This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on the concept of the Bavarian Biergarten as well as why we shouldn’t be too angry with McDonald’s. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. The photo was taken at Hofbräu Biergarten in Munich under the chestnut sky. ~ Photo: Max Dax
Dax: The funny thing is that in a McDonald’s restaurant nobody would ever place a special request.
Schoenberger: McDonald’s is a very good example of a system that is stronger than everything else. McDonald’s—or Burger King for that matter—is like a dictatorship: Nobody has any rights—neither the guests nor the people at the cashpoint. You want more ketchup? That’s 20 cents extra. A seller at McDonald’s probably gets fired if he or she doesn’t ask every guest, and I mean every single one without any exception, if they could consider ordering the full menu instead of a plain burger. That’s how they maximize the turnover.
Dax: You cannot order your burger rare or medium rare at McDonald’s. This would already bust the system. A perfect system by the way, don’t get me wrong. It would never occur to me to really have “dinner” at a fast food restaurant such as McDonald’s, but I am certainly willing to give props whenever appropriate.
Schoenberger: Yesterday night, I was having dinner with my ex-officer Werner Geyer at the Paris Bar in Berlin Charlottenburg. We got served a steak that tasted like rotten meat and squishy French fries. It was just horrible.
Dax: That’s interesting: Claude Lanzmann was equally disappointed having dinner at the Paris Bar the other day. I had to invite him to Grill Royal to get him back on the tracks.
Schoenberger: Funnily enough, going to the toilets I met Rolf Eden on his way out.
Dax: So you at least caught a glimpse of what the Paris Bar used to be.
Schoenberger: What I’m trying to say is: If you’ve got a working system, don’t you ever dare changing it. That’s why I want to pay my tribute, too, to McDonald’s—because they would never change their laws, regardless of what you could criticize, ethically or otherwise.
Dax: I can see real beauty in perfectly functioning systems. It occurred to me the other day when I went to have a late night dinner at Adana Grillhaus in Manteuffelstraße after a Wolfgang Müller exhibition opening at Künstlerhaus Bethanien. This is probably the best Turkish restaurant in Berlin, if not in Germany—open 24/7. Many dubious low-life and backstreet people seem to gather there during the night shift. Some of the regular customers are musicians. Sometimes they start to play Turkish music there at 4am in the morning.
Schoenberger: What are they specialized in?
Dax: We went there once or twice together. They have an open wood charcoal grill—in a way it looks just like the Themroc as the grill is visible for all the guests. They offer lamb chops, shish and adana kebaps and many other grill dishes. Actually the adana kebap is their special dish, thus the name of the place. Kebap in Turkish means ‘spit’. You must not mix it up with the fast food of the same name.
Schoenberger: I remember. You’d order an adana kebap there and drink ayran.
Dax: It’s basic traditional Turkish food, but they’ve brought their dishes to perfection. Of course, they don’t serve pork. But they do serve grilled gilthead if you happen to be a vegetarian. I could eat there every night. I don’t know why, but strangely I don’t even feel bothered by the TV set that is running there all the time. They are only showing süper lig football matches and traditional Turkish music programs anyways.
Schoenberger: The German equivalent to these kind of perfect gastronomic structures would probably be the concept of the Bavarian Biergarten.
Dax: Nothing compares to a lazy afternoon in a Munich Biergarten under the chestnut trees, boozing Bavarian lager and enjoying grilled sausages or Schweinshaxn.
Schoenberger: True that. But let’s focus on the enormous quantities of beer and food being sold there on any lovely afternoon. On a good day the big beer gardens in Munich such as the Hirschgarten or Chinesischer Turm sell hundreds of hectoliters of draught lager and thousands of meat dishes— they have seating capacities of more than 7,000 each. The system has proven efficient over the centuries, so the system works out very smoothly. As a customer you usually have to queue to get your Maß of lager at one of the enormous dew points. In some of these traditional places you even have to flush out your Maß in deep barrels of ice-cold water on your own in order to get your refill.
Dax: There we go again: McDonald’s didn’t only copy the concept of the French brasserie, but also that of the beer garden. You have to queue at the counter to get your food and drinks.
Schoenberger: No gastronome would ever challenge this concept. It’s like a mathematical formula, like Sudoku. Especially when it comes to sausages and Schweinshaxn. Point is, you can prepare endless amounts of these kinds of dishes if you know there is a demand. Brez’n and Weißwürste, baked Leberkäse and Obatzda served with fresh cottage loaf. You can literally prepare thousands of Bohemian dumplings that are kept warm in meat broth in enormous copper pots—if you have the logistics ready. If somebody wants a plate of these Knödel, you just fish out one or two of the broth with a skimmer and put them on a plate. Once everything is prepared you just bang the dishes out one after another. I have been fascinated all my life by logistics like this.
Dax: Obviously, you can’t order à la carte in a Biergarten. The Bavarians probably invented the self-service restaurant.
Schoenberger: Exactly. I know a small beer garden in Berlin—the Berghain Biergarten—where they tried to serve sophisticated food. It was a nice try, but it went down the drain. You just can’t put carré of lamb cooked à point on the menu when the goal is to serve as many hungry lost souls as possible. I was there and I immediately had to think of Don Quixote.
Dax: The system is the challenge. It’s like a matrix you can put on any setup. The Themroc is a different setup compared to the Schönberger or the Chinesischer Turm. It’s less a question of the selection of dishes you offer than knowing what is doable. The setup defines the terms and conditions. At the end of the day people want to have the best food the system allows. And to make this clear: They have a right to get the best food. Regardless if they are willing—or capable—to spend ten Euros or 100.
Schoenberger: Let me explain something: It is a huge misunderstanding to offer a large variety of differently cooked dishes just to please any possible consumer’s wishes. Wrong. You need an army in the kitchen and the according logistics to offer various modes of cooking things correctly from the same stove. Of course you have to do your job well. But if you do so, it’s enough to offer variations on the same method. The pizza is the best example for this: You can offer forty different pizzas—but it’s still always a piece of dough that will be baked and delivered with a variety of toppings.