… And Today’s Lesson: Improvisation

Dream job as a chef – then came COVID-19. Regret the decision and look for something else? Not a chance! In this article, 2 apprentice chefs and their instructors explain how the first year of the pandemic affected their work and the course content – and how they are finding silver linings.


Claas Engler and Wolfgang Pade, Pades Restaurant, Verden

When the first lockdown hit last spring, the demand at Pades for food to go was so high – up to 140 portions per day – that Wolfgang Pade, who had actually been planning on cooking alone, ordered the 5 apprentice chefs he was training at the time back into the kitchen. In the spring, this became a small catering operation – managed by the apprentices with the ‘royal treatment’, jokes the top chef. ‘They wrote up their job lists the day before, planned the rotations together – they really worked very independently.’

‘It was a unique way of cooking and a very instructive time,’ says Claas Engler, chef in training at Pades. ‘We had all our orders 48 hours in advance and had to do the purchasing precisely according to plan. And our boss was there to answer every question we had – doing things this way would have been impossible under normal conditions.’ He plans to do his final professional exam after 2 years of training – thanks to his previous level of education, he was able to reduce his total training time.


Cooking under exam conditions on Fridays – for local food bank patrons

One thing that clearly didn’t happen enough for Claas Engler and his fellow students thanks to the lockdowns and the pandemic was hands-on practice at the vocational school. There, training is strictly by the book. ‘“The Young Chef” – I was using that one 35 years ago,’ chuckles Wolfgang Pade.  This textbook, he says, is the benchmark for the exam. According to the experienced chef, some of the examination material is very different from what an apprentice chef learns on the job. So in order to make sure that training can go on – especially for Claas Engler, who will soon be taking his final exam despite the lack of practical sessions at the vocational school – the restaurant’s menu almost exclusively features exam content alongside its Saturday pick-up dish. ‘Every apprentice always thinks about what he or she would like to cook on Friday, takes care of all the shopping and prepares the dish under exam conditions,’ explains Wolfgang Pade. The meals are enjoyed by patrons of the Verden food bank. ‘Clearly, 4 dishes of 10 portions each are a bit much for a staff meal, so we are doing something nice for people who didn’t have much even before COVID-19. It’s something of a ray of hope in all this chaos that the lockdown has caused.’ Even Wolfgang Pade is able to take something good away from this year that has been so undeniably hard for the restaurant business: ‘We’ve heard so many good things from our guests. This much appreciation isn’t something a chef would normally experience in his or her entire career, seeing as how we usually work “behind closed doors”.’

And what does Claas Engler have to say about his last year of training under coronavirus conditions? ‘It was easier than I expected – because I was able to work! I am insanely grateful to Mr Pade for just saying “OK, it’s all yours”.’

In 2021, Pades in Verden was once again awarded the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand for carefully prepared dishes with especially noteworthy value for money.

Nico Marx & Walter Brecht, Brockenblick Mountain Hotel and Restaurant, Hildesheim

‘Our Nico is now the boss at the waffle stand,’ explains Walter Brecht, owner and head chef of the Brockenblick in Hildesheim. Restaurateurs have to get creative and improvise if they hope to bring in at least some revenue during the lockdown. Nico Marx, apprentice chef at the Brockenblick, is now in his second year of training. He still has a year and a half until his final exam, and has been learning under an ‘expanded training plan’ since the beginning of the pandemic, as his instructor Walter Brecht explains. ‘He’s now getting a first-hand look at what it means to be independent as a chef and restaurateur, that you have to do the cleanup and rake the leaves, that the furniture has to be kept in good shape. And of course there are all the pending applications for assistance because of the closures. And one thing that’s really important: he’s learning to improvise – as a restaurateur, that’s a skill you simply have to have. And all of these are things that don’t happen in a “normal” training programme.’

‘Since there’s not a lot to do in the kitchen right now, my area of responsibility has shifted rather to service at the moment,’ says Nico Marx. ‘And to the waffle batter,’ he adds with a laugh. Even though Nico Marx had envisioned things differently, he doesn’t think it’s a bad thing that he is currently training to become more of a restaurateur than a chef: ‘I wanted to learn the chef’s trade. That’s also why I came to Walter – because he really does make everything himself.’

Brockenblick Berghotel & Restaurant: Nico Marx & Walter Brecht

One of the few chefs in training who’s been working regularly since the beginning of the pandemic

During lockdown, the Brockenblick offers meals to go, even if not quite every day. ‘The way you have to cook to pull that off is an interesting challenge,’ the apprentice says. ‘For example, you can really use some twists and tricks from molecular gastronomy to optimise the dishes that are prepared for transportation.’

Walter Brecht hopes that he will soon be able to cook with his apprentice again, and is using this time to teach him things that go far beyond standard culinary training. ‘I’m trying to teach him a few things about management: purchasing planning, calculating costs and prices – all the theoretical stuff that you have to know as the head chef.’ Nico Marx is one of the few in his vocational-school class who have been going to work regularly since the beginning of the pandemic. According to Walter Brecht, this will further intensify the shortage of skilled labour in the kitchens. He hopes that the appreciation people are now showing for restaurants will continue – as will the newfound solidarity among restaurateurs.

Despite the adverse conditions, training to become a chef is a decision Nico Marx hasn’t spent a single day regretting. The insights he gained during the past year have inspired him to consider additional training in hotel management. The kitchen, however, is where he’ll always feel ‘at home’: ‘You can do anything in the kitchen – there’s no one right way. And you can always keep growing in any direction. That’s what I find so attractive about the craft.’

Together with his wife, Walter Brecht manages the Brockenblick Mountain Hotel & Restaurant in what is now the fourth generation.

  • In Germany, professional culinary training follows a ‘dual system’. This means that, in addition to their on-the-job training in a real kitchen, future chefs attend vocational school where they receive theoretical and practical training as well as general education.
  • The programme generally lasts 3 years, and people with a sufficient educational background can reduce this to 2 years.
  • According to the German Hotel and Restaurant Association, there were roughly 18,000 chefs in training in 2019.

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