STEFAN BERWANGER – FROM CHEMIST TO CHEF – A BREATHTAKING STORY
Today, Stefan Berwanger works as Chef de Cuisine in the Pädaste Manor (5-star rated member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World) on the island of Muhu in Estonia, and is most familiar with the “Nordic Islands cuisine”. Here is an exciting peek into another world.
Your career began with studying Chemistry before you learned the culinary arts. Why the change?
Originally, I wanted to teach Chemistry and English so I was studying at the University of Tübingen, Germany. Since I was 15 (when I was not in school) I had been working in the food industry, mostly in service. One day, I was put in the kitchen due to a severe shortage of staff and I loved it. So much that I spent the whole next semester break in the kitchen. I decided to complete an apprenticeship in the culinary arts and so I went to beautiful Stromburg.
Chemist and chef, what helps you in your career today from your chemistry days?
You can really see a lot of parallels between the laboratory and the kitchen. Accuracy, cleanliness and discipline are both huge tenants in both disciplines. Of course you could say that the work with measuring and precision is similar, but in a laboratory these things are definitely done with more precision.
But you could say that the processes in the kitchen is easier to understand with some background chemistry knowledge. It also comes in handy when people have know idea what they are talking about, and correcting that problem.
Is a chemist-turned-chef naturally more experimental?
I think the motivation to experiment in the kitchen is extremely different to chemistry. The chemist usually gets to an experiment after a long time of theoretical work, whereas a chef throws throws things together as necessary, and the outcome of the experiments vary. In the laboratory things can dramatically go wrong, in the kitchen things can at worst taste really bad.
All things considered, there are also highly interesting, scientific approaches to the kitchen, wherein components are combined in regards to their chemical compositions.
You completed your apprenticeship as a chef with Johann Lafer at Stromburg, a Relais & Châteaux house. What influenced you most from your time with Johann Lafer?
I completed my apprenticeship under Bernhard Munding at the Stromburg. What helped with my experience to the extreme was that there was fine-dining and a bistro under one roof. This gave me the opportunity to gain a lot of knowledge from both areas. Today most chefs can do spherification wonderfully, but most can’t put together a decent potato salad.
Furthermore, I was fortunate that a lot of trust was put in me from the beginning, so I was allowed to do a lot on my own and take on various responsibilities.
After some time in Frankfurt, under others as a Sous Chef in the Sofitel Frankfurt, you now find yourself as Chef de Cuisine at Pädaste Manor in Muhu, Estonia. Why Estonia?
Although I am a native of Stuttgart, I was born and raised in Starzach-Felldorf. A town of around 500 souls. My childhood was fantastic and I have to say, I never had a drive to live in the city. I wasn’t missing anything. Of course there was also not much going on culinary wise in the area, so I naturally migrated towards the city.
I have to admit that Estonia was sort of a blank spot on the map for me, of course people know Tallinn, you know it’s in the Baltics and close to Russia, but that’s about it.
My partner and I wanted to just get away from the hectic life of the city and get back to nature, and the beautiful hotel offers that, right on the sea.
From Estonia most people would only know about vibrant Tallinn. The Pädaste Manor where you work, is on the island of Muhu, 2 hours from Tallinn. Why does a chef look for such solitude?
Well, like I said, we wanted to get out of the hustle of the city. The Pädaste Manor is a treasure that has been looked after and restored for decades. It has been restored piece-by-piece and has now reached its final size of 24 rooms.I am also a huge fan of the family atmosphere that has been created here.
How would you describe Estonia’s culinary situation?
In the Estonian cuisine you find a lot of German and Russian influences. Which you also see when you look at the history of Estonia, so you can find everything from sauerkraut to pelmeni.
Are there some specialties on the island of Muhu?
For me, the whole island is a culinary specialty. The biodiversity of the untouched areas surprised me, and still does every day. The Estonians can get everything they want in the markets, but not for long periods of time. What I enjoy eating is the dried-smoked-salted fish, perfect snack for just sitting on the couch.
The Pädaste Manor is known for its “Nordic Island Cuisine”. What is behind all of that?
Nordic cuisine defines itself through respecting the earth, fertile grounds and the seasons. That means we work with what the island gives us. Although, we use wine for the jus and the chocolate for desserts when needed.Everything to proportion. We also offer products from classic methods of preservation through fermentation, drying, pickling and smoking. Also, we don’t miss a single part of an animal here.
It’s especially important here because the vegetable season on the island is very short. You only have a couple of months to prepare for the winter. That is reflected in our cuisine and the way we do things here.
Which dish describes it all best?
As I mentioned, the concept runs through every dish on the menu. A specific example is our current main course “Island lamb with forest mushrooms and sea cabbage”.
The lamb on our island is of exceptional quality, which is connected to the general attitude.
You can find sheep everywhere on the island, and in combination with sea cabbage and mushrooms, sea and forest, on this little island never far from one another. The sea cabbage on the dish is filled with pickled mushrooms from the earlier season. Then you have fresh, sauteed mushrooms, a mushroom cream and sea cabbage chips on the plate. Some mushroom powder and lamb jus round everything off… I hope.
Nordic cuisine is a trend but also a very wide-ranging geographical term. What does “Nordic Cuisine” mean to you? Where are the borders of this cuisine?
In my opinion, Nordic has less to do with regional but more “back to the roots” style of cooking. Take what you have, and cook it like the old days. Again, it is about an awareness of ingredients and using techniques that originated here.
How are you getting on with the language?
The language, at least for me, is extremely hard to learn. However, we always try and make it work and the Estonians are very patient and helpful. Fortunately the Estonians are aware of their rather small population of around 1.3 million people, so most Estonians speak English, Russian and often German and Finnish. I am a bit envious, I have to say.
Spring, Summer, maybe also Autumn you can imagine a bit how it could be as a guest or working chef on Muhu island. Honestly speaking: What is the experience like as a guest and chef in the winter?
Down to -25°C, snow and wind. Doesn’t seem too good reading those words but the winter season is crazy. It’s quieter than usual, which I thought was hard to achieve. It gets really dark at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and the sun comes up around 9:30 in the morning. It’s a very calming time for me and visually one of the most beautiful. These types of cold temperatures aren’t so bad because the moisture in the air is barely there. All in all, not very suitable for the shivery types.
What are your Autumn/Winter creations?
Totally classic game meat with stock vegetables or even some reserves from summer. We always try to have a large variety of vegetables from all types on hand from the summer.
The theme of local foods, from smaller, specialized and personal producers is becoming more important. Who are some of your local producers?
We actually have a specialist for every product. Of course, I should mention our own large garden where we get our own herbs and smaller vegetables from. The Estonians have a principle that we could translate as the “producer’s market”. Fishermen bring their catch to the shops and there the end customers can buy it. It’s the same for other animal products and foods. Milk is picked up by the dairies from the small farms (I have an acquaintance that has 5 cows for example) to be processed.
We work closely with vegetable grower, which grows outside it’s normal range if there is a demand.
Which products do you use from these smaller specialists, and what do you create with these products?
These smaller producers are the mainstay of my foods and ingredients and therefore are in everything I create.
Thanks so much Stefan and we wish you the best for the future.
Chef de Cuisine Stefan Berwanger with Chef Pâtissier Achim Braitsch and his team at Alexander are proud to serve innovative Nordic Island cuisine, which respects the seasons and uses the local product optimally. As well as working with the island’s producers and farmers, many of vegetables and herbs are grown in the Pädaste’s own garden and greenhouse. Pädaste Manor offers a fascinating culinary combination of urban refinement and healthy country tradition.
Visit us at: www.padaste.ee
Member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, 5 star rated. Are you interested to learn more about Stefan Berwanger’s work and the “Nordic Island” cuisine? Then contact us at: https://www.padaste.ee/cuisine/alexander/