This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on milk foam and fish trawlers. How are these two entities linked? Well, you might enjoy a cup of cappuccino in the morning while reading the newspapers, and then receive the phone call from your trusted fishmonger informing you that a big slice of swordfish will be on sale soon at a bargain price. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. We pick up the conversation where they left off in episode 17.~
Photo: Max Dax
Schoenberger: But don’t get me wrong: I certainly can appreciate regional cucina casalinga such as what they are serving at the aforementioned Locanda Ciacci. If I lived in that area, I probably would make it a ritual to eat there every evening. But for sure, I am not a friend of the so-called slow food movement or the constant praise of regional cuisine. I would never limit myself in terms of using spices for instance—just because they are typical for a certain region.
Dax: I didn’t suggest this. I was just impressed that you can basically educate your clients by always serving them the same, regional dish. I mentioned it because sticking to a pattern makes it so much easier to calculate your purchases. I wouldn’t refrain from using cumin just because it grows in Turkey. The same goes for Asian ingredients such as coriander, ginger, or Thai chili.
Schoenberger: Point is, if you know what you are doing and why you are doing it, you are actually allowed to experiment. I will never forget your way of serving salmon with a sauce made of olive oil, lemon, and white wine that you’d flavor with ginger, green pepper, chili, freshly roasted pine nuts, and lemon leaves. This would be the antithesis of regional cooking. But it is allowed as long as you are using the best possible products.
Dax: Do you believe in globalization?
Schoenberger: Absolutely. Travelling is all about tasting. And every culture that allows cross-influences—say, from immigrants or even from a colonial background—is richer than a hermetic culture. Imagine Paris without the Vietnamese cuisine from the Indochinese heritage or London without its colonial Indian counterpart.
Dax: What about favoring regional products when you are shopping for vegetables or meat?
Schoenberger: Nothing speaks against that as long as the product is good. The problem is, though, more often than not, novo regio turns out to be a half-hearted whim of fashion. Restaurants that claim to purchase only goods from a radius of, say, one hundred kilometers mostly still do offer tea or coffee or wine from France, Italy, or even California. It becomes evident if you take a closer look at, for instance, Noma in Copenhagen. Check their website and you know what I mean. Nothing against serving moss or poached eggs as part of a nova regio menu that clocks in at €200. They are offering truly distinctive dishes. But one glance at the wine list and you realize that they don’t differenciate at all. They simply offer everything that is good and expensive—like any other three star restaurant in Europe. If you ask me, nova regio is a hopeless attempt to impede globalization in the kitchen. I really see it as substantial progress that Metro Cash & Carry offers fresh fish. It wasn’t always like that.
Dax: How was it before?
Schoenberger: I remember the daily routine of checking the remainders from the night before, together with the crew. Of course, we had to literally eat it up in order not to throw it away. Usually, there were a couple of cases of unused vegetables, and we’d receive phone calls from our meat and fishmongers who would offer us their odds.
Dax: How could you know that this was good product?
Schoenberger: We had a bond of trust with our suppliers. That’s basically the reason why you’d only purchase your goods from one single supplier. Because you trusted them.
Dax: I remember constantly seeing your fishmonger having dinner with his employees at the Schönberger.
Schoenberger: That’s what I’m saying: He trusted me as well. But to answer your question: Hamburg has this old tradition of passing through provisions. Take a fishmonger at the Hamburg fish market, for instance. If he receives the call from a trawler that a tuna fish of a certain size had been caught and he decides to buy it, he immediately starts to sell parts of it to his customers—before the fish even has arrived at his shop. He will sell the best and most expensive parts to sushi restaurants and Japanese hotels, of course. If he doesn’t sell the entire fish within a certain time frame, he starts to sell the remaining parts for bargain prices. The reason for this is obvious: you shall not waste a single gram of such a valuable animal. So, if we were lucky, we’d get a big slice of sword or tuna fish for little money, grill it and would put it on the slate. You must not forget that on a normal day you couldn’t offer expensive dishes like that. You were dependent on the phone call.
Dax: The crew had to be responsive to these calls.
Schoenberger: That’s true. It didn’t make things easier. But the overall effect was that we were able to serve better food within our price range. When everything was bought, chopped, and prepared, the entire crew would sit down at 6 pm to have dinner together. This was an important ritual. And it was the only time the waiters and the kitchen crew were allowed to drink wine. Of course, when the battle was over, we’d drink a lot. But in the time between it wasn’t allowed.
Dax: Were there other rituals?
Schoenberger: There were more rules than rituals. Obedience was key. It was clear that we’d never serve fruit juices, caffé latte or cappuccino. You cannot lead a restaurant properly if you offer drinks that don’t philosophically match with the food you are serving. You drink milk and coffee in the morning, not after dinner. A restaurant that is, drinkwise, based on the pillars wine, water, beer, espresso, and schnapps cannot offer anything else. It would destroy the perception.
Dax: But I remember that I witnessed people would get served a cup of cappuccino with the dessert.
Schoenberger: Yes, you are right. But only until the day I disconnected the hot water tube from my beloved Faema E-61 coffee machine with flat pliers. I remember putting the faucet on my bedside locker. Of course, I mounted it again when we had to close the restaurant, as I kept the precious coffee machine.
Dax: The machine is now located at the Electronic Beats office and continues to serve us good coffee. Actually, I always say that the machine makes the second best espresso in town.
Schoenberger: Where would you get the best espresso?
Dax: I don’t know. But why this anger when it comes to coffee with milk?
Schoenberger: Children and cats drink milk in the morning. Besides that, preparing a cappuccino or a latte macchiato simply wastes time. Time is the most valuable currency in gastronomy. You simply can’t offer a cup of cappuccino to 150 people after dinner. You’d need an extra waitress. For milk foam! That was strictly against the philosophy.
Read Fast Food 19 next week.
Published February 24, 2013. Words by Max Dax & Thomas Schoenberger.