The resurgence of Riff, or how to survive the death of a diner despite being exonerated
The Michelin-starred chef Bernd Knöller made the news in 2019 after a case of supposed fatal food poisoning at his restaurant. ‘The clients have always saved me’
The German language has a word for the worst accident imaginable. That word, gau, comes to mind for Bernd Knöller when he remembers February 16, 2019. Knöller is the soul of Riff, the Valencia restaurant that has boasted a Michelin star since 2009.
That day in February, a woman died hours after dining at the establishment. The first signs pointed to mushrooms as the cause of death. Acquittal came nine months later, when forensics experts and the justice system determined that the culprit was not the morels served with rice. Authorities never shut down the restaurant, but the German chef, born in the Black Forest and settled in Spain since 1991, chose to manage the crisis with severity. He closed the doors of the restaurant, did an audit and changed the quality control protocols. He decided to never again serve morels, nor any other kind of mushroom, except button mushrooms.
“In that situation you ask yourself a lot of things,” he says. But he believes that he resisted not because of a miracle, but because of “25 years of work, because of treating the issue with transparency and calm and because of our clients’ impressive response.” None of the staff abandoned him: “They all stayed.” He found support among fellow chefs like Ricard Camarena, Quique Dacosta, the Roca brothers and Pedro Subijana.
“Everyone saw the possibility that a chance event, like someone getting sick, inevitably puts you into the spotlight, in addition to how fragile the functioning of a restaurant like this is,” Knöller says. He points out that few people recall the name of the pizzeria in Madrid where a worker died in a fire, “but it when it has to do with a star…” Michelin did not withdraw the recognition: “We sent them a letter explaining what had happened. They thanked us for the information, they visited us and decided to keep it.”
Four months later, the pandemic hit. “After what we had gone through, I wasn’t stressed. The restaurant’s accounts were healthy, and we were prepared to endure,” he says. Like other chefs, he turned to to-go food, selling boxes of fish soup and fresh fillets. “The clients saved me again,” he says. “I have always taken care of them. It really matters to me that they return to my restaurant. I’ve never had the idea of being a restaurant for tourists. I have clients, even foreigners, that return each year,” he says.
Knöller exudes passion when he speaks about gastronomy. He talks about a dish or a fish, and his eyes shine. As you listen, your mouth waters. He arrived in Valencia with an old Mercedes that he bought with 1,000 German Marks from his grandfather. He began working in a pizzeria. Shortly thereafter, he opened a restaurant, El Ángel Azul, where he organized live jazz sessions on Sundays. In 1993 he opened Riff. Valencia in the 1990s did not have much variety. In a region so characterized by rice, he found Valencianos to be resistant to novelty. “I started making risotto, but I realized that they didn’t like butter and cheese to be added to rice,” he recalls.
He considers himself 50% a cook and 50% gourmet. He started to go to rice restaurants: “I liked it more and more, and the cook inside of me started to work and to think that I also had something to say.” But when he asked why things were being done a certain way, he almost always found the same answer: they’ve always been done like that; this is how my grandmother did it. “As a German, I need a more scientific explanation, and little by little, I discovered the reasons,” he recalls with a smile. Years later, Santos Ruiz, a food critic and manager of the Valencia Rice Designation of Origin quality label, affirmed that the three chefs who stand out for creativity in rice are Quique Dacosta, Ricard Camarena and Bernd Knöller. “Not bad for a German,” he says.
The idea of “cooking well” has always been important to Knöller. “I’m a cook by passion. I have always liked it, and I still really like cooking. I think cooking well is very important. It’s an act of life, and I have always liked sharing it. Gastronomy is a magical thing,” he says. And he defends the fact that good cooking has a price: “Some spend it on football and others on a good restaurant, even if they have to save up for three months. Everyone decides where to spend their money.”
Valencia is Knöller’s home. They greet him in the market and at the fish auction. Several years ago, Ricard Camarena, a close friend of Knöller’s, said that the restaurants’ quality was elevated by the presence of tourists. “At first I didn’t believe him. Today I have to say that he was right. The most successful cities in the gastronomic context are tourist cities,” he says.
As with his heterodox approach to rice, Riff reflects the chef’s personality. “I insist that my waiters be as natural as possible. If they’re talking to other customers, don’t interrupt them to explain a dish,” he says. “I want them to explain the menu to those who are interested, not for them to know it from memory.” In addition to cooking, Bernd Knöller is prodigious on social media. (During the pandemic, his young daughter filmed TikTok videos of him cooking.) He also makes a monthly podcast about food. And he offers, as yet another service, “A day with Bernd,” in which two people accompany him to the market early in the morning; they cook and eat together and go to the fish auction. “The people love it, and we end up becoming friends,” he laughs.
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