How Julia Komp became Germany's youngest female Michelin star at 27

...And gave it up 4 years later, to travel across the world in search of authentic Asian cuisine. Recently opening her new fine-dining restaurant in Cologne, the chef seeks to fight for her star and win it back


Somya Mehta

Published: Thu 3 Mar 2022, 8:18 PM

Last updated: Mon 7 Mar 2022, 2:58 PM

How many of us can say we live a life of purpose? In simpler terms, purpose can be regarded as something you do for a living that marries your passion to service — to the society. And if it pays your bills, then nothing like it. Most people don’t realise what their purpose is until their old age or even at all. While purpose stems from a wider need to serve people around you, it starts from a personal place. The place of passion. It’s also where the problem lies. Most people don’t know what they feel strongly or passionately about, which, in turn, stops them from finding their purpose. What if we were part of a system that helped us uncover this facet? Perhaps, an education system that guided us to discover our interests instead of dictating, through limited mechanisms, which route to take?

In 2016, Julia Komp became the youngest Michelin star chef of Germany, acquiring the accolade at the age of 27. The feat of becoming a young starred chef was perhaps made possible due to many factors at play but a prominent one, which stands out is, she did not waste many years in a job that did not motivate her, only to realise in her midlife what her calling really was. “I discovered my passion for cooking through my education. In Germany, once we begin our A levels, we’re encouraged to seek work experience where we do a month of school, followed by a couple of months of work experience and so on. This was a crucial time for me as I was always on the lookout for places where I could learn new and exciting things,” says Komp, who was recently in Dubai to host a Chef’s Table at Jubilee Gastronomy, Expo 2020 Dubai. Through her work experience, Komp happened to find an Austrian restaurant, with a German-Austrian kitchen and a Michelin star, where she embarked on her journey of becoming a world-renowned chef.

Komp, who realised her passion of cooking through a series of work experiences, doesn’t hail from a family of chefs or any related background in the food and beverage industry. “My family had nothing to do with gastronomy,” says Komp. “My parents have their own business, which isn’t anything related to food. But my grandparents had a travel agency. I always travelled with them and ate with them. I used to love tasting different cuisines,” says the German chef, adding that her original dream was to actually work in a hotel. “When I was 14, I decided to get some work experience in a hotel. They put me in room service but it was too boring to put water in the minibar.” When Komp was placed in the kitchen, it immediately clicked for her. “The kitchen was amazing. I went with my own knives that my father had given me. Back then things like avocados weren’t so common in Germany but when I was asked to get them from the fridge, I’d always get it right. They were very amazed. I immediately felt at home,” she adds.

The young chef never fathomed she’d be awarded a Michelin star at such a young age. “It all happened very quickly. It was a wish, of course, but I was not expecting it,” says Komp. “I took over the kitchen as the chef de cuisine was leaving and I was the sous chef. I was hesitant to take the place because at the time, I wanted to travel around and had different plans. But then I thought to myself, I needed to take this chance. After one year, I got my first Michelin star,” adds the 32-year-old chef.

Crediting her early success as a star chef, Komp mentions how her formative years as a trainee in Michelin star restaurants cemented her foundations in the craft of cooking. “As a trainee, I’d make lunch and dinner for the staff as they had to eat before the guests started coming in. The food needed to be ready at 12 o’clock. One thing I learned very early on is that if food is served late, people get very angry,” says Komp.

She also learned in her traineeship that the basics of a dish were imperative to maintain its authenticity. “My boss would always say, unless we knew how to cook something at the basic level, we could never cook at the molecular level. He’d say, ‘Before you make caviar out of a dish, you need to know the basics and the origins of the dish. Once you perfect the original, then you can create your own style.’ This stayed in my mind and I learned how to cook classic dishes,” she recounts.

Sharing some of her early experiences as a chef, Komp adds, “It was all men everywhere. In all the restaurants, the kitchen was always male-dominated. The girls were usually serving.” So, how did the young cuisinier navigate the male-dominated environment? “It really depends on the place you start with. I was lucky because it was a smaller kitchen, and the team was very respectful. I didn’t have the experiences that other women face,” says Komp. “I had a good friend who was working in a hotel and she used to tell me it was very difficult for her because there were a lot of men in the kitchen, who’d always get angry,” adds the chef.

“They were always screaming, throwing pots and pans, and abusing verbally, similar to what we hear about chefs’ kitchens. In the end, she had to give up her job because it was terrible.” Komp, in her own kitchen, has been conscious to stay away from inculcating that hostile environment. “If someone makes a mistake, you don’t need to make them feel bad about themselves by abusing and screaming. Anyone can make mistakes. You need to tell them how to improve and find out other ways to teach them differently. You don’t have to make them feel useless. It has nothing to do with their personality.”

Komp's team
Komp's team

When asked if things have progressed over the last few years, the chef responds, “Things are changing slowly and if they aren’t, we need to actively change ourselves. What’s happening now is, at least in Germany, we don’t have many young people who want to be chefs and in service,” she adds. “Something needs to change urgently. For instance, we need normal working hours and the extra hours need to be paid for. We are always working overtime and if this continues, there will be nobody willing to work in the kitchen or in the services anymore.”

Does Komp’s kitchen reflect her ethos? “We have five women in the kitchen. They’re from all across the world. Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Peru, Turkey, and even India. We’re very female-driven and multicultural. We start around 2pm and work till around 11pm. That can be classified as normal timings. We make sure we pay them well and give them adequate leaves and two-day weekends.”

The star chef decided to give up her position as chef de cuisine and her Michelin star, at Schloss Loersfeld, in Kerpen, Germany, after almost four years of helming the starred restaurant. “When I got my Michelin star, I was only 27. I felt there was more to learn. I never worked in a two-star or a three-star kitchen. So, I decided to pack my bags and travel to Asia. I was always cooking Asian style so I thought it would be the best place to start,” says the German chef. “For example, Kimchi is very strange for Germans. The fermentation process is something we don’t know of. There was no way to know how it was supposed to taste or if I’m doing it right. I thought to myself, how can I make Kimchi in my restaurant when I’ve never tasted the original? That’s why I decided to go to Asia.

Komp and partner
Komp and partner

Travelling to 30 different countries, 14 months later, Komp penned her book My Trip Around the World in Recipes as an amalgamation of her culinary experiences, tasting and creating culturally-diverse cuisines. “Initially, the idea was to work with small family businesses and restaurants and learn their home-cooking style. But it turned out to be very difficult with the language barrier,” resorting to Komp working for more established restaurants, amongst Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and Michelin stars. “I still managed to get some work experience in small businesses, which was helpful. We’d work during the daytime and then go out with the team at night, to eat the traditional food and they’d explain the food to me,” says Komp.

Citing one of her best cooking experiences in Tokyo, Komp adds, “I learned the respect for the cooking ingredients and products there. Especially, when one goes to the market.” Her takeaway, though, from her culinary travels was to have a more calm attitude towards life. “In Germany, everybody is very strict and always looking to plan their next move. People are always looking at the watch. We need to be a little bit more relaxed. That’s what I learned,” says the star chef.

As part of her wider goals for the culinary industry, Komp also seeks to debunk the anonymity of global supply chains. Traveling through Asia, Komp made sure she met her suppliers personally to establish a relationship with them. “We put so much love in our food. So, it’s very important that the person who delivers the food, does that as well. In France and Spain, we work with a lot of small family-owned businesses, from where we buy meat and cheese. I also source my own olive oil from Tunisia, from a women’s cooperation, which is Fairtrade-certified. When I was in Indonesia, I found a big family-owned business that makes Tempeh. Everybody works together and the children also help out. When you can have such suppliers onboard, it feels great. It’s very important for me to buy from suppliers that I know of and have a relationship with, which then allows me to know exactly where the products come from.”

In November 2021, Komp opened her dream fine-dining restaurant, Sahila, in Cologne, Germany, where she originally hails from. “The concept is that through our menu, you travel around the world. We have different cuisines. For example, we have Tom Kha Gai from Thailand but we came up with new ways to present it. We make sure the taste is still authentic but the presentation and consistency will be different,” she adds.

Interior's of Komp's Cologne restaurant
Interior's of Komp's Cologne restaurant

The chef, who takes pride in cooking in ‘Rhineland’ style, which reflects “the open-mindedness, good mood and fun-loving nature” of her hometown, seeks to bring back her Michelin star with her new venture. “I travelled around the world. Now, it’s time to fight for my star and win it back.” So, what’s the significance of the star for Komp? “Of course, the Michelin star is very important. But when you look more broadly, you have to look for more than just the star. You need to see whether people are happy with you, you need to pay salaries and meet your costs. The journey is more important than being rewarded. But when you put so much effort and love into something and then if it gets rewarded, it’s a whole other feeling. You feel honoured,” the star chef signs off.

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