Martina Kömpel: no limits and no frontiers
Expect the unexpected with Martina Kömpel. She runs a hotel-restaurant in a remote region of France and hosts a cooking show on German TV, after a long career in the greatest Paris restaurants.
Portrait of a free woman.
Martina Kömpel doesn’t like to make choices. Smiling and speaking perfect French, she uses a well-known Gallic expression, which literally translates as: “I like sitting between two chairs.”
These days, she hosts a culinary show on German TV, manages her own hotel-restaurant, Les Contes de Bruyères, in Servières-le-Château in Corrèze, while being a Les vergers Boiron consultant. In her unclassifiable restaurant, she offers on any given day, a simple lunch menu for the town’s inhabitants (13 euros for a starter, main course and dessert), more elaborate menus in the evening (with different wines for each dish) and, on demand, gastronomic meals for an international clientele, with a great selection of vintage wines from her cellar.
Whatever meal one chooses, she uses only the finest products, personally bought at the market every day, and seasoned with wild herbs and mushrooms gathered by her mother, who has been living in the area for years. For her gastronomic meals, she uses noble products, such as pigeons she buys from a local producer and foie gras selected from the best farms in Southwest France.
“I don’t distinguish between everyday cooking and exceptional meals. I always try to delight people, to surprise them and, above all, to get everyone to discover new things.” In this spirit, she serves Knödel (quenelles made with bread or potatoes and eggs, which are typically German, Austrian or Alsatian, based on her grandfather’s recipe) to her local customers, “who absolutely love them”. On the other hand, she gets her foreign diners to taste local crawfish, which are caught in a nearby stream, used in a festive Corrèze dish, combining crawfish and chicken.
“Ever since my childhood,” she says, “I had the chance to discover a wide range of culinary styles and cultures, beginning with traditional Austrian cooking. I also learned to use local and wild products, such as forest mushrooms and herbs that my mother, who was passionate about nature, taught me to recognize and appreciate. After that, I had the opportunity to travel to very different places and to discover the culinary cultures of many Asian countries, such as Indonesia and India, and later African and Latin American cooking.”
A taste for learning
When she was 16, Martina went to a boarding school in Germany, where she took cooking courses with a “bon vivant” priest, as she calls him. He taught her mediaeval cooking. “It was quite funny because this priest showed me how to make stuffed carp, which we usually think of as being Jewish (gefilte fish) and so I discovered this tradition, which is a fusion of dishes found throughout Central Europe, like borscht. I really enjoy mixing things that are often considered to be incompatible. It’s the best way of freeing yourself of constraints and finding interesting new taste combinations."
Discovering new horizons
Martina’s next adventure involved working with a haute couture designer and she obtained a technical diploma in sewing. She then began university studies in Germany, obtaining degrees in theater and ethnology, before doing a Masters in psychology. To pay for her studies, she became the assistant of Directors of photography in the film and television industry in Munich, which allowed her to travel to different countries on several continents and, in particular Latin America, and to further widen her knowledge of cooking practices.
A spring to Paris
Her next step was to go to Paris, hoping to get into the film scene, but she didn’t get as far as she had hoped. “I was seen as an extra-terrestrial in the very closed world of Paris film and television.” She then got a foot in the door of gastronomic cooking, almost by chance. “Thanks to a friend, who loved my pumpkin soup, I was able to meet Alain Senderens, who immediately took me under his wing.” She was hired to work in the brigade of this major figure of Nouvelle Cuisine at the renowned Lucas Carton restaurant. Alain Senderens, who passed away in 2017, is buried in Corrèze, not very far from Martina’s restaurant.
“Working with this great chef was an unbelievable gastronomic and human experience. To begin with, I realized working in a restaurant with five Gault et Millau toques and three Michelin stars, that I had to seriously up my game and my technical skills. I began to work like crazy. Then, in 2005, Alain Senderens relinquished his three Michelin stars, something that no one had dared do in the history of French gastronomy. He renamed his restaurant, calling it simply Senderens, to free himself and cook the way he really wanted to. He understood, very early on, that the world was changing and applied his credo: Liberty. He democratized access to gastronomy, without compromising on quality. This had a huge influence on me and completely changed my goals and the rest of my career.”
Coming full circle
To perfect her technique, Martina was admitted to the prestigious École Ferrandi of gastronomy and hotel management, one of 10 successful applicants out of a thousand candidates. “I have to say, looking back, that it was, to say the least, a bit complicated. I was the first-ever German woman student to get both levels of certification (CAP and BTS) at the Ferrandi School. With two children in school, my husband was willing to support me, but it was hard going.” While studying, Martina met a German television crew doing a report on the school. She was then hired to give cooking lessons on TV, once a week, for the WDR channel. “The idea was to teach the great classics, like veal blanquette, coq au vin and chocolate mousse, but also fundamentals such as how to make mayonnaise. Often, I would go on air with the techniques or the dishes I had learned the week before.”
The school got the students to work in the kitchen of the Ritz Hotel, with the great chef Michel Roth at the helm, a man with two Michelin stars, MOF and a Bocuse d’Or.” I continued to do my TV show at the Ritz and I was able to call on great chefs as guests. It was amazing to have these people doing the shows with me in an exceptional and time-honored establishment. There were 80 people working in the kitchen and we had to cater to very different tastes for guests from all over the world. I had the privilege to discover Michel Roth, a great and exemplary chef who had the talent and ability to manage his brigade brilliantly. He taught me what real French cuisine was all about, extremely refined, without being stuck in old-fashioned traditions. For me, I had come full circle. I was working for a great French chef and German television at the same time!”
Ambassador of good taste
Following that, Martina launched her own catering company, acquiring a very prestigious client base: embassies, diplomatic circles, UNESCO, high-end private clients, etc. After a brief Moroccan stint, she went back to France to refocus her attention on family life. That’s when her mother, Barbara Winterstein, who had been living in Southwest France for many years, let her know that the local authorities of Servières-le-Château were looking for someone to take over the town’s local restaurant that had been closed for four years.
That’s when her new adventure began, which she is cultivating today between France and Germany. “Every month, with my partner, we leave our countryside to travel to Germany to shoot my TV show. We never use high-speed roads, but take the time to visit cities and towns along the way and, of course, we stop to taste the specialties of each region. My activity with Les vergers Boiron is totally compatible with my way of life, enabling me to meet chefs from many different countries and discover new creative avenues.”
A few months ago, Martina renovated the hotel above the restaurant in Servières-le-Château. Since she never does anything without reshuffling the cards, she decorated the rooms of this country inn in the middle of Corrèze with accessories and furniture that she recuperated from the Berlin Ritz Hotel, which was being renovated at the time.
So, if you like, you can have lunch at the Contes de Bruyères at lunchtime, with a coral lentil soup to start served in a large family soup bowl or a nettle salad and then, in the evening taste one of Martina’s great gastronomic specialties: Saint-Privat pigeon stuffed with cabbage and foie gras or a filet of beef (Salers breed crossed with Charolais) with girolles or chanterelle mushrooms. Then, you can go up to your room at the Berlin Ritz in Corrèze and admire the countryside the next morning!