Three stars for an eel

Gourmet chef Kevin Fehling

Kevin Fehling quit his position as head chef in a luxury restaurant to open his own place in Hamburg. Just a few months later, "The Table" in the HafenCity district is the city's premier go-to address for gourmets. Our author Lisa Scheide visited the chef and quizzed him about his recipe for success.

Author

Lisa Scheide

when the journalist isn't munching her way round Hamburg, she can be found combing through the city's cultural niches and hotspots, or with her nose in a newly discovered book.

More from Lisa

Photos: Claudius Schulze

Plump, freshly gleaming eels coil in the stainless steel bowl. Kevin Fehling grabs the plumpest, with economical precision one of Hamburg's best chefs cuts the fish into bite-sized chunks. Next stop is a dark, viscous marinade of soya sauce, sugar and mirin, a Japanese rice wine. There's a loud sizzling as the eel goes into the hot frying pan, and suddenly a fine, aromatic fragrance fills the open-plan kitchen.

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An eel requires a practised hand's touch

Glazed eel is a classic of Japanese cuisine, but the way in which the dish is arranged at “The Table” is unique. Kevin bends over a delicate, matt white bowl the shape and size of a sea-urchin shell, its bottom lined with radishes. He adds a few dots of yuzu cream and places the warm, glazed eel on top. “Yuzu,” he explains casually, “is Japanese lemon, it has a very interesting flavour”. He adds trout caviar with a tiny spoon.

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Every ingredient has its meaning

A spray bottle is ready to hand. He carefully sprays a hint of warm rice foam onto the eel, drapes over frozen, mint-green wasabi pearls, a pinch of fried algae and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives – “for the eye and the palate”. All done – one half of the culinary work of art, at least. The second morsel on the plate is a “mini-burger” – based on the Hamburg fish sandwich, it's the regional anchor in the international flavour ensemble.

After resigning, Kevin started from scratch.

This chef's work is characterised by this spirit of global sophistication – and by his absolute drive for perfection. The twenty covers at “The Table” are booked up nine months in advance, which is by no means the norm in starred restaurants. High maintenance costs mean that only major hotel chains normally enjoy the liberty of having a luxury restaurant, which if need be can be cross-subsidised in return for the kudos it brings. Kevin cooked for ten years in high-end hotel gastronomy, ultimately at the Belle Epoque in Travemünde, the spa on the Baltic coast. The restaurant received its first star under his management in the year 2008. “The first one was the hardest,” he says now. The second star followed in 2011, the third in 2013 – and he resigned from the prestigious hotel-restaurant in 2015. A bold undertaking, because the Michelin Guide doesn't award its stars to chefs, but to restaurants. So when “The Table” opened in August 2015, Kevin was starting from scratch.

"I don't give a toss for the unwritten rules of starred gastronomy"

Kevin Fehling

For the chef, that meant that everything had to be different. He doesn't have the insignia of many starred restaurants – no thick table-cloths, no opulent bouquets of flowers. One very important element was the choice of location. He wanted the “Waterkant” in Hamburg, because he needed a cosmopolitan city for his exceptional project. Specifically, the HafenCity with its pioneering architectural spirit appealed to him. It borders on the historical Speicherstadt district, which has a culinary heritage as a trading centre for coffee, tea and spices of all kinds. Where new structures have been built the austere lines of the port architecture mingle with softer, Mediterranean influences, as in the open and airy Magellan-Terrassen. It's still a developing area: when Kevin entered his own premises for the first time, the interior was a bare shell and excavators thundered outside the door.

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"Every evening is different. Some are as noisy and lively as a marketplace, others quiet and filled with concentrated silence"

However, his project soon took shape. “The Table” kept its red concrete ceiling, but curving, felt-type rectangles in various shades of grey float above the guests' heads like a shoal of rays (the fish variety) and relieve the room's austerity. The “table” that gives the restaurant its name is a long, counter-style wooden table, positioned in a serpentine in front of the open kitchen. The guests all sit in soft, high-sided seats of pale leather. “They should feel as if they're at home. Not the Chef's Table in New York, similar maybe, but I wanted something individual,” explains Kevin, “That's why I invented the concept using this table”. The idea is for everybody to sit close to the action and see what's happening in the kitchen – at the same time, the wavy shape creates little niches and a degree of privacy.

Precision and culinary intelligence

The room, the furnishings, the presentation – all these things are important, but the kitchen is still the heart of it. Kevin took the entire kitchen crew from Travemünde: five chefs and of course sommelier David Eitel, – they go back to the days when he was head chef on the MS Europa cruise ship. Cooking in front of an audience demands enormous discipline from every individual chef. The technical moves have to be right, everyone has to know what to do. There's no shouting – the atmosphere seems to have the concentration of heart transplant surgery. “I could never have done this without my slick team,” says Kevin.

Kevin is currently serving his guests the gate-of-the-world menu, a culinary world tour consisting of 14 small courses. “It fits the city perfectly. All around us in the Speicherstadt, in the HafenCity, the spices, coffee, tea: everything is international, and so is my cuisine. An homage to Hamburg, his chosen home, then, but also reminiscent of his two years aboard the MS Europa. The best days of his life, he now says. Although working in the galley had been very tough – “I worked constantly for six months, without having a day off” – it had also been extremely inspiring: “Exploring the different cultures and cuisines when I went ashore had a huge influence on my cooking style”.

HafenCity stroll with Kevin

  • These walks have a pleasant side-effect: "I get around the city a lot and keep discovering new, exciting nooks and crannies".

  • A little tapas bar in the Neustadt, for example. "I was walking, got hungry and went into the Avelino. Mmmh, I thought, lovely.”

  • The second time, I talked to the boss and it turned out that Avelino Garcia Ortega and his head chef had a star thirty years ago". The chubby Spaniard is always happy to see Kevin. He himself no longer has any ambitions to win stars, too much stress, he says, but he's thrilled to bits to have his picture taken with Kevin.

  • Fish sandwich at the port: at "The Table", Kevin interprets the snack in his own way.

  • Kevin worked for two years aboard the MS Europa. The best days of his life, he now says.

That's why, to this day, the chef won't stick to a radius of 50 kilometres. Regionalism, he says, isn't his philosophy, he won't find the best of everything that way. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, spices, meat, fish: it's not possible for everything of the best to be drawn from just one area – and the best is exactly what he wants to offer.

“Nowadays, we cook whatever we want”

The most important cooking utensil is Kevin himself – because, he says, every menu starts in the mind. The ideas then take concrete form in the kitchen and are refined over a period of weeks. When the creation process is completed, there are no further changes in the menu. For three months, every plate that crosses the pass during the evening routine will be virtually identical – while he works on the next creation during the day.

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Culinary art: glazed eel and a "mini burger", Kevin's homage to Hamburgs well known fish sandwich

He finds inspiration while out walking – you'll often meet Fehling out on one of his wide-ranging strolls through Hamburg. He combs the old alleyways of the Neustadt district or eats a fish sandwich in the Traditionsschiffhafen area of the port, right next to the Elbphilharmonie. He particularly likes to pass by the Hamburg Cruise Center in the HafenCity, very close to his restaurant. The majestic luxury liners remind him of his time as head chef on the MS Europa. He often takes time out to go there. His most frequently asked question: “How does he cope with stress?” The reply: “I'm not stressed!” And those who've met him in person know that's the truth.

Nevertheless – in contrast to his job in Travemünde – Kevin now has to deal with everything himself: hanging pictures, changing curtains, cleaning windows. But on the other hand, he's happy to accept that in exchange for being his own boss. “If I want to serve a taco, then I do it at “The Table” in my own way. With our perfectionism, our technique and our expertise in flavours. I don't give a toss for the unwritten rules of starred gastronomy, that stuff is no longer of interest”. A few days ago, he says, he was in London visiting fellow chef Gordon Ramsay. “I had peas three ways. Fortunately, the days when you absolutely couldn't do that are over. Nowadays we cook whatever we like and it's well received”.

Find out more about Kevin Fehling's restaurant:
www.thetable-hamburg.de

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