This week’s installment of Fast Food brings to light the military organization required to run a restaurant. Find out how Miles Davis, Nino Rota, the Mafia and Dante connect to a certain structured lifestyle. The photo was taken by Max Dax and shows the upper dining room of the world famous pizzeria Sorbillo in Naples.
Dax: You were referring to codes that you can read when you scan a restaurant. This, to me, reads like an invisible agenda. There are obvious things that pop up immediately such as the look of the place, the kind of people that are dining there, or the congruity of the menu. But there are less visible codes as well. In this context I want to know more about the organization chart of a well-run restaurant. You mentioned the existence of storm troopers in a kitchen. But if there are storm troopers, there must be officers and generals too. I want to especially bring in the term ‘Offizierskasino’ — in English: ‘officer’s mess’. The term describes the executive lounge where the people in charge meet to discuss pending issues and to plan campaigns. I always call the officer’s mess the ‘war room’. Did the Schönberger have such an Offizierskasino?
Schoenberger: Of course we did have an Offizierskasino. It is one of those strange but fascinating aspects of the German language that you can use a term that defines a space to also describe the existence of an inner circle. Few people ever admit it, but that’s the way it is: If you don’t run a restaurant in a strictly hierarchical way then you are doomed.
Dax: How many people were involved and on which occasions did you gather?
Schoenberger: Generally speaking, an Offizierskasino in a restaurant is responsible for synchronizing the chain of command and the supply chain. It’s all about organizing the storm troopers — the mobile infantry who serve the guests — and the brigades in the kitchen on a daily basis and connecting them with the leadership circles, i.e. the officers and generals. At the Schönberger the Offizierscasino consisted of me as the owner of the restaurant as well as Kent Hansen, the Chef de cuisine. We two were the generals. In the officer’s rank you’d find, among others, Ernest Allan Hausmann who was in charge of the bar.
Dax: What’s the difference between the bar and the kitchen in a restaurant?
Schoenberger: Not every restaurant has a bar where you can hang out after you’ve had dinner. Many restaurants just have a position where the waiters would prepare the drinks. But one day, Ernest Allan Hausmann approached me because he had an idea how to utilize an adjoining room that we at that time hadn’t renovated yet and that we were using as a storage room. I told him that he had all the freedom in the world and that he should deliver. So, during the following weeks, Ernest did clean up the room, did do all the necessary electric adjustments and renovated everything. Finally, one night he installed a pair of turntables and a mixing console and solemnly declared the bar open by putting the needle on Miles Davis’ Live Evil album. From day one this bar provided a clandestine late-night hiding place for the guests as it generated quite some turnover in cash for the restaurant.
Dax: I remember. The point was: Soundwise, you had both. You had the cacophony of voices, cutlery and clinging glasses in the main restaurant room and you had assorted dark jazz music at the bar. It didn’t mix. You were either dining or hanging out in the bar. I recall a lot of people who were baptized by the music that was played in the bar. This counts for me, anyways. For the first time I connected the — for me back then, abstract and difficult to approach — jazz music with a desirable lifestyle. But Ernest was also spinning records by Nino Rota, John Coltrane and other eternal heroes of his. Of course, smoking was allowed everywhere. Those were the times. Nowadays you need to open a private supper club to allow people to smoke in a restaurant.
Schoenberger: One day I took my Opinel knife and cut my favorite poem from Dante’s Inferno into the door frame: “Lasciate ogni speranza que’ entrate qui” — in English: “All hope abandon, you who enter here”. And above the door, I carved the sentence “Gli amici degli amici” — in English: “The friends of the friends”.
Dax: The latter sentence cites a famous Mafia saying. In other words: By carving these phrases you made a promise. You were basically communicating to your guests: “You belong to a particular kind of people, you who enter here”.
Schoenberger: Not only that, by defining the bar as a space where everything can happen I also made clear that the Offizierskasino of the Schönberger was the addresser and the guests the addressees of important messages.
Dax: Understood. But let’s come back to the organization chart. Between the generals and the storm troopers you have the officers. As I understand, Ernest Hausmann was an officer. Who else was an officer and what gave these people their rank?
Schoenberger: Early squad leaders included Werner Geyer and his sister. Werner Geyer is a born gastronomer. Nowadays he runs the infamous Muschi Obermeyer bar in Berlin’s Torstraße — right next to the aforementioned Themroc restaurant. But back in the days he owned the enormously successful Café Geyer on Hein-Hoyer-Platz in St. Pauli as well as the Bar 439 in Hamburg’s then hip Eimsbüttel quarter. He did run the Bar 439 together with the legendary Hamburg caterer Matts Unvericht. And yet another officer at the Schönberger was Steffen Hellmann who also owned the Restaurant Nil on Neuer Pferdemarkt, also located in Hamburg’s St. Pauli quarter.
Dax: That’s of course tacit knowledge.
Schoenberger: Yes and no. In the art world it belongs to the field of daily scientific necessities to assure you can track every single person involved in the process of creating and exhibiting art. I insist that we at least sometimes have to be specific in the field of gastronomy as well. A side aspect of mentioning the likes of Werner Geyer, Ernest Hausmann, Matts Unvericht and Steffen Hellmann is that they all have been successful on culinary territory ever since. At the Schönberger, they were tough officers. If a waiter happened to be late, they would immediately substitute the gap without discussing whatsoever. Of course, the waiter would get grilled later at night when the shift was over. The main quality of an officer is to always oversee situations and to act accordingly whenever appropriate. They completely understood the potency of the Schönberger.
Dax: Are you still in contact with your officers?
Schoenberger: Gastronomy is like war. If you happened to have fought and survived battles together you become veterans. Just like all the veterans of World War II or the Yom Kippur War people who have suffered together often have stronger connections than people who are mostly content.
Published September 28, 2012. Words by Max Dax & Thomas Schoenberger.