The Rheingau region, 20 minutes away from Frankfurt Airport, is world renowned for its excellent Riesling wines. Burg Schwarzenstein in Geisenheim can now also boast the fitting culinary counterpart: Nils Henkel’s two-starred cuisine. A visit to the vineyards.
The route leads through the wide Rhein Valley up into the steep vineyards of the Rheingau. Burg Schwarzenstein lords it over the surroundings right at the top, a 19th-century castle ruin now converted into an extensive hotel and restaurant complex. The terrace affords a view of one of Germany’s most beautiful wine-growing regions. Although actually only a relatively small wine-growing area with a good 3,000 hectares of vineyards, the Rheingau has an excellent reputation. The Riesling produced here enjoys worldwide fame. And since 2017, Burg Schwarzenstein has been offering the perfect culinary counterpart to it. Head chef Nils Henkel has been awarded two stars by Guide Michelin and named “Chef of the Year” by the magazine “Feinschmecker”. “This is where he presents his ‘pure nature’ cuisine,” the jury noted, “which places him among the pioneers of new German cooking.”
The 48-year-old award-winning chef sets great store by vegetarian cooking, but does not take a dogmatic approach to it. His menu always consists of two set menu options, with guests being able to choose between eight and six courses; they are called “Flora” and “Fauna”. Here, non-vegetarians also take Henkel’s advice to find out for themselves just how aromatic meat-free cuisine can be. Regional produce and a great love of vegetables not to mention unusual or forgotten plants characterise his cooking, even if he can’t quite do without the odd exquisite flavour – to which end he has to extend his shopping radius to considerably more than 200 kilometres. Nonetheless, there are some classic luxury ingredients traditionally used by starred chefs that are occasionally missing from the menu. Turbot, for instance, only makes an appearance on his menu in the summer, after the fish’s spawning period, although officially there is no closed season.
“I try to always think sustainably,” is how Henkel explains his philosophy. In his kitchen, the French Bresse poularde for example, a classic of high-end cuisine, faces strong competition from a south-Hessen Ried-Gockel chicken of equal quality. The game he uses comes from forests in Hessen, the trout from the Wisper Valley in the Taunus hills. Henkel gathers wild garlic and woodruff for his dishes in the neighbouring forest. He picks forgotten wild herbs such as yarrow and ground ivy on the borders of the vineyards and in his own garden. He uses ground elder, a bothersome garden weed, to garnish colourful carrots with chive ricotta – a true delight.
What sounds so light and natural about his close-to-nature cooking is actually the result of absolute perfection in the kitchen. For instance, to improve the aroma of a lightly grilled sweet pointed pepper, he purees it, thickens the puree with agar-agar, scents it with charcoal dust, and rolls the whole thing into a roulade. “Otherwise it would just be a blackish pepper that doesn’t look good on the plate,” he says. This perfects the flavours of the vegetables. Some varieties are presented in as many as five completely different ways on the plate. “I always have an idea in my head first and then play around with the flavours for as long as it takes to create a truly original taste,” says Henkel. And the secret of the stars? “Once you have reached a certain level you don’t want to go back, which is why for a chef actually the only way is upwards,” he notes pragmatically.
Perhaps it is this sense of the practical and obvious that is behind Henkel’s success. “Actually I never wanted to be a chef, but a joiner and interior designer,” he says. It was an internship in a restaurant during which he got to plate up dishes that made him change his mind. “There’s more variety in the gastronomy sector.” Following stints at first-class restaurants in Eutin, Hamburg and Coesfeld, he cooked his way to the top over the course of 18 years at Restaurant Schloss Lerbach in Bergisch Gladbach near Cologne, ultimately taking over management of the restaurant from Dieter Müller before moving to the Rheingau in 2017.
He enjoys spending the little free time he has with his wife and two daughters, aged three and six. He also occasionally goes for a meal, for instance at his fellow chef Andreas Krolik’s restaurant “Lafleur” in Frankfurt, the second of the two two-starred chefs in the region. And his favourite dish? “Green Thai curry, nice and hot, with plenty of fresh vegetables – or beef brisket with horseradish sauce and beetroot.” His mother cooked the latter dish for him as a child. And still does so today, when he goes to visit her on the Baltic coast near Kiel, his native region.
Photocredit: Burg Schwarzenstein