Fast Food is a new, regular blog on electronicbeats.net by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. Every Saturday you can read a new piece of a sophisticated ongoing conversation about cooking, traditions and how to read the menu of any given restaurant. It is a discussion about disappearing spaces and why so many chefs listen to Miles Davis’ so-called ‘electric period’ after an exhausting night in the kitchen. Photo: Max Dax
Dax: And this room that was later painted white was used as a storage room for the wine?
Schoenberger: That’s right. I still remember very clearly that specific smell when I entered the room filled with all these wine bottles. It still happens to me every now and then that I feel like I’ve been beamed into another time and space when I nose the smell of wine. I can almost count on that Proust-like Madeleine moment. Our wine speculation business was very successful for quite a while. Maybe we even had been too lucky for beginners that we were. We eventually ruined our company by overspeculating with a wine that had lost its quality during the fermentation process in winter. As a result we had to give up our business. When we split up, I kept the wine and the contract for the old fish factory—and he kept the trucks. And somehow that room commanded me to start a new business in there. I decided to liquidate the remaining wine stock by opening a place where I could serve food as well as white and red wine. For a couple of weeks that turned into some few months I was living in a building site. And then we opened. One of the things I knew was that I didn’t want to call these beautiful, empty halls a restaurant. I didn’t succeed with this though. Everybody kept on calling it restaurant Schönberger from day one—and I accepted this pretty soon. But as we are talking, I just felt the urge to stress this fact.
Dax: What is it you don’t like about the term ‘restaurant’?
Schoenberger: The term ‘restaurant’ defines and specifies a place in a very predetermined way. But I had this strong idea to open a space where it’s allowed to drink a glass of Soave and to order just a piece of grana with it.
Dax: Can’t you do this in a restaurant?!
Schoenberger: You can only do this on a theoretical level. The definition of ‘restaurant’—even if the waiter wouldn’t force it upon you—is to offer a proper three-course menu, to imply minimum consumption, to have rules of etiquette. I, on the other hand, wanted something more like a social space where a proper menu, minimum consumption and rules of etiquette don’t exist. In other words: I saw my place mutually connected to the street and not to the belle etage. Of course, there were rules too at the Schönberger. But these were different rules, different at least to any other restaurant I knew.
Dax: That’s interesting. Because in a restaurant you realize in no time what is allowed and what’s not. We don’t have to go into greater detail to observe that a certain kind of people doesn’t feel welcome in a normal restaurant. They simply don’t like to be conformists. So, they wander until they find a place they feel at home. If you want your restaurant to attract these kind of people, you have to offer them a different space. And from then on, everything that is going to happen in this specific space falls under the category ‘adventure’. Is that so?
Schoenberger: Yes. But to be even more precise, I would rather call it an ongoing ‘social adventure’. When we started serving food, we already had something like a little routine. During lunchtime we would always cook for the print workers and all the other tradesmen who were running their businesses in the courtyard. We had done so before, when I still had my wine distribution. The restaurant’s name ‘Schönberger’—back then I still spelled my surname with the umlaut—just established itself without my help. The print workers naturally arranged to meet in their lunch break at Schönberger’s. That’s how the place got its name. And I served the dishes. And as we all know, hard working people fancy a glass of wine for lunch—and this perfectly fitted into my concept. One day I realized that I had imported—half by accident, half by intention—the original concept of the Italian trattoria across the Alps to Hamburg. The important thing was that everything progressed naturally. I knew what I didn’t want, though. I didn’t want to have a place that just faked a working people’s canteen—and that in reality attracts only wealthy people. I had imagined a real place, a consistent, logical entity. A hideout, say, where a particular kind of people such as poets, musicians and hustlers would feel at home. I know in hindsight that it might sound odd and like a nostalgic idea to invest everything you have—your money and your time—into a space that serves as a refuge for borderline people. But, you know, what we call gentrification nowadays was already looming in the mid-nineties in St. Pauli. In a gentrified quarter the logic of the market sets the rules. Rents go up and restaurants have to pass on the costs to their clients. It’s an unforgiving commercial logic that does not care whether traditions are going to be destroyed. I am not surprised at all that today our streets are paved with franchises of convenience food chains or theme restaurants. Regular customers who are willing to build up a personal relationship to a given restaurant—or a working man’s canteen—because they can tune into a specific space or cuisine or tradition are not relevant in the logic of the market. They are welcome to leave their money on the table and that’s it. Of course, tourists are welcome, too.
Dax: If the world that existed a long time ago doesn’t exist anymore, you have to reinvent it for yourself. Usually, this means that you have to retreat into privacy. Some establish a private salon, others invite guests for dinner into their own kitchen. You picked another road. You converted the wine stock step by step into a public space—the restaurant.