Thomas Bühner has just presented his culinary skills at a Pödör Black Table Fashion Dinner in Budapest. The chef of the La Vie gourmet restaurant in Osnabrück, Germany, has been a member of the country’stop chefs’ league for more than 20 years. In 2011 he was awarded the highest prize for chefs, a third Michelin star, putting him among the top German chefs once and for all. We met Bühner during his visit.
Besides the culinary delights, the creations of excellent Hungarian fashion designers were in focus at the Black Table Fashion Dinner. Do fashion and gastronomy make a good match? Do you think that they have things in common even?
I think that this is a very exciting concept. Of course I asked if it would be possible for the models to walk through the kitchen as well (he laughs), but unfortunately that was not feasible. Since I am staying in the kitchen the whole time, all in all unfortunately it absolutely does not matter to me if the performance outside is about fashion or music. In general I think that fashion and eating go well together. I think it’s a good thing that when you are preparing for spending an evening in a restaurant you dress up prettily. Unfortunately the trend today is that people dress in a rather casual way even when they are visiting a three-star restaurant. That ruins the magic of it a little bit.
In fashion it’s very important to closely follow up the latest trends. Is that something important for a chef as well?
The question about the newest trends in the kitchen is the one asked most frequently by all the journalists. I personally don’t think that it’s worth to run after each and every trend and I always try to explain myself a little bit: I use the example of the Italians. They are one of the most successful restaurateurs, at least in Germany, and they do not follow trends at all. They have been doing the same for 45 years – tomatoes with mozzarella, vitello tonnato and ravioli – and still people go out to eat Italian. Only the German chefs are expected to follow the latest trends. All in all I think that for a chef it’s much more important to find his own personal style.
What do you mean by having your own personal style?
It means that it can be recognised. If you have eaten in our restaurant once then you will experience that it has its very own style, and when you come again you might think: “Ah, this could be another dish from Thomas Bühner.” When you go to a museum you will be able to tell apart the Picasso from the Monet. If you have already seen one of the paintings you will recognise the same style in the others. I have my own style and I don’t let trends influence me. For example at the moment regional cooking is very fashionable. But where do I start with it and where do I stop? There are many products that we can’t offer in the region at all because they are not present. Should I only prepare fish from sweet waters? We are happy to use regional ingredients if they are good. But why shouldn’t I be using the Styrian pumpkin seed oil from Pödör only because it does not come out of the region?
Which are your favourite ingredients in general?
The really simple ones. I think that the art of cooking is not buying a Breton turbot and putting a spoonful of caviar on top. For me it’s a much larger challenge to take a simple ingredient and prepare it in a way that will make the customer say: “Wow, I have never eaten this in that way before!”
Do you need to be very innovative for that?
Yes! But being innovative is not something like serving lobster in strawberry sauce only because no one ever did that before; it’s much more handling the ingredients in a creative way. Take spaghetti bolognese as an example: try cooking the pasta in a strong beef broth instead of plain water. You can’t imagine how much more intensive the spaghetti bolognese will taste if you prepare it this way. This is what I call being innovative.
What about the growing obsession with healthy eating, does it play a role in your kitchen? Are you also in favour of vegetarian, light or low-carb dishes?
We are delivering a night at the opera and not a night in front of the television. Our dishes are not meant for everyday consumption. Although it’s true that vegetables are getting a larger emphasis in our kitchen, I would not denounce meat only because vegetarian cuisine is fashionable at the moment. Of course we are cooking low-fat dishes, since I think it’s important to design a large menu in such a way that once you eat it, you do not feel like the big bad wolf with the stomach filled with stones after it. This is why we make sure that we offer a variety of rich and light dishes and every dish is in harmony with the other one. All in all I think that our dishes are automatically healthy since we are working with especially good quality ingredients.
The Black Table Fashion Dinner was organised by Pödör, a manufacturer of premium oils and vinegars. Is it true that we should not underestimate the importance of quality even if we are talking about a simple ingredient such as oil?
Good ingredients are the alpha and omega of cooking! Better to be a bad chef with good products than a great chef using bad products. It’s a real shame that many people lack the knowledge how to process good products. Oil is a good example. You only need to keep a few simple instructions in mind: it’s important to dispense the oil carefully and you avoid overheating it. Everyone says that you can fry in olive oil. However, you lose a lot of taste if you do so. You should rather be using oil to aromatise. If you are preparing a fried trout, for example, and you would like to use a good olive oil, you should rather apply a thin layer after frying the fish. The fish warms the oil and you get the full flavour of it. The result will be much better than if you fry the fish in an entire pan of oil.
Follow your own preferences. The best way is to try several oils to find out what you like. I could not really tell you which one is my favourite. Walnut oil, for example, has a very beautiful taste and so does the poppy seed oil from Pödör. My suggestion: try potato foam marinated with a few drops of poppy seed oil and add some strawberries marinated in poppy seed oil. The result is finger-licking good. Tastes like a poppy seed lollipop. You can mix and match a lot of oils with specific dishes as well. At the fashion dinner we offered lobster with hazelnut oil, for example. If you can’t make up your mind, I suggest that you follow the season. In the winter months prefer using the heavier oils, at springtime and summer use the poppy seed oil, and so on.
Your career has literally taken you up to the stars. What goals are you still trying to achieve?
Prestigious awards lead to high expectations. My highest aim is fulfilling these expectations. My motivation is to have my guests going home satisfied each evening.