Everything Here is Real

Axel Vervoordt redesigns the Palais Keller at Hotel Bayerischer Hof

 

“I never do hotels,” was Axel Vervoordt’s answer to Innegrit Volkhardt, when the owner of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, Munich, approached the interior designer and art collector about a partnership.

It might have taken Volkhardt two years to convince Vervoodt to make an exception, but it was worth it; the relationship – and friendship – between hotelier and designer has now spanned 12 years and six design projects, including both the hotel’s north and south wings, the ultra-luxe Penthouse Garden Suite, and Atelier, Munich’s only three Michelin-star restaurant. Only one other hotel in the world can boast of having Vervoodt-designed rooms, and that’s Robert De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel in Manhattan with its Tribeca Penthouse Suite.

Now, Vervoodt has returned for his latest project with Volkhardt, the refurbishment of the Palais Keller. Built back in 1443, this subterranean restaurant was originally used as a local salt warehouse, and passed through various hands before it was bought by Falk Volkhardt, Innegrit’s father, who also purchased building above, the Palais Montgelas. Volkhardt opened it as a Bavarian restaurant within the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in 1972, which is has remained as ever since. The idea to re-design the space first came to Innegrit back in 2016, although the Palais Keller didn’t shutter its doors until the April of 2019. But from this point, it took only six months to renovate, and for Volkhardt, there was never any question that the designer would be Vervoodt.

“For me, no other architect was worth considering, because for Axel Vervoordt and for me, the present is a mixture of the past and the future. Conserving it was far more than just a duty. Axel Vervoordt’s talent is his ability to unite the two so skilfully, and that is what he has done here, on this historic site; he has combined the old with the new.”

“We needed to restore the atmosphere as it was originally, with a monastic feel” explained Vervoodt during the unveiling, who has renovated the original lime mortar masonry of the restaurant’s signature design feature – a massive vaulted ceiling – back to its original condition.

“I loved the universal power of the exceptional 15th-century vaulted cellar,” said Vervoodt, “During the restoration, we attempted to unveil the essence of the fascinating existing architecture.”

The designer has also finely balanced the old and new by applying his minimalist style to the project whilst using what was already available to him, notably the sturdy long dining table, a reclaimed piece made by Vervoodt from a fallen oak which had been lying in his own garden for 20 years. Artwork by Bosco Sodi, simply titled “Untitled”, sits at the end of the table with a colour and texture that almost mimics that of the arched ceiling. The flooring is made from 400-year old paving slabs from the streets of Turin, whilst other Italian details can be seen throughout the Palais Keller in the form of the antique, 18th-century wooden ceiling mounted in the entrance hall, and in the bathrooms, with rugged sinks crafted from Italian sandstone and carved doors constructed from heavy wooden planks sourced from Piedmont.

“Nowadays there is no room to throw things away. We cannot afford to do that,” warns Vervoodt. “In these current times, everything is very fake, very superficial. Everything here is very real.”

There is attention to detail on every level and yet the finished look Is incredibly pared-back, particularly in The Refectory. It’s this simplicity, with shades of beige and sparse furnishings crafted from existing materials, which gives the design such impact.

“I think the beauty of this is the timeless feeling. It’s almost futuristic,” said Vervoodt. “And it’s all built to be useful.”

In the Palais Parlour, another of the restaurant’s dining rooms, Axel again found inspiration from an object already in his possession, a painted panel which, although a little too blue, was the right starting point for the now green-hued walls. A coat of tempera, which is a mix of egg and oxidised copper, was applied to the newly restored wood paneling not only to achieve the desired shade, but so the finish will develop and age with the restaurant over the next century. Vervoodt, whose work is also heavily influenced by Japan and the philosophy of Wabi-Sabi (“They have a respect for everything: materials, nature, time, everything”) also selected works from Sadaharu Horio, Tsuyoshi Maekawa and Yuko Nasaka, as well as Italian artist Ida Barbarigo to complete the look.

In complete contrast to the modernity of both The Refectory and The Palais Parlour 
is The Tyrolean Parlour, an original Austrian parlour inn dating back to 1823, which has been left just as it is, flaws and all. “See the beauty of it as it is,” said Vervoodt. “If we restored and varnished it all, it would look terrible.”

Axel’s wife, May, advised on all of the restaurant’s fabrics (note the ever so subtle but varied shades of white linen covering the restaurant seating) and also had a hand in the design of staff uniforms, imagined by designerClara Dorothea. These traditional costumes feel, just like the rest of the restaurant, utterly authentic, inspired by the classic shapes, think high-necked bodices, dirndl skirts and gentlemen’s Bavarian jackets, but cut with simple, pared-back lines for a more contemporary look. The colour palette is also understated, with muted shades olive, grey and white in a washed coarse linen that nods to the seat covers. And like Axel’s design of the restaurant itself, inspiration also comes from the past, with Clara Dorothea looking to drawings of 19th century waitresses in Munich beer gardens for her the ladies’ accessories; a small, tanned chamois leather bag worn at the waist to hold work essentials.

As for the menu, Volkhardt wanted the cuisine to retain its Bavarian roots, and so chef de cuisine Tobias Heinze stepped in to update, rather than overhaul, the traditional, hearty dishes. And in keeping with Axel’s vision for the restaurant’s decoration, Heinze also shines a light on sustainability, and retaining that balance between old and new.

“Most of the produce we use is farmed locally and we transform it into contemporary, yet typically expressive dishes, full of Bavarian flavour,” explains Heinze.  “We use seasonal produce so that the menu has a current, fresh appeal.”

“Dishes such as Bavarian-style tarte flambée with raw ham, red onion marmalade, leeks, mountain cheese and cress; frothy horseradish soup with boiled fillet of beef, apple, mashed potato and chives or mini apple strudel with vanilla crème anglaise, raisin gelée and almond cream form a link between traditional and modern cuisine.”

Photography Daniel Schvarcz

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Questions of Taste: Jan Hartwig

The Munich-based Michelin-star chef speaks to Port about how it feels to gain that covetable third star

Jan Hartwig is a man who sets high standards for himself. Within just six months of joining Atelier, the Axel Vervoordt–designed restaurant at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, the new chef de cuisine had already earned his first Michelin star, with the second to follow just one year later. In 2017, Hartwig achieved his dream of gaining a third, putting both Atelier and Munich firmly on the gastronomic map; not since Eckart Witzigmann’s Aubergine closed its doors in 1994 had the city been able to boast of a three Michelin-star establishment. Three years later and counting, it is still the only restaurant in Munich to carry the full three, a testament to Hartwig and his team, whose meticulous attention to detail sees dishes presented as miniature works of fine art, and certainly a proud moment in the history of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, which has been owned and run by the family Volkhardt for more than a hundred years.

Port caught up with Jan Hartwig to find out what keeps him striving for perfection, and what comes next after achieving the Michelin Guide’s highest honour.

Where did your love of food first come from?

My father is a trained chef and since I can remember, cooking has been a part my childhood. At least once a day we used to enjoy a hot home-made dish. But it wasn’t just the culinary part that excited me – I loved sitting together with my family and chatting around the table over a nice meal.

Do you have a specific dish which transports you back to your childhood?

I’ve always loved pasta. I could eat pasta every day. Especially Spaghetti Carbonara. I also like Piccata alla Milanese and the leek gratin cooked by my mother.

You gained your Michelin stars very quickly after joining Atelier. Was this the goal when you started there?

It has definitely always been my dream and it is everyone’s ambition to accomplish this. I have always said that I wanted three stars because I have always been interested in elite cuisine.

After gaining three stars, what next?

I strive to improve my skills every day and this process starts with motivating my staff. Furthermore, my goal is to maintain the level of the restaurant and to make sure that it stays this well visited. I would like to become more internationally known and am working on improving sustainability and environment protection in my cuisine.

Some French chefs are now relinquishing their Michelin stars. What do these awards mean to you? Would you say they hinder or encourage your work?

I haven’t heard about that. For me, earning the third star was an incredible feeling! In my eyes, only the feeling of becoming a father could top this. I really enjoy going to work, because I want to develop my skills and, for me, going to work is fun. I want everybody to be satisfied. Innegrit Volkhardt (the owner of Hotel Bayerischer Hof), my Atelier team, and the guests – but primarily myself – have to be satisfied with my work. The third star does not only mean success, it also brings more responsibility and stress. The higher you rise, the lower you can fall. Furthermore, the pressure increases because guests are very critical and expect more. We did not only get the three stars, we have to keep them by proving ourselves every night.

What is your creative process? Where do you find your inspiration?

I always choose one protagonist, for example lamb, flounder, or something like that. While considering the season, I form the idea of the dish. With my experience and long education and training, I am happy to say that I have the talent to imagine how some compositions of flavours will taste. Every situation and product inspires me. Many people live very inattentively but I get inspired all the time, while eating, brushing my teeth, or just taking a walk.

You’ve said before “the guest should have fun during dinner”. How do create this with your food?

Dining with us is simply a fun experience because the food is excellent. In addition, our guests feel welcome and can engage socially by talking and laughing with each other without having to hold back. Our restaurant is known for its relaxed atmosphere and its cool – not classical – music.

What would you like your menu to say about German gastronomy?

German chefs are creative and very well trained. They work under a lot of pressure and are very competitive. Their abilities include working well manually and having professional expertise.

What are your favourite flavours and ingredients to work with at the moment?

My favourite ingredients are seafood, mushrooms, and citrus fruits. As for flavours, I like to cook with vinegar and homemade oils.

With the current concerns about sustainability, how are you building this into your work? Can you also give us an example of something seasonal on the menu at the moment?

We do not cook meat from animals threatened with extinction, for instance tuna, and the ingredients we cook with are seasonal.

       

How has your time working with some other incredible chefs, such as Sven Elverfeld (at the Ritz-Carlton Wolfsburg), and Christian Jürgens (at restaurant Kastell) who also each hold three stars, shaped your career and style of cooking? Is there anything they have taught you – their approach to cooking or some words of advice?

All of these chefs are great people with successful careers, who have shaped me throughout my career. I observed different techniques and methods, applied them to my work routine and, thus, improved my skills by using the ones that worked best for me.

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Kanaal: Living in Art

Kanaal, the brainchild of Belgian art and interiors behemoth Axel Vervoordt, provides cutting-edge new exhibition and residential spaces at the forefront of design 

Kanaal. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The Kanaal complex, originally an old malting distillery and grain storehouse, lies just on the outskirts of Antwerp. It’s here, over the last two decades, that Axel Vervoordt – the interior designer and art collector who designed the Manhattan penthouses of Robert de Niro and Kanye West – has been gradually acquiring land and derelict agricultural buildings. Today, the recently opened, 55,000sq m site offers custom designed and sympathetically restored exhibition space, featuring permanent installations from luminaries including Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramović, as well as rotating showcase exhibitions for emerging artists. 

The complex also includes luxury apartments available for commercial sale, conceived by long-term Vervoordt collaborator, the architect Tatsuro Miki, and with interiors designed by Vervoordt himself. He envisages a close community here, brought together by a love of art and design – the site already hosts award-winning French bakery Poilâne and a restaurant, with daycare facilities in the pipeline. It’s a project that is truly a family affair, with Axel’s two sons, Boris and Dick, taking responsibility for new art acquisitions and real estate, respectively.  

Anish Kapoor’s At the Edge of the World, installed at Kanaal in 2000 and created before the artist achieved global fame, represents the “red beating heart” of the project, as Vervoordt explains to me at the event’s opening. “I wanted the space, which used to be a building where grains were sorted, to be like a Rothko chapel, a room for universal peace and harmony.” Recently, an opera was performed in the space.  

Axel Vervoordt standing underneath Anish Kapoor’s ‘At the Edge of the World’. Photo © Zoemin

Nearby, the Henro gallery houses Axel Vervoordt’s permanent collection, moved from its previous exhibition space in the heart of Antwerp. In Karnak, an ascetic space with the original solid concrete columns intact, works by Gutai artists are installed alongside Japanese sculptures dating from the Endo period. Literally meaning ‘concrete’, Gutai was a radical artistic movement that emerged in postwar Japan, its proponents aspiring to transcend the abstract painting of the time in favour of pure materiality.

The strength and legacy in the room is palpable: the columns once supported 60 litre silos. “When I first saw it, the columns reminded me of an Egyptian temple,” says Vervoordt. “The power is still amazing – almost religious. Industrial architecture is not made to be beautiful, it is made to serve.”

Karnak © Laziz Hamani courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation

The room next door is dedicated to three paintings by Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga, who descended from a prominent samurai family. The three ‘warrior’ paintings convey a primal violence reminiscent of Shakespearean tragedy, the scarlet spattered canvases hovering, eerily suspended in the slate-grey gloom. When Vervoordt visited the artist at his home in Kobe in 2003, he witnessed an equally elemental mode of preparation.

“He would contemplate the empty canvas, until he became one with the emptiness. His wife would then pour the paint, and he would create the painting in a few gestures, without hesitation. This for me is the origin of life, that which comes out of emptiness. This is the big bang.”

Suiju, Kazuo Shiraga. Photo © Laziz Hamani courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation

“Now we go into the light”, Vervoordt jokes, as we exchange the shadowy gallery for comparatively blinding Flemish daylight. Though lighthearted, this is an apposite remark: at Kanaal, the levels of luminescence in each gallery are carefully weighted for optimum atmosphere.

Installation El Anatsui, ‘Proximately’. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The Patio Gallery, a space for temporary exhibitions, is currently showing Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s ‘Proximately’, and is drenched in natural light. Anatsui’s tactile sculptures, vast quilts of scrap metal that have been washed, hammered flat and sewn together using copper thread, hang on the walls like glittering patchwork quilts. Vervoordt first discovered Anatsui’s work in Toyko, and presented the artist at the Venice Biennale in 2007, draping one of his sculptures over the facade of Palazzo Fortuny like a chainmail tapestry designed with the palette of Gustav Klimt.

Lucia Bru exhibition, Escher Gallery. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The industrial legacy of the Escher Gallery, a former brick warehouse and now another temporary exhibition space, remains clear. Though the machinery and grain silos have been removed, vast cylindrical concavities remain carved in the space. The sculptures of Belgian artist Lucia Bru that inhabit the gallery were not made in accordance with the space, but feel like a part of its industrial heritage. Fragments of crystal and milky porcelain with rounded edges, as though smoothed by waves, lie in glimmering piles. When I note the sculpture’s resemblance to sea glass, Bru emphasises the integrality of water to her work. “The elements of water and earth are part of the same family, they have a relationship, they fight, they reconcile,” she explains. Bru’s larger sculptures, which resemble pale rocky islands, are ceramic, a famously un-pliable, difficult material with which to work. “It has a mind of its own”, she notes. “I don’t like it when I control the material too much. I like it to surprise me.”

Detail of movidas, Lucia Bru. Photo © Jan Liégeois

Not all the structures at Kanaal are original, though it is often difficult to tell what has been newly built. Tatsuro Miki’s design celebrates this assimilation. “It’s important to preserve the existing quality of a place,” Miki says. “The first concept for the additional buildings at Kanaal was to create something as if it was already there. Once things have aged, we want them to be part of the same landscape. We prefer harmony to noise.”

Kanaal represents a continuation of Vervoordt’s design vision that has endured since his earliest restoration projects in the 1960s, to create an environment in which everyday life and art coexist harmoniously: a philosophy of living in art.