The chocolatier from the Krämerbrücke
He discovered his passion for chocolate after many detours: dropout, musician, graphic designer, self-taught chef. Today, Alex Kühn runs Erfurt's most famous manufacturing company of sweet delights. His recipe for success: improvising with passion.
Whole hazelnuts protrude from the elongated uneven mass. "Winter Squirrel", this is the name that Alex Kühn, 44, has given to one of his newest works. And this is what chocolate looks like only in Erfurt – in the Manufaktur Goldhelm company on the famous Krämerbrücke. Here there is no standard chocolate bar. Everything is unique – processed by hand, and shaped freely with no restricting conventions.
When Alex Kühn entered the business on his own twelve years ago, the limited bank credit he was given was not sufficient to be able to afford one good mould: "I simply placed my first chocolate on a marble top. Just like a blob. If you were lucky, the bar weighed 110 grams, and if you were unlucky, then only 90 grams." He then spread small pink-coloured seeds on the dark blob. The packaging too ensued in a do-it-yourself process: cling film and a piece of paper with the name "Pink Pepper" that he wrote himself. This variety is still made. It is one of Goldstein's best-sellers – the brand of finest chocolate delicacies now famous well beyond the borders of Thuringia.
From the one-man show to a small chocolate empire
Alex Kühn has remained an improvisation artist – agile and unconventional. Designer stubble, jeans and T-shirt, and an open, natural laugh beneath the baseball cap: this is how you come upon the boss of Goldhelm, when he moves to and fro between all his locations – his chocolate kitchen, two cafés and the shop with its large range of chocolate bars, pralines and sandwich spreads. He has a workforce of 80 employees, and the chocolatier from Erfurt still personally monitors each of his recipes, involving himself in numerous details of the strict manufactory. His creed: "You can see and taste whether somebody is in the kitchen and producing with love and passion – or not."
A chocolatier. Somebody who has dedicated himself to the high art of chocolate refinement. A profession steeped in tradition, with its roots firmly anchored in the Francophile culture of indulgence. The fact that the born-and-bred Erfurter discovered it for himself goes hand in hand with a stroke of luck – like so much else in his life. "Suddenly I was standing in front of all the booked guests“, he recalls, "and couldn't cook at all. That's how it started.” Then, over 20 years ago, Kühn had a job as a waiter in a French restaurant near Erfurt. The chef had become unavailable at short notice before a summer's dinner. Kühn bravely stepped in and improvised: Not only did he cook but he also entertained the guests – with "guitar in the hand", and casually related anecdotes taken from his life, which until then had taken a winding course – albeit with no real goal. The guests were entranced, and Kühn's life thereupon assumed a new direction.
From dropout to Erfurt's "Entrepreneur of the year"
Following this successful Mediterranean evening, Kühn, qualified graphic designer, occasional waiter and – at that time - with no secure livelihood, knew: "All at once, I rediscovered all my interests, for which it was difficult to find a career, at a dinner.“ He learned the ropes, switched from waiting to the kitchen where he came to appreciate the sensual components involved in the preparation and improvement of food.
And then – yet again – another such stroke of luck occurred. In 2005, Alex Kühn left his job at the out-of-town French restaurant to become a cook on the Krämerbrücke, where his brother Stefan had opened the Mundlandung restaurant. There the two Kühns, sons of Wolfgang Kühn, an extremely successful racing cyclist in the days of East Germany, were reunited for a short time. Directly following the reunification of Germany, they left Erfurt together to spend a few months in Australia. With no return airline ticket: "I just wanted to get away, travel. Just to stand at the airport and know: everything I have is in my backpack.
The urge for freedom remained, even when Alex Kühn attempted to settle down again in his home town. He tried out quite a few things. It was only when working in the restaurant that he had the feeling that his training as a graphic designer could be beneficial to him: besides cooking, he delighted in designing invitations and menu cards. Then his desire grew to set up his own business. When his brother told him that a commercial space in his vicinity had become available, this dream suddenly took shape. His own shop, just like in the French film "Chocolat“ with the enchanting actress Juliette Binoche – that would really be something: hand-made pralines, beguiling cocoa mixtures, surrounded by a warm, cosy atmosphere.
Kühn started his "Chocolat" version as a one-man business
Kühn was so obsessed by this idea that he presented a utilisation concept to the Krämerbrücke Foundation. This Foundation campaigns for the preservation of the unique historical character of the buildings erected on this twelfth century bridge construction. A manufactory based on the old confectionery craft, in the heart of the ensemble characterised by handicraft cooperatives – this convinced the Foundation. And the returned son of the city started his variant of "Chocolat" as an enthusiastic one-man business.
Bridge building to the old craftsmanship of Thuringia
The Goldhelm Schokoladen Manufaktur company has established itself as a Krämerbrücke attraction. Even when he feels the pressure exerted by industrial manufacturers, Alex Kühn is proud of exclusively using regional ingredients and fair trade principles for his production method: "We climb trees, we pick mirabelles and I get my cocoa directly from Peru, instead of simply buying chocolate coating." Kühn employs his staff all the year round – despite the seasonal fluctuations in the sales of chocolate and in the gastronomic establishments, which includes the Café Eiskrämer.
The "2017 Erfurt Entrepreneur of the Year“ himself is tirelessly on the go, constantly adding new creations to his existing ones in the most exquisite flavours – the intention is to have over 1,000. "What we do here is high-performance sport", he states. To stay fit, Alex Kühn shares a great passion with his father: Three times a week, he gets on his racing bicycle for 100-kilometre tours. During these excursions into the surrounding area, he has already had a few ideas – such as "Le Chocolate Tour", which he then realised with the local cycling professional Marcel Kittel.
Kühn's vision: to produce and live in harmony with nature.
His inspirations frequently come directly from nature. An example: he has long been using Japanese limes for his chocolate. Only to realise that the locally available mirabelle has a has more intensive taste – "provided that you pick it at the right time". Kühn has lived on the edge of the forest outside Erfurt with his wife and three children for a long time. In the summer of 2019, he wants to relocate his production out of the business park into nature. Kühn is currently engaged in converting an old half-timbered house, where in the future fruit from the vicinity will be directly processed on the spot and cows will provide the milk for ice-cream and chocolate. Kühn: "Nature is good for all of us."
In his new residence, Alex Kühn would like to pass on his knowledge of nature-based, hand-picked manufactured products – for example, at farm festivals and seminars: "Appreciation is growing for this method of production; there are an increasing number of people who want to enjoy life." Visitors then will be stepping on historical ground – just as on the Krämerbrücke. For a while, the centuries-old estate served as a coaching inn. This where the poet laureate Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once stopped for a rest and recover his strength, possibly even with a delicious chocolate drink.
Author: WeltN24 / BrandStation