A dish featuring rose petals, ham jelly and girolles doesn’t sound like the most appealing combination you can imagine, does it? And yet, the menu at Vendome is full of such bizarre sounding courses. For its chef, Joachim Wissler, is a man who doesn’t cook food like other chefs do. He is someone who has an excellent commanding of classical French technique and at the same time, slowly developed a style that has very little to do with that of any other restaurant in Europe. To describe this style, a few characteristics come to mind. First of all, his cooking is pure. Dishes such as a goose liver with chicken bouillon and courgettes for instance do not feature a lot of elements. What they do have instead are a clarity and definition of flavour, which you rarely find. At the same time, the quality of the produce is quite impressive, which is not always the case in “modern” restaurants. This is best shown by some crayfish, served with a spicy Indian-inspired cream. These have a texture that only the best crayfish display and somehow manage to stand out, despite the spicy cream.
What this dish also shows is the incredibly risky game that Wissler plays throughout his menus. His dishes are constantly at the edge; at the edge of being too complex in flavour, too daring or in this case too spicy. Whilst this is certainly a risk for him, it is also one of his greatest strengths. Being a chef who has been at the top in Germany for quite a while now, he is someone who constantly pushes his cuisine further. When he said last year that his desire was to simplify it, distill the flavours in some way, he only made this happen this year. That is quite an achievement, as most chefs tend to stick to their guns, once they get some sort of recognition.
To draw a parallel with the Wissler of a few years ago, and his present style, a calf’s heart dish is quite a good example. He used to be quite famous for serving a lot of intestines and lesser cuts of meat. Whilst some of you might remember quite bold (and delicious) dishes, the new creation is the complete opposite: It is a dish that strikes you with a crystalline precision. There is texture, there are flavours, there is a balance and there is a lightness that make it a special start to a menu. At the same time, it is a starter that doesn’t lacks the power and concentration that can be seen as trademarks of his.
Another dish that has to be particularly mentioned is a venison with pistachios and cepes. Again, the pistachios are quite prominent and could result in an unbalanced dish. But here again Wissler counters the intense puree with the gameyness of the venison and the earthy cepes. What the entire dish leaves you with is something quite remarkable: You have the feeling of having very coherent flavours on your plate, whilst you’re eating a composition that brings together components that you rarely get like this.
That last point might well lead us to what can arguably named the most impressive feature of Wissler’s food: The ability to pair flavours that seem totally out of the box. One of the most captivating dishes of his is that rose petal, ham jelly and girolle dish. It sounds like something that would make classicists turn in their graves, but somehow manages to enthral you. The roses have flavour, and work harmoniously with the other elements. If a dish such as this one could perhaps be served at Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant, the latter rarely creates such consistently excellent menus as does Wissler. That is where these two masters differ. The former, as great as he is, does not have the consistency that Wissler undoubtedly has. For Wissler manages to retain the diner’s attention throughout 20+ course menus. That is an achievement not many chefs can be porud of.
So next time you want to have a meal to remember, don’t be put off when you look at the menu of Vendome and see bizarre-sounding dishes. On the contrary, if you let yourself go and are open-minded enough, you might well have a meal that will leave you wondering where Joachim Wissler gets his inspiration from; we simply don’t know.