Pastry Chef at Atlantis by Giardino (Zurich, Switzerland)
|Born to German parents in America, Benjamin Kunert has lived in California, South Africa, and Germany. Back in his parents’ home country he studied at university and inadvertently discovered his passion for the kitchen and pastry. Forgoing formal training, Kunert worked for three years at a traditional hotel in the German Alps. He then moved to the pastry team at the Michelin-starred Hotel Traube Tonbach in the Black Forest, during which time he earned valuable skills and a mentor in Pastry Chef Pierre Lingelser. Further stints at Silk in Frankfurt and the two-star Villa Rothschild helped him develop a foundation and enable his idiosyncratic style. Now settled in Zurich, Switzerland, Kunert leads the pastry team at Atlantis by Giardino. His desserts have an emotive context, bringing back memories of flavors and experiences of times past. A practiced competitor, he will represent Northern Europe—with an arsenal of seasonal ingredients and Guanajara chocolate—in the Valrhona C3.|
INTERVIEW WITH BENJAMIN KUNERT
VALRHONA: Tell us about your pastry style? Who or what are your biggest influences?
I would describe my pastry style as very nature- and season- bound. I prefer ingredients that grow on our doorstep. For example, eating seafood on the beachfront, caught by the local fisherman, gives a sense of authenticity and realness. The same applies for a dessert. I like walking through the forests or the meadows in Switzerland, and getting inspiration from the surroundings, taking seasonal products like herbs or even mushrooms to create my dishes. I find that eating is pure emotion: it can awaken memories of childhood or a past vacation, and this is the key to a great dessert.
VALRHONA: What’s your favorite dessert that you’ve ever made?
I must admit I don’t have a favorite dish. I take a lot of time and great care in creating my dessert. When trying a new dessert, I rearrange the components over and over again, taking some away or adding a bit more until I find that the dish is perfect. When eating, there should be a lot of activity in the mouth. From soft to crunchy, warm and cold. This makes a dessert interesting. It’s not only the taste but the texture that plays a vital role. I don’t really have a favorite product, either. In summer I love all the ripe and fresh fruit, and in winter, I love the spicy and wholesome produce.
VALRHONA: What was your first job in pastry?
I trained for three years as a chef in a very traditional hotel in the German Alps. From the beginning of my training, I was always keen on going into pastry, but in Germany there is no such thing as an apprenticeship specializing in restaurant pastry. So after my training, I applied to work at Hotel Traube Tonbach, a luxury hotel with a very big pastry department and a three Michelin Starred restaurant under Chef Harald Wohlfahrt and Pastry Chef Pierre Lingelser. I stayed there for three years learning the tricks of the trade. Looking back, it was not easy, but I still thank Pierre for bringing me to where I am today.
VALRHONA: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
My biggest mentor is Pierre Lingelser from the Traube Tonbach. He showed me what can be done in pastry. He is unbelievably creative. He has a huge responsibility in the hotel, and has been handling it with great ease for many years. He deserves great respect for being so passionate about the work that he does. The most important thing he taught me is that taste comes before any decor or fancy plating. A lot of pastry chefs get too caught up in appearances, leaving the taste of the dish in the background. I still follow a lot of his advice today, especially when it comes to developing new dishes and team management.
VALRHONA: What is your planned training regimen for the competition?
After the Semifinals, I got a lot of feedback from the judges regarding improvement that I take very seriously. I am going to recreate the conditions of the competition and really focus on working quickly and neatly. I must train myself to use all the time given. I am fortunate enough to take the time to practice extensively because I am blessed with very competent pastry team.
VALRHONA: What’s your most important kitchen rule?
The number one rule is to earn respect by teaching others what you have learned over the years, and not through intimidation. A bad temper does not create respect, it creates fear.
VALRHONA: How do you feel about representing your country at the International Finale of the Valrhona C3?
I am half German and half American. I chose to work in Switzerland because I find the country absolutely amazing. The people there work very hard and are extremely organized. I have grown to love the country over the last year that I have been there. Of course my heart beats both ways. I am very proud to represent Northern Europe to which Switzerland and Germany belong, but also to take part in a great competition that takes place in my country of birth.
VALRHONA: Why do you think you are the potential winner?
That’s a very difficult question. I think all candidates are here because they delivered their best on the competition day, and plated extraordinary desserts. I think my chances of winning are as good as any, to be honest. In the end it will depend on the day of the competition. You can train to get your timing right, and to get used to the procedure, which helps give you confidence, but when you stand on stage everything is different than how you planned. In a competition of this caliber, there is a very fine line between winning and losing. That’s how I see it.
VALRHONA: How does the theme (the 30 years of Guanaja 70%) inspire you?
I think that the Guanaja chocolate is very versatile in its usage. It has a very smooth taste. Some dark chocolates have got an almost burnt aftertaste, which make them very dominant when used in a dessert. I see the challenge in creating a complex dessert with products that are not usually associated with chocolate or a dessert for that matter. I want to create a unique taste that maybe even provokes a little, and I think because of its rich and very round flavor, the Guanaja chocolate is just right for the job. I am going to focus on the versatility of this chocolate in my dessert where I want to show that Guanaja does not only pair well with your usual suspects, but also with produce far away from standard pastry. I am going to focus strongly on the Birthday in my petit fours. I think the Americans, especially, will have fun with that.
VALRHONA: What is your favorite quote you will try to keep in mind for the competition ?
I would keep the saying “no risk, no fun” in mind. I think you have to provoke a little and not always stay safe.
VALRHONA: What would it mean to you to win the competition ?
I have taken part in this competition before, and I stood in the finals in Madrid in 2011. I was very disappointed when I didn’t win. Now, a couple of years later, I realize that the competition is tough and the title does not just fall into your lap. If I were to win this competition, it would definitely be the highlight in my career so far, showing me that through hard work and determination, anything is possible.