Automotive Engineering and Star Cuisine Have Much in CommonJul 15th, 2022
Automotive engineering and star cuisine have much in common: Above all, both reflect back to their roots, but are constantly reinventing themselves. Appropriately, the iconic restaurant Tantris has made a fresh start for its 50th anniversary. We spoke with new kitchen director Benjamin Chmura and guest starred chef Daniel Humm about the joy of journeying into the culinary future.
The atmosphere in the kitchen is tense. The entire Tantris Maison Culinaireteam is electrified. What might on the face of it seem to be frantic confusion, though, is in fact orchestrated down to the most minute detail. To mark the 50th anniversary celebrations, the establishment’s regular chefs led by Benjamin Chmura will join guest chefs and world stars such as Daniel Humm at the stove to bring an extraordinary seven-course menu to the tables: an all-vegetarian gala dinner. The new BMW i7 is the electrifying aperitif welcoming guests outside the restaurant’s doors.
Inside, every move is precise, everything perfectly choreographed. Working with colleague Virginie Protat, Chmura combines candied tomatoes with green anise. Myriad aromas mingle in the air, conjuring up a fragrant painting of French and European culinary culture. Eggplant, artichoke, Jerusalem artichoke and asparagus are cut into equal millimeter-sized pieces, cooked, blanched, confit, folded, and carefully draped. The finished plates are exquisitely detailed and precisely created, much like a haute couture outfit. Even though every second counts here, there are moments when time seems to stand still. This kitchen might have old stories to recount, but right now, it is in the process of writing new chapters.
From vision to institution
The restaurant was way ahead of its time when it opened in 1971 – both in the architectural and culinary senses. Since then, the building designed by Swiss architect and designer Justus Dahinden has become an architectural icon, much like the iconic Vierzylinder, the BMW headquarters in Munich by architect Karl Schwanzer. The Tantris has been a listed building since 2012 and is a place that can claim to be the cradle of the German culinary miracle. Eckart Witzigmann, Heinz Winkler and Hans Haas made the Tantris famous, establishing it as an institution of innovative cuisine that is always respectful of its roots.
Felix Eichbauer, the son of the patriarch Fritz Eichbauer and current owner of the Tantris, has now decided to take a radical step: He has installed the young triumvirate of Matthias Hahn, Benjamin Chmura and Virginie Protat at the helm, with a clear mission: “Our history is a treasure, but you can’t bury your head in tradition; you have to evolve and keep looking to the future.” Haas developed the concept of the new Tantris and split it into two locations. Protat serves modernized house classics and heirlooms of France’s traditional grande cuisine exclusively à la carte at the one-Michelin-starred Tantris DNA. Chmura cooks a delicious menu in the finest traditions of French haute cuisine in the two-Michelin-starred Tantris Restaurant.
Born in Canada, Chmura was not daunted to follow in such majestic footsteps. He simply brought a healthy amount of respect – and curiosity: “I start here with a blank canvas. New terrain, new opportunities to develop. That’s what makes it so appealing,” he says calmly. At just 33, he is still too young to reinvent himself, despite his two Michelin stars. This down-to-earth approach is what sets him apart. “I want to share the excitement of things that inspire me – that goes for friends and family, and even more so in the kitchen. I love being curious and taking risks.” Chmura is given the right adventure playground at Tantris as well as the backing he needs. The philosophy is to guide the guest on a journey through complete indulgence, Eichbauer reveals: “We deliberately set out to not put any barriers in our minds here. When you take a step like this, you also have to allow Benjamin and his team to take their own journey of discovery and try things out.” Chmura was very clear from the outset about what it would take to form the foundation of this journey: relationships.
The focus is on the delight in the product
The work at the stove is only a small part of being a star chef. There are many more cogs in the larger wheel, and Chmura is particularly enthusiastic about building and maintaining relationships with suppliers of the high-quality ingredients he needs. “I know all these people personally, know their families, visit them at home, eat with them. I need people who are as positively crazy as I am – and the biggest challenge at the outset is to find them in the first place. Producers who might grow only small quantities, but with superlative quality. Some products are then only available to this exacting quality seasonally – so we set ourselves the task of designing the menu around them.”
Guest chef Daniel Humm also feels he has been cast in the role of culinary treasure hunter. The Swiss chef runs the three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in the heart of New York, one of the best restaurants in the world. “The commitment to quality, to the best possible product – that is the philosophy and the root of my cuisine I’ve stayed true to since the beginning of my career.” However, Humm realized that this level of guaranteed quality was no longer seen for fish and meat as it was in the past. He decided on a bold step.
New beginnings from the peak
In 2017, Humm’s Eleven Madison Park was top ranked in the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” and since then has consistently ranked among the most prestigious and sought-after venues for top culinary experiences. He wears a dark-green suit, T-shirt, white sneakers. Elegant in an understated yet to-the-point way – as are his answers and his dishes. It is a matter of respect for Humm to constantly question himself: “You have to know where you’re coming from before you can know where you’re going. My experiences on this journey have influenced my work and will continue to guide it. Constantly reinventing myself is a commitment not only to myself, but also to my guests.”
The meticulous Swiss-born Humm knows precisely how he wants to shape his restaurant’s culinary future: vegan. And so he made a courageous as well as innovative decision to reset everything to zero at the height of his creativity. The chef allowed himself the luxury to redefine this culinary luxury. His challenge: to create something magical and incomparable from the finest vegan ingredients. “The menu is more elaborate and labor intensive than ever before.”
Icons of yesterday and tomorrow
On his way to the red carpet in front of the restaurant, Humm takes a seat in the rear of the i7. His hands roam over the seats, door panels and surfaces, while the large theater screen draws his attention. He has a soft spot for visuals and loves art and architecture, especially as a source of inspiration. His eyes sparkle as he recalls his previous day’s experience – a BMW driving training session at the Maisach track. Whatever the model or dish, driving and cooking are the same: “It’s about emotion, about special moments.” When emotion, innovation and aesthetics are fused in a very special way, another parallel linking car designers and star chefs emerges: an iconic classic – or the “signature dish.”
Just as models such as the BMW 507, BMW M1 and BMW i8 penned by BMW designers became iconic, just as the BMW i7 breaks luxurious conventions, dishes also advance to become the forerunners of a whole new kitchen language. This creates legends which are inextricably associated with the chef and the restaurant. At the legendary Tantris Trio, the John Dory in champagne sauce with red cabbage by Heinz Winkler, the crépinettes of lamb saddle by Eckart Witzigmann, or the marinated white asparagus with sautéed langoustine and yuzu terrine by Hans Haas epitomize this.
But how do you design tomorrow’s classics today – and is this something that can be planned for? Humm smiles. Experience as a chef plays a part, of course, he says, but the crucial thing for him is to approach each dish with the same meticulous creativity, precision and focus on product: “For me, there are four crucial pillars that make up an iconic dish. It must taste amazing, it must have a minimalist kind of beauty – that is, be complicated, yet ultimately appear uncomplicated. It has to be creative, that is, it has to have an element of surprise, and it needs a purpose, a reason to exist. These four fundamentals must be met in every dish I make.”
The new art of leadership
Benjamin Chmura has remained true to his roots in all his previous kitchens – in France the famous Auberge de l’Ill of the Haeberlin family in Alsace or in the legendary restaurant of the Troisgros brothers in Roanne. He continues to do so now as he takes on new challenges and develops the future culinary soundtrack of the Tantris. “My father advised me to always be a good example for the people around me. To lead by example. I have always followed this approach. When things don’t go smoothly, you have to solve the problems and stay positive, pull the team you’re responsible for along with you. I have to be the rock.”
Chmura’s father was a conductor, so he was practically born to be a virtuoso in the kitchen orchestra. In doing so, though, in shaping his culinary vision of the future, he wants to discard a relic of old times and forge a completely new path. The often-harsh tones in the kitchen are a thing of the past. Chmura has had special leadership coaching specifically for this. “I grew up playing soccer, was captain of my team. It’s not about lambasting people for doing something wrong, but showing them how to do it differently, better. I had the great fortune that my parents showed me exactly this way, what I do well, what I can improve, and how I should take criticism on board. I am often the figurehead, but you must never forget that the kitchen is all about teamwork. And we can only make this journey into the new territory that we seek together.”
This rethinking also represents what BMW embraces with the term Forwardism: advocating that the world can be different than it is now. The future is a question that is always closely linked to a commitment to change in the present.
The joy is in the detail
Chmura endorses Daniel Humm’s statement that food also stands for emotions. “The best part of dishes is not in the recipe. You taste something, and then you remember something – like my grandma’s Königsberger Klopse, which inspired the sauce for a dish with calf’s head. In the restaurant, though, it’s not just about the food. It’s about the experience as a whole. And we also try to go out to the tables more often and explain our thoughts behind the dishes. Simply because it’s great when the idea behind it is kind of understood or perceived.”
And then you feel that electrifying enthusiasm again when Chmura, when asked about his greatest accolade, doesn’t answer with “the Michelin stars”, but rather an unexpected feeling. “I remember very well. One day, some guests who had visited the restaurant for the first time came to see me in the kitchen. They thanked us, the meal was so special and they would never forget this evening. At this point, my team and I had been in the kitchen for over 16 hours. This sort of rapturous feedback is the reason we love our job. It is this shared joy that also unites us all together even more for the future.”