A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
As our taxi turned into the small village of Selzen, a half hour drive south west of Mainz in southern Germany, having passed fields of ‘pick your own’ tulips en route, there were several conspicuous signs to our destination, Kaupers restaurant. But when we faced a three-way junction we were all at a loss as to which one to choose.
An elderly gentleman emerged from an adjacent house, slightly wearily enquired whether we were looking for Kaupers restaurant and directed us down the least likely path to the right.
We thanked him and carried on for a few more minutes, past the winery Kappellenhof, and then turned into a small car park with farmland off to the left and what had obviously been farm buildings to the right. The sun was setting and since I stopped to take a few pictures, I entered the restaurant on my own, climbing the unexpected steep stairs to the dining room slowly so that I could take it all in.
I walked into a room full of 13 other diners plus Nora Breyer, 34, pouring champagne, while off behind the bar I could see her partner, Sebastian Kauper, 38, equally hard at work in the kitchen. Light streamed in through the windows on either side onto an elegantly, but simply, laid table that I subsequently learnt had been built by Breyer herself. At the far end were low couches and on the left French windows opened up to reveal a terrace that must be a lovely place to sit in warmer weather.
The menu was on the table, seven courses that resonated seasonality and emphasised an obvious and very close relationship with the local farmers. As the meal progressed I began to piece together the unusual story of what had brought, and keeps, Breyer and Kauper together.
It took another chef’s introduction, when Kauper was head chef in a small country hotel in Rheinhessen and looking for help with a special event, to introduce the two but love soon did the rest. They lived and worked together for a few months before both came to the same conclusion: that it does not matter how good the food is if those in charge of looking after the customers are unable to communicate the passion behind it and do not love the food in the same way the chef does. Breyer decided to move from the kitchen to front of house.
She brings to this role an unbounded energy that she displayed even as the clock approached midnight and her very tired customers waited for taxis back to their beds. This, I gathered, is partly due to her youth but primarily to the fact that she is in control; that she and her team are serving exceptional food; and that she is doing this on a nightly basis in a restaurant that she helped to build.
Breyer is also a fully trained and certified carpenter, a calling that came in useful when in 2010 they were shown the 300-year-old granary which its former owners had converted into a wine tavern. For six months she was responsible for building all the tables, the wine cabinets and even the breadbaskets until in June 2010 they were ready to open.
Kauper’s skills may be more one-dimensional, having served his apprenticeship in Munich and then in several Michelin-starred restaurants, but they are a perfect foil for Breyer. His grounding, which allows him to reinterpret such German classics as savoury and sweet dumplings; the exuberance he has developed while working on his own; plus the extra layer of freshness that comes from working so closely with local farmers and producers – all contributed to our excellent meal.
This began with the first of two fish dishes, wild perch with marinated asparagus, followed by a combination of wild pike, fished in the nearby Rhine, with slivers of duck which Kauper had dry aged. This latter dish was a play on the fact that the pike enjoy nothing more than any duck that comes too close to them in the wild. In between came a small serving of goat-curd dumplings made even more memorable by the addition of a pungent sauce of ransoms. When I mentioned this to Breyer, she pointed out of the window, before adding, ‘That is where they came from and they are nowhere near as good even one day old. They must be eaten as soon as they are picked.’
Freshness was the key to the next two courses. A simple salad of leaves and herbs served in bowls put on the table had everybody helping themselves so often and so greedily that Nora and her staff were left wondering when they could clear our plates. This was followed by a thick slice of beef fillet of which the star ingredient was a Selzer onion grown, according to the menu, in the field owned by Mr Zargel next to the restaurant. A cheeseboard of about 24 varieties of German cheeses provided a fitting finale and another interaction with the knowledgeable Breyer.
The restaurant Breyer and Kauper have created is a wonderful tribute to its location and their innate and complementary skills. But above all, it is testimony to each of them.
Menus from €74 to €114.
Kaupers Kapellenhof Kapellenstr. 18a 55278 Selzen; tel +49 (0)6737 8325