Cooking from scratch: a chef’s life in Hamburg

Never talk to a chef when you’re hungry. I learned this lesson the hard way when I met Benjamin Heins, executive chef at WERFT Craft Food & Cocktails, located at the INNSIDE Hamburg Hafen hotel. When we shake hands, I notice a black glove on his right hand.

By Irene Broer

Hi Ben! What’s that on your hand?
“Oh, I burnt my hand last week. It’s a professional hazard when you’re a chef!”

Happens to the best of us! How did you become a chef?
“I come from five generations of Hamburgers: me, mother, grandmothers and so on. I’d always help my mother cook when I was young, and I loved it. One of her partners was actually a chef – so I guess that’s when I realized I could make cooking into my profession.”

… And was it everything you hoped it would be?
“Not at all! When I started my education in Germany, the prospects for being a chef were pretty rubbish. The pay was shit, and you’d get absolutely zero respect for your job. You were basically a slave in the kitchen. That was over 12 years ago. It was the start of my career and I thought “I don’t want to be here.” So I left for Australia.”

Wow! How did your career unfold Down Under?
“First I was in Brisbane for 3 months, where I worked for an agency called “Chefs for Australia”. Then I got lucky and found a job as chef de partie at Löwenbräu Keller in Sydney. After a while, I moved on and became sous chef at a fine dining restaurant across the road, Wine Odyssey. It was great working with the head chef, Brian Villaharmosa: he gave me a whole new, creative take on food. I learned how to pair wine with food, we didn’t follow recipes and we made everything from scratch. The whole experience broadened my horizon.

In the end, I stayed in Sydney for 7,5 years. I moved back to Hamburg a little over two years ago and became head chef at Chapeau! Grill & Bar. For about 6 months, I’m the executive chef here at WERFT.”

Nice! How is it to be back as a chef in Hamburg?
“Hmm, I have a love/hate relationship with Germany, haha. It’s starting to change, the profession of cooking is getting more respect. People are becoming proud again about their own culinary heritage, and Germans are slowly starting to appreciate novelty in cooking. Convenience is good, but it makes such a difference if you pimp up the basics.”

So what kind of restaurant is WERFT?
“Everyone working here can actually cook. Our menu is based on French and German cuisines, and 95 percent of the food we serve is made in-house, from scratch. Right now we’re pickling our own herring, for instance, with a special mix of vinegar and spices. So when you order a “Königsberger Kloppse”, you won’t get the traditional dish, but our take on it. The same goes for our “Labskaus”: it’s a creative variation on what people know as a traditional North German dish. That’s why we call our food “Vintage Craft Cuisine”.

But wouldn’t it be more efficient to, you know … take a shortcut here and there?
“Everyone can open up a bag, and you know, that’s okay. But we really cherish our “Do It Yourself” mentality to food. From our ginger chips to our tomato ketchup – we control all of the ingredients and the taste of everything we serve. Sometimes, I do have to tell my staff not to overdo it, haha. There are instances when it makes more sense to go with pre-made ingredients, yes.”

Truth time. What’s your favorite “flopped” dish?
“That has to be my “Leberwurst” that was on the menu here at WERFT for a while. You see, it’s not regular “Leberwurst” but actually, it’s a chicken liver parfait that has been marinated with port wine. And then we put some home-pickled shiitake mushrooms on the side.”

Oh my, that sounds delicious.
“And it really is! But Germans are a bit difficult. They see “Leberwurst” and either they find it boring and don’t order it, or they expect it to be the “Leberwurst” that they know. And it’s not, haha!”

So, no success, hmm?
“Well, basically not. We have loads of it in the fridge, and our team eats it at every chance they get.”

Ummm… Any chance I could get a taste?

Man that’s good. Any other personal favorites we should try out here at WERFT?
“I’m a big fan of soul food, especially if it comes with a twist. My personal favorite on our menu here at WERFT is my cheeseburger, we serve it with our homemade ketchup and Senf Pauli mustard. But you should also try our Thai curry mac & cheese: it’s vegetarian, but nobody can tell and everybody loves it! Or, if you’re into desserts, try the “Milchreis Two Ways” which comes with black rice pudding and mango chutney, or my mate Tim’s half-baked chocolate brownie, it’s perfectly moist inside and literally melts in your mouth.”

Oh my god. We need to stop talking, or else I’ll eat everything in this room. Thanks for your time, Ben!

“Any time. Come back soon to try our new menu!”


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