Fast Food is a new, regular feature on EB.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: Before we talk about that, let me ask you one simple question: How many people could dine at the Schönberger at the same time? The restaurant was packed every single time I went there. There was no music playing at night. The air was filled with the sounds of cutlery on plates and the loud voices of dozens of people talking while eating and drinking. It was a polyphony of sorts.
Schoenberger: The dimensions of the Schönberger were impressive, as we were continually expanding the restaurant’s capacities. When we had finally completed the structural alteration works, more than 150 people could eat simultaneously. The Schönberger was an extremely successful restaurant. It sometimes was so packed that we didn’t know how to treat the people who were waiting for a table while all the others were dining. During the works I witnessed this never-ending discussion: The waiters wanted more tables, the kitchen wanted less. In the end we had forty big old wooden tables and a special one in the kitchen. I will tell you later about this particular table.
Dax: As a guest you couldn’t just sit down at a table of your own choice. The waiters would seat you at tables that were already partly taken—why was that so? Did you want to squeeze in as many people as possible or have you been inspired by the Bouillon Chartier of Paris fame? Of course, they squeeze you in to make as much profit as possible. But over the course of decades this procedure has eventually become one of the Chartier’s unique selling points. At the Schönberger it seemed a bit like you secretly wanted to copy this tradition. It felt like a nod to the Bouillon Chartier even though you served a more Italian-influenced cuisine.
Schoenberger: Yes, we didn’t care if guests had already taken their seats at a table or if they already had been served their meals. If there were two seats untaken, we’d place a couple there. It was essential that our guests would eventually learn, respect and incorporate this custom habit. But no, we didn’t get it from the Chartier; I didn’t know until you told me that it existed. I was rather referring to the Italian canteen tradition of seating people next to each other for reasons of limited space.
Dax: But I also recall situations when guests became annoyed and aggressive about this practice.
Schoenberger: To people who tried to start a discussion with us, we’d always reply: “It’s good for the conversation.” We simply weren’t in the mood for candlelight dinners. Dinner yes and candles yes, but not the cheesy way. Shall I add that I know of many amorous constellations that resulted from our seating politics? At the end of the day, some restaurants have the reputation to attract people who are hungry like wolves.
Dax: To quote Simon Le Bon.
Schoenberger: Dining certainly can have its explicit sexual aspects.
Dax: Why did you actually have candles on the tables? I don’t recall any Italian canteen that would have them.
Schoenberger: They don’t have them for a reason. That’s the key by the way to something I’d like to call the beauty of congruity. As soon as there’s a reason behind something it isn’t arbitrary anymore. Arbitrariness is ugly.
Dax: According to the old Bauhaus mantra form follows function?
Dax: Candlelight invites the guests to stay longer at the restaurant after having finished dinner than necessary. You could generate a higher turnover if you serve a table twice or even three times a night. Especially if you don’t serve expensive wines.
Schoenberger: There are different kinds of candles. We had the cheapest plain white ones that you could get at Metro Cash & Carry. Believe it or not, having candles helps you to save energy big time. So, in fact we had our reasons too. If you ever should open a restaurant, remember my words.
Dax: In restaurants I have always appreciated it when I would notice the air of professional distance between the waiter and the guest. I am always suspicious when the staff of a restaurant would be too friendly or would try to fraternize with you. At the same time I embrace it when this professional distance turns into mutual respect or even esteem after some time. One night in the Quartiere Spagnolo in Naples I was almost thrown out of a small trattoria that served authentic Neapolitan cuisine just because I dared to answer a phone call. A couple of visits later, I finally had a bottle of Lacryma Christi with the owner. I mentioned the thing with the phone and he started to talk. He told me that a brother of his who was running a small trattoria in some Naples outskirt once witnessed how a man was arranging a murder on his cell phone. In his trattoria. You never know if stories like this one are true or if they just have an element of truth. I mean, the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford is all about that. And quite some part of it is staged in the kitchen of a saloon. Anyways. I show a lot of respect when it comes to rules that apply in the smallest, oddest places. I mean, you’re always allowed to leave a restaurant if you can’t stand the heat.
Schoenberger: That’s true. Especially if you run a small restaurant with, say, six or seven tables you urgently have to keep people at a distance who don’t and won’t understand the importance of rules. The rules that apply in the kind of restaurants we are talking about are equally important as the quality of the food, the absence of muzak and everything else. The rules weave a powerful invisible grid that serves these spaces like a philosophy. But this counts for restaurants of the Bouillon Chartier size as well. That place would suffer severely if the waiters wouldn’t be allowed anymore to write the guest’s orders on the white paper tablecloth or if the managing director would replace the robust plain white plates with mint-colored, so-called ‘designer plates.’ The existence of the heavy white plates signalizes something to the knowing. If you understand how to read codes like these you can easily judge a restaurant at first sight. More often than not your observations will prove true.