What would any food lover in Valencia enjoy more than a visit to the city’s Central Market – an 8,160 km2 art nouveau-styled space of gastro-commerce that houses 400 independent food vendors selling everything from the regionally grown chufas (tiger nuts), employed to make the delicious horchata drink, to baskets of snails, saffron and garrafo beans used to fry up the city’s traditional paella? The answer, I might suppose, is a visit of said market in the company of one of Valencia’s finest chefs, Bernd Knoller, the founder of the Michelin-starred Riff Restaurant.
I find him by the entrance, under a rising formation of stained glass windows that arch so high over our heads that the phrase “temple of gastronomy” seems less like a throwaway cliche and more like the only adequate description of this curiously cathedral-like bazaar. Especially when we move into the centre of the market and gaze up into the space of the structure’s commanding dome, which undeniably adds to the venue’s spiritual aura.
Knoller is not dressed for church however. The 53-year-old is wearing a loose-fitting brown leather jacket, its collar in a twist, over a casual blue shirt with faded black jeans. At well over 6ft tall with reddish blonde hair, he is easy to recognise amongst the shorter and darker natives of his adopted country. I’m relieved when he smiles and returns my greeting with a manner that is as casual as his appearance – I won’t have to spend the day treading around the eggshell ego of a celebrity chef I think to myself. And whilst he may have a laidback manner, I quickly discover Knoller is not a man to waste time, and so at the command of his shopping list – sent via Whatsapp by his fellow chefs in the Riff kitchen – we start to zip around the market’s kiosks collecting the ingredients for today’s lunch.
I start by asking him the obvious… how did this German chef, born and bred in the Black Forest, end up in Valencia: “The same as so many foreign guys here,” he says prosaically. “Because of the girls. In the kitchen now we are three, myself, one Japanese and one English guy and we all arrived for the same reason. We all have a Spanish wife and children.”
Next is recalling some of his early apprenticeships in England when we arrive at his favourite ham and cheese store, Solas. Naturally I want to know what a stall owner needs to do to earn the custom of a Michelin-starred chef. “He stocks very good products, he’s very kind, and there is always something new. It’s a very special place. They sell mostly Spanish produce but they also have some Italian mozzarella. Some ingredients invite you to make a new plate, for example this… I never worked with reblochon. I had never used it before but now I have a plate with sweet potato, and it’s already the second or third plate I make with reblochon. It’s cheese but it has a different texture, it doesn’t close the stomach.”
Talking about textures, what about the “molecular” approach to cooking, pioneered further up the Spanish coast by Ferran Adria, where foodstuffs are restructured so that familiar flavours can be served up in new forms, often with more than a side helping of performance?
“Molecular stuff? Molecular stuff is everything, I’m sorry!” says Knoller, taking a rather literal approach to my question (it should be noted that Adria himself hates the label too). “No, for me the product is everything. We are not going in for what you call molecular cooking. We know the techniques and I insist that we know the techniques, and some things we do, but not like a show. Only if I think there is no other way to get a flavour or idea I use it – but I don’t tell the customer.”
Not being showy turns out to be a theme for today’s conversation, but for now, let’s return to the market. Many of the stall owners are waiting for Bernd with sealed plastic bags of produce at the ready. Others weigh fresh veg for him in what is obviously a familiar ritual, exchanging a joke in Spanish as they do so. He is clearly a popular customer here and he points out that the market’s development since he arrived, over two decades ago, is a decisive factor in the improvement of the city’s food scene.
“For many, many years in Spain, chefs bought all their products in France – everything. That’s the reason why the Basque country has better cuisine, because they are nearer to France. But now we don’t have to buy in other places. What is here [in the market] is enough. Ok some spices, some oils are missing… I like very much different types of oils… but you can cook very well with what we have. But 20 years ago it was impossible!”
He is however critical of the lack of Mediterranean-sourced seafood at the fish counters.
“Everything you see here is not from the Mediterranean sea… I think 90% is not from there, it’s from the Atlantic. There are only a few places that really have Mediterranean fish.” At this point he greets the owner of Pepin stall, the one place he does come to in the market if he wants a sardine or two. The rest he buys from the fish auction.
We wander out of the market and into the warm December sunshine and, with the shopping taken care of, Knoller is free to speak more openly about his food philosophy.
“For me there’s only two types of cuisine. The good and the bad. It’s very important. For me it’s very clear what the bad one is. All the preserved foods in the supermarket, all the fast food from McDonalds, a lot of prepared pizzas, where they make food with a lot of additives… there is a lot of bad food in the world and it makes us live our lives badly. So I’m very against this kind of food. That means I’m a fan of the market here in Valencia, and I’m always looking for good food. When I go to restaurants for me it’s very important that they make good food – that they buy fresh ingredients.”
This chat has led us to Muez, a (dare I say it) hipster coffee place replete with bookshelves, kids’ play area and a healthy breakfast menu. Knoller orders some yoghurt with muesli and coffee and I quiz him about another interview he gave in which he said that the city had finally freed itself of the slavery imposed by the paella.
“In Spain there are quite a few regions where you go to eat certain things. When you go to Huelva you eat Spanish ham, and when you got to Segovia you eat cochinillo, the small suckling pig. When you go outside Segovia you eat the small lamb. When you go to Valencia you eat paella. Everyone who was coming to Valencia, came for the paella.
If you talk about Segovia, it’s still like that. My first wife is from there and I thought about making a restaurant there, but I thought it’s so difficult to fight against the tradition. In Valencia in the first years it was the same. The first years everybody comes here for paella and they didn’t look for something else. Now, almost ten years ago, they finally got free of the paella.”
But how did that come about?
“The people who live in the area of the sea are normally a bit more open than the people from the mountains. It was time for something else. There were a lot of young chefs who studied at restaurants abroad [who returned to the city]. Valencia has changed a lot in the last 20 years, a lot of new chefs, a lot of new products – the market when I first came here didn’t even sell olive oil, and there were no herbs there. There was only one salad. I couldn’t believe it! Slowly but surely they sold new products and new chefs used them. Now I don’t think that [Valencian gastronomy] is #1, but I would put it at 7 and half… so it’s getting better.”
As the conversation continues we hit on another gastronomic buzzword that seems to rile Knoller somewhat: the foodie.
“It’s very important for me to make a difference between foodies and gourmets. A gourmet is a person who will be happy with the smell, with the taste and with the texture of what they are eating. With just these three things a gourmet is getting very near to God! The foodie is different. We have had gourmets for hundreds of years… but the foodies are new, they are new because of television, of the cooking shows. The foodies make their opinion from seeing how other people cook and how other people eat and what other people say about cooking and what other people say about the food… it’s much cheaper to be a foodie than a gourmet. Because to be a gourmet you have to educate the tastes. But the foodie is more for looking so when he comes to a restaurant, he likes very much the show. The gourmet he doesn’t like the show, he even reviles it. They don’t need it. The foodie he was born with looking, he needs show and things which seems like one thing but it’s not… to put the fish on the iPod, or eating below the sea, or hearing the sea with a conch shell while you eat an oyster. This is what the foodie likes. The gourmet doesn’t care about this – even he doesn’t like it. The problem is that now there are much more foodies than gourmets.”
The root cause of Knoller’s desire to distinguish the two, is soon revealed to be our friend the Internet. “Sometimes I see my critics on Tripadvisor and they write ‘Riff didn’t surprise me’. We are cooking, nothing else. We are making food. If you want a surprise you should go to the football stadium! I think now in Spain it’s a pity because the most important restaurants, the three star [Michelin] restaurants, in my opinion, are all falling into the trap of this idea of show… and it’s a pity because the plates are not good. This has to do also with the many staff chefs in the kitchen – some restaurants have 20 staff chefs in their kitchen. You have to imagine that you have 20 people in your kitchen that don’t know how to cook, so you have 20 stupid hats, and you have to give them work for at least 12 hours a day, and this of course you see in the plates after. So you have luxury catering, but it’s no kitchen.”
Certain that I don’t qualify to be a gourmet, and possibly not even a lowly foodie, I decide it’s high time to change the subject. Luckily at this point one of the other travel bloggers in our company does just that, asking Knoller about the latest dining trends in Valencia.
“I think we are seeing a new kind of restaurant. There are not only the Michelin star restaurants, there are places like Mercat Bar. There are quite a few of these new kind of restaurants which makes the city a bit more modern. In Valencia you can go to a Michelin star restaurant and spend a €100. It’s still important to know that the Spanish Michelin star restaurants are cheaper than in England or France. But now we have fusion as well: at Canalla Bistro all the prices are 20 euros and you can eat very well. What is important in Valencia is that you should know where to eat during the time you are here, because there are a lot of bad restaurants. There were always a lot of bad restaurants in Valencia, but now with a lot of tourists it’s much easier [for restaurants] to get even worse, because the client doesn’t come back so it doesn’t matter… they are hungry, they see the place and they walk in.”
Knoller’s perspectives on his craft no doubt owe a lot to some of his more left-field career choices that have seen him take several career breaks. “It’s funny because a few years ago I told my mother, well now I’m 30 years a chef, and she looked at me, and she said ‘Thirty years? You were working as a social worker, you made theatre, you worked as a farmer.’ And I told her, but all this was very necessary to survive with my restaurant, the theatre because of my shyness – a lot of shy people make theatre – but also to learn manners, to learn how to treat people in the restaurant. Of course the social work was very important as well and the farmer time was very important as well. In German there is a word which is called Fahridiot, which is the idiot of the profession. He only knows about his own profession but he doesn’t know nothing else – he is an expert but in everything else he is ignorant. So when I get to 23 or 24 years old – I started with 15 – I saw myself as that, as a Fahridiot, so I decided it has to change.”
Perhaps that well-roundedness of Knoller’s background is what enables him to take a perspective on his craft, something that may have helped him earn that coveted Michelin star… even if that was never his aim: “I don’t think it’s a good idea to decide to make a Michelin star restaurant. I never decided it. I always wanted to cook good. I went to very good restaurants to learn and after I wanted to make my own kind of cooking. And when you come to eat you will see we don’t make very Michelin plates, we make our cooking. And they gave us a Michelin star because they want to. We opened in 1993, and they give us the Michelin star in 2009, 15 years after. I think there are very few restaurants which for 15 years doesn’t have a star and after they give a star. We are still trying to improve and make better the food of course, and yes we could have earned a Michelin star 10 years earlier. But until 2009 there was no need to have a Michelin star because there was not many tourists. I couldn’t believe it because Valencia was very beautiful, but there were no tourists. There were no hotels even. Most hotels we have now in Valencia are from 2004, 2005, 2006 or even later from the America’s cup.
“I always listen to new ideas and I change almost every day the menus. My chefs are mad with me. When I see a new product I buy it without knowing what I want to cook. Recently we keep the plates a little bit more, but it has to be a little bit like that because there are a lot of people who come back and say where is the lamb that I ate last time? I have to tell them there is no lamb! Some people many years after they come they say to me, do you remember this plate what I ate here? I will never forget it in my life… and I say well I forgot it already.”
It’s nearly time for Bernd to head back to his kitchen and start preparing lunch… but it seems there’s time for one more question. Someone at the table wheels out the “you’re on Death row with one last supper” classic. Here is what Knoller had to say:
“If I had this situation I would have quite a lot of time to think about it. As I know me I change a lot of times before this moment to decide definitely. There is for example one of my favourite plates, which was the plate of my grandma. She comes from Bessarabia – as you know the Germans were all over Europe, and she was from Bessarabia which is now Ukraine – and she made a very Baltic kind of cooking. Very fatty, in the sauces there is at least one finger of oil. So she makes a plate which is strudel, like the apple strudel, but she makes it with nothing inside, she makes only the base which is very thin – for a child it was amazing when she made this it like that.” At this point Knoller mimes rolling a ball of dough across the table. “More big, more big, and then after it was as big as the table and you could put a newspaper below and you could read it was so thin. Then she made like a sausage and she put a lot of fat, water and potatoes in a pot, and the water until the potatoes was finished and on top they put this kind of pasta, and then on top another lid, a wet towel outside and they cooked it 25 minutes. After it was done the potatoes were crunchy on the outside and the strudel was very light, and it was for me it was the very best food of my life.”