The Auberge de L’Ill, in Illhaeusern—a village of a few more than 700 residents on the French-German border—describes, ideally, the truth of the Michelin star rating system. A three-star restaurant, says Michelin, provides “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. A trip to Illhaeusern, 550 kilometres east of Paris, requires exactly that, and patrons to the Auberge have been doing just that for generations, firstly when the Auberge won its first star in 1952, under Paul (executive chef) and Jean-Pierre (maitre d’) Haeberlin, then with its second star (1957) and since 1967, with three stars. Only Paul Bocuse has had three stars longer—since 1965. Paul died in 2008, and the restaurant is now in the hands of his grandson Marc.
The 2016 Michelin Guide describes the restaurant in the most glowing terms as a "fiefdom of the grand tradition (of French dining) that has inspired and will continue to inspire generations of cooks, while retaining freshness, lightness and excellence.”
Marc Haeberlin makes it clear that his role is to retain the heritage of his family, now into its fourth generation of superior cooks: “This passion came to me from my father. Today, I love to bring new life to dishes that he has created, while seeking an equilibrium between tradition and modernity. The pleasure of sharing his cuisine is, for me, an incomparable alchemy, renewed each and every service!”
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to go east to Illhaeusern, but I have had the cookbook of Paul and Jean-Pierre Haerberlin (Les Recettes de L’Auberge de L’Ill) since 1982, when it was published by Flammarion. What’s interesting about trawling these books of the food of the Michelin chefs of 30-plus years ago is how things change, but how they remain the same.
As Marc Haeberlin noted, it’s about recognising the past, while reworking for the present. This same philosophy has been constantly refrained by Massimo Bottura, the Italian chef whose Modena restaurant Osteria Francescana was named the world’s best restaurant in the 2016 San Pellegrino ratings. Says Bottura: “The most important ingredient for a chef—a contemporary chef—is his mind. A contemporary chef is always looking to the future, but you never forget the past.
“I call that tradition in evolution. To look at the past, not in a nostalgic way, but in a critical way. To get the best from the past and bring it into the future.
“There are points that are so important in Italy, for everyone, so nostalgic: the soccer team, the Pope, and your grandmother’s recipe.
“This is a very important lesson: never screw up with the grandmother’s recipe. Otherwise the people will crucify you in the main piazza.
“Thousands of years of culture back there, and we need to preserve that, but also to renew that: a new tradition. Tradition in evolution. Project ourselves into the future.”
So, this recipe for a soufflé with salmon is not just about referring to what’s been, but also what’s possible for the home cook, remembering that our most important task as cooks is not to replicate the presentation and flair of the greats, but to get the flavours and textures right. The version created by Paul and Jean-Pierre Haeberlin is a restaurant dish; the one we have recreated here is for a family, spoons in and plates at the ready.