French chef Eric Menchon is not a fan of boring cuisine. At his two-Michelin star restaurant in Cologne he's constantly developing new dishes for his guests and providing culinary surprises.
In the Cologne district of Neustadt Nord, between the gray facades on Krefelderstrasse, an entirely unexpected sign catches the eye, gold letters done up in an Art Nouveau style: Le Moissonnier - Restaurant - Wine Bar. The smell of a white wine sauce with a hint of vanilla wafts through the door.
It's half past nine in the morning, and the chairs in the dining room are still stacked on top of the bistro tables. The kitchen, however, is already a hive of activity. One of the cooks takes a tray of duck foie gras terrines from the oven while nearby a pot of jasmine syrup is boiling down. In the back, a young woman armed with tweezers is plucking bones from fish fillets, while a colleague standing next to her washes vegetables and cuts them into fine julienne strips. The kitchen runs like clockwork, with everyone knowing exactly what to do.
An Edith Piaf song is the soundtrack to all the action: "Non, rien de rien, je ne regrette rien," ("No, I regret nothing"). "Appropriate," says chef Eric Menchon, and turns to the sweetbreads, veal cheeks and rabbit shoulder that he's poaching sous vide. "The meat stays much juicier, because it stays below 100 degrees and the liquid doesn't evaporate. This method of cooking has huge advantages - it tastes better and is much tenderer."
Regulars appreciate imaginative dishes
Lutz Behl has been a regular at Le Moissonnier since it opened its doors in the spring of 1987. He says he's drawn by the diversity that Menchon brings to his plate.
"The menu changes from time to time," raves Behl, adding that he is constantly amazed by the imagination, the flavors and the spices that Menchon uses in his dishes. Behl calls it a special taste experience.
The inspectors behind a certain famous red restaurant guide felt the same way and rewarded Menchon with a coveted Michelin star in 1994. A second star was added in 2008. Has that given Menchon, who grew up in southern France, the incentive to join the ranks of the world's top chefs and strive for that third star?
"Why not?" says Menchon with a laugh, though he backtracks almost immediately. "We're not actually working for it, but who knows?" He says he and his team have never intentionally worked for a star, but have done their best because they enjoy cooking and want to evolve, and because their guests have always driven them to make their food just a little better. With that, he turns back to his stove.
Excellent cuisine, cheerful guests
It's now just before noon. The chairs are sitting at tables covered with starched, cream-colored tablecloths and napkins, sparkling silverware and glasses, all ready for the first guests.
At their regular table, Menchon's team is sitting down to a quick lunch of sausages, a side of vegetables and a crisp salad. Olivier Toussaint, the pastry chef, comes over with a sample of his latest creation for the serving staff: a roast walnut cake with hazelnut praline and a sweet cicely granite, served with a side of coffee ice cream and a latte macchiato. In jest, Toussaint tries to coax an "Oooh!" out of the three young women, but it's clearly not necessary: one look at them enjoying the dessert and it's obvious that it's a hit.
As soon as the dessert is eaten the empty plates are stacked in the kitchen. The first guests have arrived, and it doesn't take long until the red leather benches and seats are filled. The mood is cheerful and a pleasant buzz fills the air - are we in Paris, or Cologne?
The setting contributes to the illusion. The walls are patinated, making it seem as if the restaurant has been around for decades. Art Nouveau lamps, a number of discreetly placed old billboards, painted frieze on the walls and ceiling, and a cheese counter with a vast selection complete the French flair.
Owner Vincent Moissonnier, who gave the restaurant his name, is in a good mood as he surveys the scene. "Eric has a structured way of working, and we complement each other very well," he says. "What drives us is our passion for this profession."
Moissonnier raves when he talks about his star chef. "There are two forms of love. One is emotional, for my wife. The other is a professional love that connects me with Eric," he says, adding that there are simply people who belong together.
Moissonnier's appreciation is reflected in the freedom he allows Menchon in developing the menu; he's certain that he would stifle his chef's creativity, should he interfere too much. This freedom has resulted in some truly inventive dishes, such as today's creation: a sweetbread dim sum in jasmine caramelized syrup, with crispy fried mushroom and herbs, served with foam made of South African buchu leaves.
"It tastes very delicious together," says Menchon, obviously happy to have succeeded with such a surprise.
'Germans also enjoy good food'
There is little that could curb Menchon's imagination - though perhaps a lack of the right fresh fish. The chef says fish is his favorite dish to prepare, "because it's the most difficult." He says a cook must be very careful when it comes to preparing fish, especially with the cooking time. Too long, and the dish is ruined.
At home, however, Menchon prefers to cook stews because, he says with a laugh, he's missing the crucial ingredients: his team, his pots and pans, space to spread out and all the professional equipment. And, he adds, at home he's not only the chef but also the host who wants to enjoy time with his guests.
Menchon hasn't regretted his decision to come to Germany, despite the difficulty he sometimes has finding certain products. In fact, he was only supposed to come for a year, and now more than 25 have passed. Back then, as a Frenchman, he may have had an advantage in the kitchen. But now there are great chefs all over the world.
Menchon thinks Germans are just as fond of a good meal as the French, even if many would still invest more money in their cars than in good food. In his opinion, an early culinary education is crucial to develop a love of food.
"Someone who, in childhood, ate good food at home has a much better chance than those who only know fast food," he says.