A true Capricorn, Joachim Koerper was born on Christmas Day 1952 in the city of Saarbrucken, Germany, not far from the French border. He started to study business, but his passion for cooking took over.
After apprenticeships at the Hotel Falken in Constance and the Kempiski in Berlin, he left Germany for France and warmer climates. From 1971 to 1990 he worked in some of the finest hotels and restaurants around Europe: Bernard Pacaud’s L’Ambroise in Paris (3 Michelin stars), Roger Vergé’s Moulin de Mougins on the French Riviera 5 kilometers from Cannes (3 Michelin stars), Guy Savoy in Paris (2 Michelin stars), Robert Husser’s Hosteleria du Cerf in the small Alsatian town of Marlenheim near Strasbourg, Gilbert Broyer’s Au Chapon Fin in Thoissey (2 Michelin stars at the time), and Jean Pierre Lallement’s Assiette Champenoise in Reims (2 Michelin stars at the time), and catered events for Caroline of Monaco, Gunter Sachs, Maximillian Schell, Cristina Onassis and Niarchos von Opel to name a few.
The hotelier Jurg Mettler persuaded Koerper to take over the restaurant Girasol in Alicante, which earned its first Michelin star nine months later. After another three years and still today it boasts 2 Michelin stars. In 2002 the Gastronomic Guide “Goumetour” judged Girasol the Best Restaurant of the Year, with a rating of 9.25 out of 10.
Since November 2004 he has been the Executive Chef and a partner of Eleven, the only restaurant in Lisbon with a Michelin star, earned in less than a year after opening. In 2007 “Goumetour” judged Eleven to be the best restaurant in Portugal.
You may not be aware that the first chef I ever interviewed was Heinz Beck, who came to Rome in 1994 to open La Pergola at the Rome Hilton. Like Heinz you are German and you arrived in Lisbon to open Eleven, but there the similarities end. Before coming to Rome, Heinz had studied and worked only in Germany, whereas you had worked primarily in France until you opened your own restaurant, Girasol in Alicante which soon had two Michelin stars. Why did you leave such security for the unknown in Lisbon? How often had you been to Lisbon before opening Eleven?
JK: At that time Lisbon was back-woodsy and provincial. Its restaurants offered mostly either non-descript international food in hotels for the tourists, or were family-owned greasy spoons. So for top chefs like me it was a new, unexplored market with no Michelin-starred restaurants. It offered untapped potential. When I came to open Eleven, I had only been to Lisbon once before.
Am I right that you no longer own Girasol, but that you do consultancies for other restaurants in Spain and in Portugal? The names of these restaurants and where they are?
JK: I am Consulting Chef at the restaurant Arcadas da Capela in Quinta das Lágrimas, Coimbra with 1 Michelin star; in the restaurant Pousada Casa del Abad de Ampudia in Valencia with 1 Michelin star; and in the restaurant La Gigantea at the Hotel Mas Passamaner in Tarragona, as well as for Silverseas Cruises.
How do you divide your time between Eleven and your consultancies?
JK: I spend approximately three weeks a month here at Eleven, and one week a month in Spain. When I’m not in Spain, I advise and consult with my resident chefs there several times a day. I couldn’t keep up this type of business and life-style without the support and high skills of my resident chefs. This is also true of Eleven when I’m in Spain. I spend most of my time at Eleven, because I’m the Executive Chef and not a consultant, and because I’m one of the eleven owners.
Our tastes in food are closely connected to our childhood, your first memories of food?
JK: My grandmother’s chicken with tarragon.
Other chefs in your family?
Hot Foie Gras with Cherry Sorbet
How did you decide to become a chef? Who were your mentors and what did you learn from each of them?
JK: I’ve always loved to cook. So, since I wasn’t good at academics, I tried the cuisine, and I’m still here! My mentors were the French chefs Bernard Pacaud and Roger Vergé, the first great chefs I worked with. From both of them I learned to select the best available products and to understand the real meaning, the essence, the freshness and high quality of Mediterranean cuisine.
Your restaurant is called Eleven for its eleven founders/partners including you. Who are the others and are they still partners?
JK: José Miguel Judice, who is the President of Lagrimas Hotels and Emotions, and the Administrator of Eleven; João Correia, who is the architect of the restaurant; Nabil Aaouad, João Rendeiro, Stefano Saviotti, Hipolito Pires, José Marques da Silva, José Bento dos Santos, Tiago Camara Pestana and the Amorim Family, all investors. Yes, they are all still partners.
What are the essential qualities of being a top chef?
JK: Balance. By balance I mean knowledge of all aspects of running a restaurant. As Heinz Beck told you, a top chef doesn’t just cook. He or she needs to know how to choose the products he or she will use in the kitchen, how to combine these products into creative recipes, how to manage the business aspects, and guide the personnel. Without a good team, it won’t be a success.
What do you like best about your profession?
JK: To work with the best ingredients. Take fish, for example. They are still alive when they reach Eleven. My fruits and vegetables must be fresh and in season. I also enjoy meeting and getting to know new people every day.
JK: If I don’t have a well-organized workplace, an excellent mise en place….with everything set-up and prepared for me to cook at my top capacity.
Your greatest professional satisfactions?
JK: Besides my Michelin stars at Girasol and here at Eleven, winning the Gold Medal in 1976 at the famous Culinary Olympiad in Frankfurt.
Cherries with Porto wine dessert
Your culinary philosophy?
JK: I don’t do molecular cuisine; it should be banned.
In a nutshell, how would you define your cuisine?
JK: “Author cuisine, Mediterranean style.” I work exclusively with products in season.
Your signature dish and other specialties?
JK: All my lobster dishes.
How often do you change your menu at Eleven?
JK: We change the menu each season, four times a year.
Like Heinz Beck, have you made a conscience effort to attract local clients, or are most of your clients still foreign businessmen or tourists?
JK: We have all type of clients: regular clients, local from Lisbon and Portuguese from outside of Lisbon; international businessmen and tourists. Such variety is really great!
The size of your staff?
JK: A total of 30.
Your typical day when you are in Lisbon?
JK: I’m always on the lookout for new restaurants and flavors. The best Portuguese food and the most imaginative recipes come from Alentejo. This is because it’s a very poor region, but famous for herbs. Whatever few products grow there are delicious, but especially in the past there was very little to choose from, so that lots of imagination and inventiveness was and is still required to come up with new recipes.
photo by Lucy Gordan
Roasted Lobster with Mango Ravioli, shellfish and lime sauce
photo by Lucy Gordan
You speak German, French, Spanish, and English; what about Portuguese?
JK: Yes, I speak Portuguese.
What language do you speak in Eleven’s kitchen?
JK: Portuguese mixed with Spanish because my Portuguese isn’t fluent.
What do you believe is the reason for your success?
JK: My innate curiosity and my desire to experiment and improve my cuisine every day.
After so many years in France, why didn’t you open a restaurant there or in Germany? Why Spain? Why Lisbon?
JK: My ex-wife was Spanish. I’ve already told you Lisbon had and still has great potential. There is no other restaurant here like Eleven. Its building, designed by one of our partners João Correira with Cristina Santos Silva and Ana Menezes Cardoso, is a work-of-art containing works-of-art like Joana Vasconcelos’s sculpture,“Independent Heart” which evokes the Viana heart, one of Portugal’s most traditional pieces of gold filigree jewelry, and Jorge Cruz’s photographs. Its panoramic view over the Tagus River, the Parque Eduardo VII, and all of downtown Lisbon is unique. The service is impeccable. The wine list solid and ever-growing, and the cuisine is incomparable.
Up to now you have told me about Joachim Koerper the chef, but my readers and I would like to know more about you. For example, what is your favorite food?
Your favorite wine?
A dish you don’t like?
Chefs are well-known for having collections, often of motorcycles, fast cars, or watches; what about you?
JK: Michelin guides books.
There is a cookbook by you for sale at Eleven; what is its title and is it available only in Portuguese?
JK: The Cuisine of Joachim Koerper, just in Portuguese, for now.
Have you written other cookbooks? If so, what are their titles and have they been translated into other languages?
JK: Yes, one other. Its title is Olive Oil and Hazelnut Cuisine, but it’s also only available in Portuguese.
Are you writing a cookbook now?
JK: No. I’m a member of the group: “The 10 Best Chefs in Portugal.” A food writer named Fatima Moura is putting together a book of interviews or profiles of each of us and a few other chefs. [Publication date: December 2008]. Besides me, she’s including Aime Barroyer of the Pestana Palace; Henrique Sá Pessoa, who is opening a new restaurant which doesn’t have a name yet; Albano Lourenço of Arcadas da Capela, Lagrimas Hotels; Marco Gomes of the Restaurant Segredos da Terra; Pedro Nunes of Restaurant 44 in Opporto; Siegfried Damler-Heinemann of the Restaurant Amadeus; Vítor Sobral of the Restaurant Terreiro do Paço; Bertilio Gomes of the Restaurant Virgula; Fausto Airoli of the Restaurant Pragma at Lisbon’s Casino; Henrique Mouro of the Restaurant Quinta de Catralvos; João Antunes of the Restaurant Vin Rouge; José Avillez of Tavares and of Life Style Cooking; and Luis Suspiro of the Restaurant Na ordem com Luis Suspiro.
What are your feelings about food critics and restaurant guides? Have they been a help to your career, or have they added unnecessary stress?
JK: Both are important! Obviously the rating of the Michelin guide is probably the most important one for a restaurant. Food critics are necessary too, be their judgments positive or negative!
If they hadn’t become chefs, Heinz Beck wanted to be a painter; Gualtiero Marchesi a pianist; Thomas Keller the shortstop for the New York Yankees; Vítor Sobral a judge; and José Avilliez a carpenter; what about you?
JK: A train engineer.
You have lived outside of Germany for many years; what, if anything, do you miss about Germany?
JK: I miss my grandmother’s style of cuisine, a few other typical dishes, and friends. Nothing else.
Champagne Risotto with Lobster
photo by Lucy Gordan
Lucy Gordan is an award-winning travel writer and cultural journalist living in Rome, where she is Epicurean-Traveler.com’s Bureau Chief. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is www.lucygordan.com. For more of Lucy’s articles, click on her name under the title of this article.