Culinary Harbour Cities Helge Hagemann: "Driven by Curiosity"

Pickled vegetables
© Benjamin Cordes

Helge Hagemann is an unusual sort of chef. Instead of working at just one restaurant, he freelances all around the world, and enjoys the freedom and flexibility that gives him. He spent some time travelling in Australia, then tried a few semesters of a political science degree before deciding he wanted to become a chef. After graduating as a gourmet chef, he resumed his itinerant lifestyle, moving from one restaurant to another, and travelling the world. In Canada he worked as chef de cuisine in an Italian restaurant, he spent time boarding with a family in Japan to get to know the secrets of Japanese cuisine, and did a short stint for the German Ministry of Agriculture as an ambassador of German cuisine, on a food roadshow taking him from New York to Dubai. He is now doing the rounds of Goethe- Institut branches in Sydney, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Wellington as part of a culinary and cultural exchange programme.
 
Not too many chefs decide to freelance – what led you to make this choice?

It was supposed to be just for a short time, before I took up my next permanent job. But then I started to get all sorts of contracts to teach cooking courses, develop new recipes, or fill in at various different restaurants. I was having so much fun juggling all these different roles that I didn’t actually want to go back to a permanent position. I enjoy the freedom, the ability to make my own decisions, and to keep on travelling. And part of that is this amazing project with the Goethe Institut, which I found out about through the “WerteKöche” chefs agency.
 

  • Oven-baked Jerusalem artichoke with peas © Benjamin Cordes
    Oven-baked Jerusalem artichoke with peas
  • Pickled vegetables © Benjamin Cordes
    Pickled vegetables
  • Helge Hagemann is plating a dish © Benjamin Cordes
    Helge Hagemann is plating a dish
  • Helge Hagemann © Benjamin Cordes
    Helge Hagemann
  • Sour savoy cabbage and potato mash with chantarelles © Benjamin Cordes
    Sour savoy cabbage and potato mash with chantarelles
  • Sour savoy cabbage and potato mash with chantarelles, flambé © Benjamin Cordes
    Sour savoy cabbage and potato mash with chantarelles, flambé

According to your profile, you prefer to steer clear of gourmet cuisine. Why is that?

I did my training in gourmet cooking, and there a lot of things that put me off right from the start – particularly the way staff were treated, and the enormous amount of food that was wasted. In those days you often only took the middle part of a fish or piece of steak, and the rest was simply thrown away or used in stock. It was just crazy, and for a long time I believed that it was like that everywhere, throughout the industry.
Many years later, in early 2008, I did a couple of internships at two modern-style top restaurants in Berlin (Horvath and einsunternull - editor), and I had to revise my ideas to some extent, in terms of how they treated people and the responsible use of resources. That was really nice to see.
 
Why do you see the responsible use of food resources as so important?

Everyone talks about sustainability, but only very few people actually put it into practice. Yet short supply routes, using seasonal ingredients and not wasting anything simply makes good sense, from every perspective. We get more nutritious food, and it’s also good for the planet. And regional cuisine can be exciting as well as authentic – it reflects the local culture and lifestyle, and increases diversity. This is part of what makes this tour of Goethe Institut branches in different countries such a great experience for me.
 
Ahead of the tour, you were working in your pop-up vegan restaurant “Flavor Shop” in Hamburg. Is that also part of the wide range of challenges you are looking for?

Absolutely. I’m not vegan myself, but I firmly believe that a meat-free diet in particular is not just a passing trend – it is going to become a vital necessity. Our challenge is to show people that vegan food isn’t all about depriving yourself or eating a substitute for the real thing.

Vegan fine dining works really well, and even omnivores can have a great dining experience, without missing the meat component at all. And for us chefs, of course, it is a really exciting challenge to completely rethink all our recipes and menus.
 
What’s next for you after the Goethe-Institut tour?
I don’t make plans for the future, I just wait to see what comes along. I’m driven by curiosity, and I don’t get anxious about constantly moving from one gig to another. I take the view that nothing is certain in this life. I am a total optimist, and my only plan for the future is not to have a plan!