This post is my first in a series of interviews with great American Chefs and my second in a series of special places in the Highlands, North Carolina area.
I had the privilege of spending more than half a day last week with Chef Johannes Klapdohr. He truly is one of the Great Chefs in America. Upon arriving in the U.S. (from Germany), he was assigned the position of Chef de Cuisine at Nikolai’s Roof in Atlanta in 1998. He quickly earned himself a place in the best 100 Restaurants in the US by Zagat and the Mobile Four Star award in 2000 making it the only four star restaurant in downtown Atlanta.
In 2004 he became the Executive Chef of The Lodge at Sea Island, the prestigious Mobil Five Star, AAA five diamond Hotel off the coast of Georgia. During his tenure, the Lodge became the # 1 small hotel in the US, including fine dining, and the # 1 golf hotel in the world in 2007.
After 25 years in Hospitality, Chef Johannes collaborated with The Chef’s Garden, Inc. in Ohio, the leading sustainable farm in the United States, as Executive Chef of the Culinary Vegetable Institute. There he promoted the importance of bringing farmers, chefs and guests together focusing on the education of sustainability—not only in agriculture but as a life style and successful business model through farm-to-table experiences.
He is now the Executive Chef at The Old Edwards Inn and Spa in Highlands, North Carolina since 2009. This beautiful hotel and its restaurant Madison’s, offers a truly special dining experience. Old Edwards Inn is now the Condé Nast Traveler’s #1 Hotel Spa in North America for 2010 with the First Ever Perfect Score in the 20-Year History of the Reader’s Survey.
I would like to share with you the incredibly interesting and honest discussion that I had with Johannes. Mr. Bunkycooks was with me,
so I kidnapped him to take lots of photos he got to enjoy the day as well.
We have dined at Madison’s many times over a five year period and were treated to a very special evening last year while celebrating Mr. Bunkycooks birthday. This is the first time we met Chef Johannes and we knew then that their choice for Executive Chef was a perfect one. This man has to be one of the most engaging and passionate people I have ever met. Johannes truly loves being a chef and looks at cooking as a way of engaging people and making them happy. He believes that cooking and eating is very much a cultural experience that brings people together. He enjoys the interaction and can be found in the dining room frequently visiting with guests. His goal is to touch people with his food and make them feel special.
He says that the core philosophy of his cuisine is “honest food”. At Madison’s, this would be considered an “elegant Southern, yet modern” style of cooking. He also creates menus for special events at The Old Edwards Farm and other locations at the resort, based on customer requests.
He primarily relies on fresh local produce and food sources as inspiration for his dishes as well as phone calls he may receive from fisherman overseas that can have something very special shipped to him within 24 to 48 hours. He looks at the quality of the product and the nutritional value as the most important aspects in creating his dishes.
Highland’s weather (which goes through all four seasons) allows Johannes to prepare dishes that are more seasonally appropriate as the seasons change. He gets excited when things begin to smell different as we move from Summer to Fall and into Winter. He loves being able to translate this to food. “If you have strawberries all year long with average taste it is not as exciting as looking forward to tasting that first beautiful strawberry of the season after nine months.”
Some of Johannes’ food philosophy comes in part from growing up in Germany. He gives examples like the French Paradox, where people create an event around food. Dinner consists of sitting down over long periods of time and eating small portions so diners digest their well prepared food properly. This is combined with enjoying a glass or two of wine. It is proven that this way of eating is far healthier than having large portions of food. Johannes believes that we overeat in America because of the declining nutritional value in our foods. We keep eating because the refined products (sugar, flours, oils) do not give us the sensation of being satisfied. If there is no nutritional value, the brain does not recognize this as food and you are hungry again.
Johannes believes that food is seen as secondary in the U.S., whereas it is a priority in countries like France, Spain and Italy. He said that is was interesting to see young people drive up to a 3-star Michelin restaurant in France in an old, falling apart Peugeot while he was living in Europe. In the U.S., on the other hand, you might see someone drive up to McDonald’s in a Mercedes. Clearly, American values are different. We should take more time to enjoy our meals rather than asking for the check after the entrée is served and appreciate the food we eat much more than we do (especially if it is great food!).
“Make food the single most important thing in our lives, especially for our children. It is, after all, essential.” This is where I have to say that Jamie Oliver (and his Food Revolution) has met his match and/or his partner! As a father of 2 young children (one brand new baby), Johannes is as passionate about raising his own children to eat healthy. He says that parents need to make better choices for their children and their families and prepare nutritionally sound meals.
“Families need to bring back traditions… and take time to celebrate”. He said that once a week we used to go to Grandmother’s house and have a cake and tea or coffee. We have lost the idea of having something special occasionally. Now we eat cake and drink tea and coffee (and lots of it!) every day.
Johannes would like to see nutritionists, dieticians, doctors, scientists and the government work together to honestly educate parents and families. Most importantly, we all need to be focused on human nutrition and meeting daily nutritional requirements.
Of course, this whole philosophy goes hand in hand with sustainability. He says there is enough agricultural land on the planet to sustain twice the number of the world’s population. We just need to grow other crops, particularly in the U.S. where much of our farmland produces nothing but corn and soybeans, with a large percentage of it not even grown for our own consumption, but rather for animal fodder and ethanol.
Johannes believes that if we were to eat 70-80% less meat and get proteins directly from plants, this would totally change the sustainability issues and would guarantee an equal availability of food through the world. Raising a comparable level of protein from animals (cows, sheep, etc.) requires 7 times as much land as it would to raise vegetables and vegetable protein. If we were to eat like a farmer 100 years ago, we would eat mostly vegetarian on weekdays, have fish on Fridays and enjoy some meat on Saturdays and Sundays.
When asked about using fats and salt in cooking, he said that we tend to implement extremes rather than use common sense and that this is the problem. We all need some fat, especially good fats. He said that people have been using butter in a natural state for centuries in Europe and in other countries and it has not been a health concern because it was used in moderation and where it applies. He cooks vegetables in broth and then finishes them with a bit of butter that is not over heated (the term is monté) just to give it a bit of flavor at the end.
He also prefers to cook some foods with the sous-vide method to preserve nutrition and vitamins. There is also nothing wrong with a bit of salt. Again, some people take this to the extreme.
We went into the kitchen after our conversation. We prepared a beautiful salad using mostly organic local produce which included fresh micro beets (you truly never know what you can find on the internet – Chef Johannes is in a video about beets and it’s very entertaining!), radishes, micro greens and edible flowers. Since we were quite hungry (after much chatting!), Johannes then prepared a beautiful piece of Sunburst Trout for us to go along with the salad. Sunburst Trout is another local producer from North Carolina and I must say that the trout was the best I have ever had. In fact, it was schmackofatz! Now I know you are dying to know what this means, but you had to read to this point to find out! This is a German word that was used a great deal in the 70’s and it means yummy!
After lunch we went out to see the farm that Johannes just planted at the Old Edwards Farm property outside of town. He will be using the herbs and vegetables (especially for stocks) that are produced there in the future. I will be going back periodically throughout the summer to see the progress.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Johannes (and my lunch!) and appreciated his philosophy on so many things related to cooking and food. He truly is a food activist and has already been involved in getting his voice out there, especially while he was in Ohio. If Jamie Oliver is reading this (not!), he should definitely get in touch with Johannes. A better match could not be found!
If you are interested in reading about any of these topics, Johannes has suggested several books. These are available through my Amazon store. You can access the link to my store by clicking on the title of the book.
He also suggests that you watch or read about this CNN special:
Sanjay Gupta on Toxic America and Toxic Childhood.