The Flair for Asian Aromas

Sarah Henke is one of the few top chefs in Germany. The secret of her success is also the way to her roots.

Top chef Sarah Henke

The petite young woman walks out of the kitchen and delivers the first surprise. Sarah Henke, the woman with the very German name and owner of YOSO in Andernach, is Asian, or more precisely: She was born in South Korea. She came to Germany when she was just under 18 months, after she was adopted by the Henke family, and grew up in a province of Lower Saxony.

As a kid, I experienced the entire food chain cycle - with vegetables from our own garden, our own animals, slaughtering, cooking - just about everything!

Sarah Henke

‘I come from a family where the food did not come from the supermarket’, she says. She spent many hours with her mother at the stove and watched how home-grown vegetables as well as chickens and sheep raised at the farm were processed. ‘As a kid, I experienced the entire food chain cycle - with vegetables from our own garden, our own animals, slaughtering, cooking - just about everything!’, explains the 36-year-old. Her passion for cooking, however, was only ignited when she was working in gastronomy in her last year of high school. ‘I had so much fun with it, that I proclaimed: I want to become a chef.’

In retrospect, lucky coincidences like these paved the way for Sarah Henke's way into the male-dominated world of chefs. After completing her initial training as a cook, she worked at the renowned Schlosshotel Lerbach, then moved to Portugal for a year, and was hired by Michelin-decorated chef Sven Elverfeld in 2006 to work at the Aqua restaurant in Wolfsburg. ‘If you cook on a certain level in the gastronomy scene, you’ll build up a network after a few years. You can get a call one day, if somebody you used to work with is looking for a chef at a top location.’

I've never really had any experience with Asian food before

Sarah Henke

Personal Touch in the Aromatic Cuisine

Within three years, she worked her way up the ladder from the Commis de Cuisine (junior chef) to the Chef de Partie (line cook) and learned the craft that later made her kitchen style so unique. The good reputation precedes her: In 2011, at only 29 years of age, she became the executive chef for Spices, a restaurant located inside the wellness hotel A-ROSA in List on the island of Sylt (Germany).

The amazing part is that she first learned the nuances of Far Eastern cuisine on Sylt. Sometimes it seems that life takes a lot of detours to take you back to your roots. That is how it was for Sarah Henke: ‘I've never really had any experience with Asian food before’, she says laughing. ‘I just wrote down anything that appeared typically Asian for me, so lemongrass, ginger, coconut milk, very basic stuff’. Then she just googled the rest. Meanwhile, Sarah Henke has developed her own personal touch of the aromatic cuisine. Maybe she has the flair for Asian flavours in her genes.

On Sylt she cooks fusion style, a mix of European and Asian cuisine. The young chef looks for authentic recipes from various Asian cuisines and uses them to create her own interpretations by merging them with products from the region. She says that the simple ingredients of the highest quality always form the foundation of her dishes. They are enhanced through gentle cooking, many fresh herbs and just a little salt. Sounds simple, but requires a high degree of sensitivity and craftsmanship. Sarah Henke has both.

A Woman in Haute Cuisine

Critics and guests are equally enthusiastic. But despite her success, as a woman she remains an exception in haute cuisine. Women are already hard to find in the celebrity filled world of culinary art. In that sense, Sarah Henke is pragmatic and does not blame the lack of women in celebrity kitchens on gender bias: ‘In this part of the world, far too few women simply enter this profession - it’s no surprise that there is little representation on top’, she says.

She does not have a problem asserting herself and reaching the top. She describes her leadership style as calm and relaxed. ‘One or two glances are enough to get the guys in the kitchen move’, she says confidently.

The menu of this minimalist, modern restaurant includes delicacies such as tuna belly with ponzu or red prawns and bimi.

At the end of 2015, after a creative break, she took over the kitchen of the YOSO restaurant in Andernach, not far from Coblenz. In the Michelin Guide 2018, the restaurant was awarded a star. And this year her entire team was able to celebrate receiving this award again.

The menu of the minimalist-modern restaurant offers delicacies such as tuna belly (toro) with ponzu glaze or red shrimp and broccolini. The guests rave about it. Incidentally, the name of the restaurant comes from the Korean word for elements. ‘These four elements are my concept’, she says. ‘Fire stands for Asian spiciness, water for fish, earth for meat, and air for vegetables.

Sacrifices with a Happy Ending

YOSO is doing well, but long hours are part of the job description. There is no room for a functional private life. ‘If you don’t leave the kitchen until after 10 in the evening, you can’t really maintain a social life’, says Sarah Henke, shrugging her shoulders. She has always paid the price for these sacrifices, but all things considered there is a happy ending: She is happily married; her partner, Christian Eckhardt, is also a chef. That makes things a bit easier.

Top Chef Sarah Henke at work

If you ask Sarah Henke what her professional goal is, she answers without hesitation: ‘I want to get so well known that people in Germany associate Asian cuisine with my name.’ When she says that, it sounds neither delusional nor unrealistic, but more like a carefully considered wilful intent.

Meanwhile, Sarah Henke was able to fulfil a dream as a cook. In 2018, she travelled to Korea for a book project. She spent two weeks to get to know the culture and above all Korean food. Captured in a very personal travel cookbook, it was published by Christian Verlag under the title ‘Sarah Henke. Korea. Meine kulinarische Reise in das Land der vielen Wunder’ [Sarah Henke. Korea. My Culinary Journey into the Land of Many Wonders].

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