Riff: Valencia’s Least German Restaurant

Chef Bernd Knöller

German chef Bernd Knöller needed to try Britain, Italy, Switzerland and San Sebastian before bringing another Michelin star to Valencia.

Bernd Knöller has been working since he was 15 years old, but then you need to do something to keep warm if you were born among the snowy white peaks of the Black Forest, in the town of Hüfen to be precise.

Today Bernd feels warmer, partly because he spends his working day creating gastronomical gems upon the flames of the kitchen of his restaurant called Riff, and also because he now lives and works in Valencia, running one of the city’s four Michelin Star restaurants.

Bernd’s journey wasn’t a straight line to the Mediterranean however, nor did he wake up one morning with a burning desire to be a chef. Rather the profession struck him as a sensible way to earn a living that would enable him to travel, bearing in mind that people always want someone to cook for them anywhere in the world.

The passion for cooking would come later, but first, after serving his apprenticeship for three years at the Ochsen Hotel, Bernd took off for London to improve his cooking skills and to learn English while working at the Kensington International Hilton.

London had a big problem unfortunately for Bernd; there were too many Germans and so he wasn’t practising English enough, so he moved north to the historical walled city of Chester on the border with Wales, where he spent 18 months at the Grovesnor Hotel, and where the Head Chef inculcated in him the notion that cooking was also art and creativity, and that each chef marked his dishes with his own personality.

From there on Bernd continued to travel and to learn, moving to Dusseldorf in 1982, and Switzerland for a short while, and then to Berlin (where the wall fell without him noticing much as long as the dust didn’t enter his kitchen) to work with the man who would become his mentor, French chef Henry Levy.

After such an intense training he decided to get out of the kitchen and into some new experiences, trying his hand at acting (training at an acting school in Italy) and social work with pensioners for three years, before returning to a Two Star restaurant on the German island of Sylt.

The next step brought Bernd closer to his current home when he accepted a bewitchingly attractive job at Pedro Subijana’s Akelarre restaurant in San Sebastian.

But having been born in 1962 on a date such as March 19th, perhaps it was inevitable that Bernd should find his way to Valencia, and stay, if only for the spectacular way that they celebrate his birthday here.

After working at Ma Cuina and Pizzeria Sorrento, in 1993 he finally opened his own restaurant, Angel Azul, a popular spot in Valencia at the time, and even if Marlene Dietrich never ate nor sang there, it offered a rich diet for Valencian stomachs.

Dates are perhaps not Bernd’s strong point and he ominously chose September 10th 2001 to open ‘Riff’, in Calle Conde Altea 18, after Angel Azul was becoming too small for his ambitious plans.

Fortunately the TwinTowers tragedy didn’t cast a shadow over the bright future in store for this project, which received its Michelin Star in 2009.

For all his experience in northern Europe, and conceding that English food is not as inedible as some people believe, including yours truly, Bernd’s cuisine today is very much Mediterranean, the days of butter and cream being a thing of the past, and his 16 hour working days include visits to the Mercado Central and the fish auctions at Valencia port, while the vegetables are brought down especially for him from Benicarló.

Fish and rice dishes are in fact his preferences although he also cooks meat dishes too, the materials available often determining the constantly evolving dishes of the day, and if the fish are still flapping when he brings them home, so much the better.

But whatever he cooks, for Bernd the fact of preparing something that will enter another person’s mouth is something sacred, an intimate act comparable with a mother’s breast feeding, and indeed that is the comparison he makes.

He also thinks that the wealthy in Spain eat badly, confusing massive portions of shellfish with quality.

So much creativity, while it is for eating, is not for wasting, and so, in collaboration with photographer Xavier Mollà, Bernd produced another labour of love, a 372 page book with 64 original recipes illustrated with over 600 photos, which transcends cookery and is a personal vision of what the Mediterranean means to him.

The book, entitled ‘ànima mediterrània’ has achieved recognition with the award of the Gourmand Prize for the best Spanish cookbook.

For Bernd, one kind of cooking is no better than another; for him there are only two kinds of cooking; good and bad, and his international staff, with representatives from as far away and apart as Japan, Peru, Columbia and even Spain, are constantly looking for new challenges, convinced that the second best dish they have ever cooked was the last one, bettered only by the one that they are preparing today.

Restlessness defines Bernd, and if he has perhaps ended his search for a permanent home, he hasn’t stopped travelling, and in mid May has plans to close Riff for a week and set up a restaurant in a school in Frankfurt because, well, because a friend asked him to.

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