Germany a gourmet paradise? Don't scoff -- the land of sauerkraut and schnitzel is second only to France when it comes to Michelin three-star restaurants.
Christian Bau: not just a star cook, but a three-star cook
Germany's gastronomic firmament just got a little brighter. The Michelin Restaurant Guide for 2006 named a new three-star restaurant, bringing the total number in the country up to seven.
The award -- to chef Christian Bau's Schloss Berg in the town of Perl, in Saarland -- leaves Germany second only to France as the country with the most three-star restaurants. In the Michelin system, three stars means the restaurant deserves a special trip. The food, wine, decor and service will be exceptional and you should expect to pay highly for it.
Harald Wohlfahrt, Germany's "best cook" has a nearly perfect score with Gault Millau
Two more restaurants got two-star designation -- meaning the the restaurant deserves a detour, everything will be top-notch, if not perfect, and again you should not expect a bargain -- bringing the number in Germany up to 15. And 161 restaurants carry one star -- if it's on your way, you should stop, and the restaurant should serve very good food in a pleasant environment. That's four more stars than in 2005.
The red-colored Michelin Guide is considered the Bible for those obsessed with fine cuisine, and it tends to favor French classic cooking over modern styles. As much as it is revered, the system has come under criticism for carrying disproportional weight. The awarding -- or removal -- of a star can make or break an establishment. A restaurant that is given a star is virtually guaranteed a huge leap in patronage and profits; the loss of stars -- or likewise, points on competitor Gault Millau's scale -- can shut an establishment down.
Along with Schloss Berg's Christian Bau, who got his third star, the country's new two-star cooks are Juan Amador of Amador in Hessen and Sven Elverfeld from the restaurant Aqua in Wolfsburg, the town in Lower Saxony where Volkswagen's headquarter is.
German cooks impress too
In addition to giving out new stars, Michelin also instituted a sort of "watch this space" notation for chefs who seem on the track to improvement. Some of them are awaiting their first stars; others, like Eric Menchon of Cologne's Le Moissonier, are hoping for a second.
For food lovers, this precipitous rise in star gastronomy begs the question: What the heck is going on here? How is it that a nation known for serving large portions of hearty, rib-sticking fare that frequently revolves around pork and potatoes is close on the heels of the French, whose gastronomic tradition has set the world's standard for refined cuisine?
The answer varies depending who you ask. Juliane Caspar, the 35-year-old editor of the German Michelin guide, told dpa press agency that the rise in star chefs reflects a change in German cooking. "Top cooks in Germany have gotten more creative but can master classic cuisine," she contends.
Another answer sounds a bit more sinister, but may be more likely. It ties the rise in restaurant stars to an attempt to pump up the waning financial fortunes of the German restaurant industry.
Thomas Bühner's La Table has two Michelin stars and 19 Gault Millau points
For the past four years, German restaurants have published massive drops in sales, according to a recent story on foodie Web site best-of-wine.com. Inflating the stars awarded is one way of generating interest.
The press release Michelin gave out with its newest guide notes "new optimism after many businesses closed their doors and following hard years of competition in gastronomy and hotellery."
Yet, according to best-of-wine, the clearest sign of new optimism is the surge in star chefs.
"Current polls show that Christmas bookings are only a shadow of what they typically used to be," the site wrote.
Even if best-of-wine is right, and the proliferation of stars is a bit artificial, the news isn't all bad. In the past decade, German cooking has undergone a renaissance. Restaurants no longer rely on sauerkraut, pork and potatoes -- and the more stars its cooks are given, the more the world will be watching to see where German cuisine goes next.