Chefs at Home - German Edition with Stephan Benkendorff

Chefs at Home. When I asked Chef Stephan Benkendorff, Chef de Cuisine at JW Steakhouse, Marriott Downtown Abu Dhabi, there was a natural curiosity: would he create a menu that reflects his work at the steakhouse, or would he come up with a something that reflects his native Germany.  I saw the menu a couple weeks ago - he is incredibly organised as a chef, something that defies the stereotype that creative spirits are bad administrators.  I saw it would indeed be a German evening, or as he called it in his menu, Chefs at Home - German Edition. We were hosted by Istvan and Emese, a salt of the couple who opened their glorious apartment to us. 

In coming up with Chefs at Home, I wanted to see what chefs are like when they are not in their work kitchen. I wanted to see what they cook and which dishes reflect elements of their childhood.

It is a nice mix of guests tonight. Our hosts, Istvan and Emese, are real people with no airs about them. There is an honesty about them that I find so refreshing.  There is also Chef Lee, Chef de Cuisine at Hakkasan Abu Dhabi, but tonight he is here simply as someone who brings to the evening a wonderful sense of humour and a joyous sprit that touches everyone who meets him. Andrea, elegant in her one piece and heels, is a strong character, strong enough to allow her balance between her intelligence and her femininity to shine. Then, there is Janet, Chef's assistant for the night and a warm soul, as down to earth as they come, with an infectious laughter. Finally, rounding out the guests tonight, is Joan, my food and drink soul mate who makes it possible for me to host these events. She is simply a beautiful soul. 

Istvan asking Chef if he needs another knife!

Two chefs and a someone who likes to eat

The canapés are magnificent. One must must understand that an evening like this is also a chance for a chef to bring his creative forces to the fore, while showcasing his/her favourite home cooked dishes. So, looking at the pre-dinner bites, one sees a balance between Chef Stephan's penchant for plating things beautifully and the dishes he recalls having as a boy in his granny's home. Black slates, logs, tiny wooden tables adorn the living room. We watch Chef plate the dishes with such care, deaf to the sounds of the guests - focussed.  

The canapés  really lend themselves to  a Chefs  at Home experience in the sense that they are the perfect size, ideal for just lazing a round with a  glass of wine in hand or standing out  the floor to ceiling windows, nibbling while staring out at the Abu Dhabi skyline. Happen tartar, a Cologne version of beef tartar, is exquisitely presented on alogs. Chef has used La Carne, Abu Dhabi's premier premium butchery,  Grass-fed strip loin, and unlike a traditional beef tartar we usually have, the flavours are delicate, allowing the natural taste of the beef to come through. 

Istvan and Joan

We also have Rievkooche, Cologne style potato pancakes topped with Smoked salmon - a canapé that would be at home at any brunch buffet in the city. Finally, Jebackene Kammenbar, a decadent deep fried camembert stick dipped in jam disappears off the table almost as quickly as it appears. 

Chef and Andrea
Chefs intermediate course has all of us talking. His Kolsche Ahzezupp, a traditional pea soup, is what chefs at home is about for me. It is hearty and notwithstanding the effort that goes into making it - the soup is infused with bacon while various other root vegetables are included to give it added flavour - it has all that home appeal about it. Again, it is nicely plated with fresh vegetables. It is quite filling and at the end, most of us are already fairly satiated! 

The drinks meanwhile, keep flowing. We have everything from a Zonin Prosecco to a South African Chenin Blanc to a Hungarian Pinot Noir. No, we do not have a Riesling as I thought it would be too predictable. However, German beer is on the table as well and I find myself having some with the first part of our 3-dish main course, the Curry Wurst, described by Chef as 'Granny's street food'. It is interesting how often he references her - behind every chef is usually a mum or grand mum. It is one of the most honest meals I have had at Chefs at Home. 

The remaining two dishes of our main course, are a fitting end to the savoury part of our dinner. Himmel un Ad, Pork Knuckle on mashed potatoes with caramelised apple and fried onion is just so German! When I started Chefs at Home a few months ago, this is what I had in mind. Home food that ordinary people like me could attempt. I think Chef Stephan really embraced the spirit of my vision. The same is true of Rheinische Muscheln, Green lip mussels in white wine broth served with garlic bread. 

Chefs at Home ends with a sweet that is dear to Chef's heart, cheese cake and he calls it Mum's Cheese cake, a baked cheese cake. By the time we have it at 1am, most of us are full but it's cheese cake, so like a runner finding that last energy for the final lap, we do the same, suck in our tummies and finish dessert. 

By the time we started leaving reluctantly around 2:15am, I could not help but look back on an extraordinary night. There was a moment during dinner when I went quiet, looked around at the guests laughing, chatting away, clinking glasses and felt an immense sense of gratitude for these moments. You could argue that it could happen at any dinner. That may be true, but for me there was something about this evening that made me feel how integral the German experience was to the way it unfolded. Chef Stephan really brought to us that feeling that we were with him on his day off and were able to eat his home style dishes.  Chefs at Home, it must be said, is not about peanut butter sandwiches and tea, but neither is it about fine dining. I believe Chef really balanced the concept tonight from the exquisitely plated canapés to the very homely main dishes, and this is further proof of why he excites me as a chef. For all of us, this was a night full of joy and positive energy, immense food and drinks and again, joy! 

Stephan Benkendorff
Chef de Cuisine at JW Steakhouse,
JW Marriott
Cooking in his free time

La Carne Premium Meat Butchery
Mushrif Mall,
Abu Dhbai

Coming soon...Chefs at Home 5 - An Italian Journey

Brandon Stoltenkamp is a food writer and blogger based in Abu Dhabi