressed,” said Ralf Flinkenflügel, editor-in-chief of the Michelin Guide.
Mr. Flinkenflügel is a shadowy figure, rarely recognized. And keeping it that way is part of his job, as waiters and restaurant owners cannot know he’s a critic. Yet his little stars can boost a restaurant out of obscurity and put it firmly on the culinary map.
Video: The Tantris restaurant gala.
He told Handelsblatt that Germany’s awareness of, and interest in, good food has risen year after year. From his point of view, it was the pioneering chef at Tantris who triggered that trend.
“You can’t imagine where German gastronomy would be without Mr. Witzigmann,” he said.
Mr. Witzigmann not only cooked in Germany for more than 40 years, he also trained many younger talents – including Mr. Hans at Tantris, Harald Wohlfahrt, Christian Jürgens, Bobby Bräuer, Alfons Schuhbeck and Johann Lafer.
“Quality trickles down slowly from the top to the bottom,” said Mr. Flinkenflügel.
Not everyone who learns to cook with the exceptional chef is a star chef today, he said. But each one built on the lessons of taste, product quality, professional preparation and price-service relationship.
Customers are driving change from their side too by paying increased attention to what they eat. Sales of organic food products in Germany rose from €2.1 billion ($2.36 billion) in 2000 to €7.9 billion last year.
The people who set especially high standards and shop at weekly food markets or farm stores are “quality eaters,” according to a 2012 Nestlé survey. It is these quality eaters who are helping the revolution continue.
Dorit Hess is a Handelsblatt reporter covering economic policy, and a devout foodie. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org