This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on Al Bacco, a fine restaurant in Venice, and what any restaurant owner in the world could learn from it. Fast Food is an ongoing conversation about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax on Electronicbeats.net. The photo was taken by Max Dax and shows freshly caught seppie nere on sale at Venice’s famous fish market near Rialto.
Dax: I would like to know more about to the aspect of discipline that goes along with cooking. Running a restaurant and conducting its troops implies maximum, if not military organization. Basically everybody involved has to know what to do at any time. You were a trader of wines and before that working as a slaughterer at the Frankfurt abattoir as you’ve been a professional boxer. Is this what you’d call an ideal preparation to open and run a restaurant – and thus to invest a lot of money in an enterprise that you haven’t studied or understood?
Schoenberger: I quit boxing, though. You have to know when to end your professional career. Mine was semi-professional, anyways.
Dax: But this doesn’t answer my question. We sat here, at Al Bacco in Venice, and we had the finest of black sepia milk pasta that one can imagine. Plus we had a bottle of Pecorino. In fact there wasn’t that much else on the menu. I’d say one of the reasons why everything was so clearly defined and thus perfect lies in the fact that at Al Bacco’s they know how to limit themselves. But Al Bacco is a very small place compared to the crowded and noisy Schönberger. I have the impression that this aspect of limiting yourself to what you can actually handle seems to be key to our discussion.
Schoenberger: It’s also one of the key essentials in life to know your strengths and your weaknesses! You always have to measure out what you can do and what you cannot. Regarding the Al Bacco, I’d say that this place is run strictly according to its capacities. Regardless how crowded the place is, the kitchen is always capable of serving the four, five dishes on the menu a point and in the best possible quality.
Dax: It’s fascinating. In places like this, I don’t even wish to have a bigger selection of dishes – knowing that getting perfection is somewhat so much more valuable than the so-called freedom of choice. I mean, every time I stay in Venice for more than one weekend I still happen to dine here on a regular basis. I don’t feel the need to discover new places. Because it’s by far much more inspiring to meditate on a perfectly cooked sword fish steak in a quit, well preserved place like this than risking a hit or miss situation in a lushly run juke joint that only looks good on its surface. But I want to come back to the Schönberger: Here we didn’t have perfection. But we had a policy that could have led to perfection one distant day if you hadn’t been forced to shut down your restaurant too early on.
Schoenberger: I didn’t invent the world of gastronomy. Every evening we’d write six or seven starters, main courses and desserts with white chalk on our black slate. That was it. Unlike the Al Bacco, the selection of dishes varied from day to day. But it was the same logic behind it: Do only promise what you can deliver. The vast amount of tables was like a memorial or a warning to the small kitchen. If you really intend to serve 150 souls each night you have to definitively know your boundaries. Otherwise you are doomed and the kitchen will collapse. As a consequence, our storm troopers were not allowed to take any special requests from our guests.
Dax: Some people would leave the Schönberger for that reason. There is this saying: A happy customer will get you another two. A disappointed custumer will cost you five.
Schoenberger: Fuck the five disappointed customers. We had twenty others eagerly waiting in front of the door to be let in. And even more important: These morons were disappointed for a reason. We wanted them disappointed. We were like vampires. We loved it when a certain kind of people with certain wrong opinions would get upset and leave the place unsatisfied. It was good to know that they would never come back and tell their fucked up salad eating, cappuccino drinking uptown friends that you shouldn’t dine at Schönberger’s. We were more than happy to give the tables to the other people – to those who knew that they were accepting a deal with the devil entering the Schönberger.
Dax: What exactly was the deal?
Schoenberger: As I said before: We wanted the place to be a gathering point for a certain kind of people. Borderline people were explicitly welcome. The Schönberger was meant to be off-limits for certain other people. We were more or less able to stick to this agenda, at least on working days, as our storm troopers were interpreting their shifts just like the bouncers at the Berghain. They simply would not let in everybody. In return, those who had been allowed in were offered to feel like they were part of a privileged society. We basically had shifted the paradigma that only the rich and wealthy are welcome in a restaurant. We turned it upside down. As a consequence, and I mentioned that before too, we only offered water and wine in caraffes. We didn’t want a two-class society that would have allowed our guests to make statements such as ordering an extremely expensive wine. I would probably do otherwise nowadays. But back then it just seemed right.
Dax: You said you didn’t have problems during the week. But what about the traditionally overcrowded St. Pauli weekends? Even your storm troopers were not able to filter people on Fridays and Saturdays.
Schoenberger: The weekend shifts were the crucial ones. On Fridays and Saturdays people would come who had heard of the Schönberger via word of mouth or due to an article that had been published in a city guide. Those were people like locusts. They didn’t care at all about the reasons why we did things the way we did them. They just wanted to be hip and to be served and more often than not they literally outnumbered our storm troopers. There were evenings when this confrontational attitude of ours led to certain uncomfortable situations. That’s why I appointed only the core unit of the mobile infantry to serve on these crucial shifts. We had Arndt Hoffmann who was also a brilliant photographer at the bar. And we had Janis Cipulis. He was actually a managing director in a big company, but at the Schönberger he swapped his business suit with the black and white uniform that everybody had to wear. He smelled the blood and the violence, I guess. I couldn’t explain otherwise why he saw the power draining working weekends at the Schönberger as an opportunity to balance out his real job. Actually, the majority of the guests thought Janis was the owner of the restaurant. I guess this had two reasons: First and foremost his behaviour tolerated no dissent. And second, he was the only male waiter in a squad of tough women.