This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on white paper tablecloth and the beauty of simplicity. If you do fancy being served a plate of Peccorino cheese around midnight in a crowded restaurant and having it together with a glass of red wine, then read on. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. The photo was taken at La Robe e le Palais in Paris. ~ Photo: Max Dax
Dax: Tell me more about the women who worked the evening shifts at the Schönberger.
Schoenberger: They probably had tougher shifts than the women who were working at the Themroc. It just makes a damn difference if you are serving 40 to 60 people or if you are serving 150 on a regular basis.
Dax: To me, the waiters in huge restaurants such as La Coupolle and Bouillon Chartier in Paris or even the Grill Royal in Berlin always remind me of a ballet cast, I always thought of them as living ornaments.
Schoenberger: Nicely said! In a restaurant you have four main shifts. The first one is the preparation shift—for the brigade in the kitchen this means that the majority of the food had to be basically prepared around 7pm, when the floodgates are opened and all the hungry people start to fill the restaurant. From then on the food was served, one plate after the other. Between 7pm and midnight, the waiters would run like hell and the brigade in the kitchen would bang out one plate after the other. Around 10pm the first dish was usually sold out, an hour later the same would happen with another dish, and so on. Finally, around midnight everything was sold out. If you came to the Schönberger that late you’d still get some food though. You’d get some bread and some Peccorino cheese—and of course white and red wine.
Dax: I recall the beauty of it: A table set with plain white paper tablecloth, a white plate with three slices of Peccorino, a carafe of red wine, a glass and the cutlery. It is an act of dignity to be served like this around midnight. The concept of beauty is so crystal-clear that it should be easy to obey. But was it also easy for the waitresses to capture that spirit?
Schoenberger: It was probably easier for them then it would have been for you or me. A perfectly well-laid table is one thing. Repeating this procedure a hundred times per night and all the while serving all kinds of drinks and dishes is another. I mean, there must be a reason somehow why most women seem to feel more comfortable to serve than to cook in a professional kitchen. It’s a different kind of physical labor. It involves interaction and communicating with the guests. Having said that, I’d like to point out that all these women serving at Schönberger had this strange aura of aloofness. As a guest you noticed in a split second that these women simply didn’t have any time to waste while dealing with you. I’d like to stress the fact that this wasn’t an attitude of arrogance at all. It was more like perfect time management. People seemed to understand that it was similar, in a way, to attending a mass in a church. In a church you also wouldn’t dare to interrupt the priest while he was preaching to the congregation. If you allow yourself to look at it this way, the dining shifts at the Schönberger were a somewhat religious experience. I mean, somehow this is as beautiful and intense as it can get when you go out to dine and find yourself in a place where everybody involved knows what to do next. It was like a huge organism. I sometimes stood in the kitchen door and caught a glimpse of that white ballet serving the guests. It reminded me always of ants when they are washed away by water—in this situation of panic they help themselves by holding each others legs. By doing so, they become larger than life and keep themselves from drowning in a hostile environment.
Dax: Did you coach the women who served the guests?
Schoenberger: I probably did it once. I remember a keynote speech that I held in front of the first generation of waitresses. Their names were Tine Upesleja, Thea Röttger, Stefanie Wilke und Astrid Warnken. Together we discussed the rights and duties of the waitresses at the Schönberger and from there on we went.
Dax: Let’s start with their duties.
Schoenberger: As you know, at this backyard of Große Freiheit we were neighbors to a printing plant, the Druckerei in St. Pauli. That meant that we had an infinite supply of thin but robust white paper. I saw and still see it as a cultural achievement to have paper tablecloth because this means that you can easily jot down notes on the table without having to ask for a piece of paper. Think about it—it’s a small but important detail. Because when you discuss things with people on a table you might feel the need to take notes. We basically got our paper tablecloth hand tailored at the printer according to the sizes and measures of our tables. When a group of people would sit down at a table, the first thing the waitress would do was to put a white paper tablecloth on it. Then she would ask for the first round of drink orders and serve them. When the guests asked for the menu the waitress would point at the slate where the dishes of the night were written on. It was actually not that different to what every waitress in every restaurant of the world does. The difference was what you could call an unwritten law: the pride. Take it or leave it. No discussion allowed. The system was built on that. We offered an easy to compute amount of dishes and the waitresses would serve them. In a way, we copied that from McDonald’s like McDonald’s had copied the system from the French brasseries. The difference, of course, was that people got served. It was, in a way, a full circle.
Dax: And what about their rights?
Schoenberger: If a guest asked for the owner of the restaurant because they realized that their special requests would not be satisfied, the waitress would respond: “You certainly don’t want to talk to the owner.” In most of the cases, the problem by then was solved.
This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on cooking in public. You can always impress people by setting the stove on fire and handling the situation. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. Due to technical problems this week’s episode didn’t get published yesterday. But that’s the way it is, sometimes we have to wait—and not only in expensive restaurants. The photo was taken in a small traditional trattoria in Via Nino Bonnet in Milan, Italy. ~ Photo: Max Dax
Dax: I have to admit that I never understood this wine policy thoroughly. We were talking about the Restaurant Themroc before. Two decades after the Restaurant Schönberger was forced to close, this restaurant offers a small but ultra-effective selection of wines from Bourgogne origin. They limited themselves as you did, but they aren’t quite so strict. They sell their Bourgogne by the bottle—they offer Pinot Noir, Aligoté, Côte Chalonnaise, Côte d’Or and only a couple more. No Montrachet of course, but also no carafes. I want to add that dining at the Themroc is one thing, drinking or getting drunk there another. By focusing on the wine, the Themroc attracts the similar kind of fringe clientele that the Schönberger once did.
Schoenberger: I quite like the concept of inviting chefs from other restaurants to cook for one night only. The Themroc managed to make a buzz out of it. Wasn’t that an idea of yours?
Dax: Honestly? I think it was one of those ideas that the space itself implied. There do exist magical spaces in the truest sense of the word—spaces that inherit a strong energy field, places which demand that certain experiments take place. I would like to describe the Themroc‘s space first. Still located in Torstraße 183, the Themroc is a very narrow restaurant. The first thing you see when you enter the Themroc is the bar counter—but behind the counter you have the kitchen and not the bar. As a guest, you can watch the crew chopping, cooking and preparing the dishes. As a concept that has come to stand the test of time, you can order only one set menu for dinner. Unlike The Schönberger, and depending on how crowded the place is, you can make requests, if you don’t want meat for example. And of course you can skip the soup or the dessert if you want. But you’ll never have big options to choose from. This is very practical for the crew since they can plan the night and organize the purchases. As a guest you could choose between the aforementioned Burgundy wines. Psychologically, emphasis was put on aiding the guests’ decision on which wine to have as an accompaniment. This can sometimes be nice, after all Willy Nelson once wrote a song called “Why Do I Have to Choose?”. As such, regular guests of the Themroc naturally became Burgundy wine experts of sorts. I’d say they kicked your strict wine police up a notch. However, even though they celebrated their small wine list, somehow the Themroc never became a refuge for top earners. Instead it was for lost souls and asphalt cowboys and people seeking that elusive a quantum of solace. Funnily enough, the Themroc’s wine dealer eventually recruited a number of new clients straight from the restaurant’s customer base. They’d start buying and trying out the whole range of Burgundy wines offered because the more you travel and taste local wines in different regions the broader your horizon becomes. You begin to connect a certain taste with a certain landscape, with stories and events. I think it’s totally legitimate to recall memories by picking a specific wine for dinner. It becomes an intentional attempt to trigger Proust-like Madeleine moments.
Schoenberger: I live in Bern now, in the rogue state Switzerland. Actually, we call Switzerland a Schurkenstaat. For that reason I’ve never become a frequent guest of the Themroc, but whenever I find myself in Berlin I will dine there. It’s the same kind of loyalty that I have for the Chartier Bouillon in Paris or Gino’s in New York’s Upper East Side. It’s closed now, it was replaced by a chain restaurant franchise. This is so sad! It’s like a friend who has died. Certain restaurants should be preserved like sites of historic interest.
Dax: It gives me the shivers to even think about the Themroc being replaced by just another Berlin-Mitte art gallery.
Schoenberger: Everytime I went to the Themroc I was sure to meet at least a dozen of interesting people—filmmakers, poets, authors, musicians, actors. They were all there, some of them desperate. The place was always heaving. Late at night you could almost sense the smell of blood and sex and hedonism in there. In a way, moodwise, it was quite similar to the Schönberger experience two decades before.
Dax: As I said, sooner or later the concept of the guest chef had to pop up. I pitched for being the first guest cook at the Themroc and I succeeded. I had never before cooked for a crowd of fifty hungry people, every single one ordering the four-course dinner. I had invited a lot of people via email a week earlier and after a couple of days the Themroc was fully booked. We had to turn down requests. But at least we knew what we were facing: almost exactly 200 plates.
Schoenberger: What did you cook and how did you organize it?
Dax: For one reason or another I decided to center the dinner around swordfish—just to have a roadmap, you know? I then asked my friend Frank Uebelherr, then owner of the restaurant Noodles e figli in Berlin-Kreuzberg, if he could name me the best fish wholesaler in town. Atlantic Seafood it was. I ordered ten kilograms of swordfish belly in sashimi quality and picked it up in a Styrophoam box filled with industrial ice.
Schoenberger: But you must have had a plan?
Dax: Also true. Knowing that I had sashimi quality swordfish at hand, I decided to prepare fifty plates of raw swordfish belly slices. You know, I’d drape the thin swordfish slices on the blank white plates and marinate them with freshly squeezed lemon juice. The only thing I had to take care of was that I had to put these fifty prepared plates in a fridge. That bought me the time to prepare two huge pots of straight tomato sauce that I enhanced with all the leftovers of the starters plus three kilos of plain chopped swordfish. Logistically speaking, the ugliest part was boiling the pasta—I had to cook the fifty portions consecutively. The rest was easy. I grilled a swordfish steak for everyone in the house, flavoring it with mint, lemon, salt, white wine and served it with bread. Thanks to the excellent quality of the fish I was allowed to cook it saignant. As for dessert, I baked a couple of wine cakes that we served with coffee and schnapps. That was it.
Schoenberger: I was and still am fascinated that the cook is so exposed at the Themroc. Knowing that the audience is watching means that you create theatre. You can set the stove on fire just for the heck of it! I mean, in a normal kitchen you hardly ever see a darting flame, but at the Themroc, every cook would act up. I suppose you experienced it as something normal as you’ve never worked in a proper kitchen, but normally cooking in a restaurant kitchen means being separated from your guests. It’s a much more divergent situation, and more anonymous, too.
Read the next installment of Fast Food here.
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.
Photo: Luci Lux
Usually, judging a restaurant by its menu is about as reliable as judging a book by its cover. But at Bouillon Chartier in the heart of Paris’ ninth arrondissement, what you read is what you get. And what you get is what patrons at the historical bistro have gotten for the past one hundred fifteen years: delectable, unpretentious and affordable French cuisine. Max Dax and Thomas Schoenberger broke bread with owner Gerard Joulie, who, over a plate of steaming calf’s head and a bottle of Sauvignon blanc, explained the art of serving slow-cooked food fast.
Max Dax: Monsieur Joulie, the Bouillon Chartier opened its doors in 1896 and legend has it that the menu’s never changed…
Gerard Joulie: Well, day in, day out, we serve strictly traditional French cuisine. This includes classic dishes like the steak frites or pot-au-feu — classic French beef stew. But still, the menu changes slightly here and there on a daily basis. It depends on the assortment of what we get wholesale. Sometimes you can’t find a certain vegetable in the necessary quality or quantity. Other times, a product might be too expensive. And last but not least, we’re constantly analyzing the daily statistics. Dishes that aren’t selling well are replaced by others, ones that fit better to the season or better complement the rest of the menu. It might sound like a paradox, but you have to improvise and continuously make minor changes every day to guarantee consistency over a long period of time. We’ve only really made one major change in the last decade—that is, we completely modernized the kitchen. But for the customer, it’s a change that remains invisible.
Waiter: Bonjour messieurs. What would you like to order?
Gerard Joulie: Sauvignon? Alsace? Do you prefer white or red wine? Allow me to choose one bottle each. We’ll have
a bottle of Pays du Val de Loire Cépage Sauvignon and a bottle of Touraine Marionnet. Have you two already decided what you’ll have for lunch yet?
Thomas Schoenberger: I’ll have a dozen escargot and the entrecôte saignant avec frites [premium cut of beef with french fries], s’il vous plaît.
Max Dax: I’ll have the escargot, too. And the tartare de boeuf [beef steak tartare]. Merci.
Gerard Joulie: And for me the oeuf dur mayonnaise [hardboiled eggs with mayonnaise] and the tête de veau [calf’s head] please. We’ll decide on the cheese and the dessert later on.
Waiter: Got it. Merci.
Max Dax: Interesting—he wrote the whole order on our paper tablecloth. He didn’t take any notes for himself . . .
Gerard Joulie: Writing the bill on the tablecloth is, like the recipes, an age-old French tradition. In Paris, the Bouillon Chartier is probably the only remaining restaurant that’s still allowed to do it. We had to fight hard for an exemption, though. The tax authorities are very strict when it comes to keeping up with handwritten bills and our accounting in general. And, of course, we only employ waiters with very good memories.
Thomas Schoenberger: How do you keep your books?
Gerard Joulie: We have a fail-proof system. It goes like this: Our waiter will place our order in the kitchen. When our appetizers are ready, he has to go to the cashier to enter his waiter’s number, the number of our table and the appetizers. He may have to wait in line for a few minutes with other waiters when it’s busy—carrying up to ten, twenty hot plates at a time mind you. After everything’s been registered, he’ll rush to the tables and deliver the food and then take new orders. But as guests, all we get to see is the handwritten order on the table. And the escargot, of course.
Max Dax: The main reason why we wanted to meet you to talk about your restaurant might seem obvious, but I think it has larger implications. One of the things we’ll never be able to digitize is food. And yet, all over Europe people are less and less able to relate to basic traditions, traditional food or communal seating. Unfortunately, it’s a mindset that the majority of restaurants accommodate these days. Try asking a waiter about the ingredients of a given dish—I’ll bet they have to call a factory to find out.
Gerard Joulie: I agree. And the funny thing is: We can be faster than McDonald’s! The tourists who come here love our system. They realize that they’ll get their food fast, but it’s not fast food.
Thomas Schoenberger: What would you call it instead?
Gerard Joulie: I’d describe Bouillon Chartier simply as a relatively cheap cafeteria in the heart of Paris. Here, you could invite, say, ten people for dinner and you’ll pay maybe three hundred euros. This is something that you won’t find in the rest of Europe anymore, and certainly not in Paris. In fact, “bouillon” is the historical French term for a simple working-man’s tavern. Back in the day, regular customers could rent a little drawer here where they’d store their personal napkins . . . as long as they were able to memorize the drawer number, that is. Some of the walls are still covered with these huge old chests full of drawers, as you can see. In fact, the restaurant is actually a national monument.
Max Dax: How many meals are served at Bouillon Chartier daily?
Gerard Joulie: The most we ever served in a single day was exactly 1,939 dishes. Our yearly average is around 460,000. When you run a place with numbers like this, there is absolutely no room for experimentation.
Thomas Schoenberger: In other words, when it comes to tradition, creativity is a mortal sin?
Gerard Joulie: This restaurant would lose its reputation if we’d start to vary the way we serve the food. Creativity in the kitchen is something you can have in smaller, more sophisticated restaurants, frequented by customers who can judge and value the little changes. And afford them. But more often than not, I’m disappointed when I eat in a fancy restaurant. At Chartier, we have five cooks and twenty aides. And our book of recipes is law—it’s our constitution. No cook is ever allowed to change a dish. Ever. [spotting the food from a distance] Ah, here come the starters! Just imagine getting your escargot lukewarm and without the herb butter. Some regulars have been coming here for decades now. And it’s because they don’t like surprises. They prefer reliability. You might have noticed the long line every evening here at dinnertime. All kinds of people eat here and they usually know what to expect.
Thomas Schoenberger: Here it’s the waiter’s job to seat you. And if you’re alone, you get seated at a table with strangers—also a time-honored custom.
Gerard Joulie: Indeed. But we couldn’t offer the low prices if we didn’t use the space we have to full capacity. Custom is born from practicality.
Max Dax: When do you put together the menu?
Gerard Joulie: Every day, very early in the morning, two buyers do all of the shopping from our wholesaler. Usually around ten o’clock someone will update the menu according to the supply and then print it out. This place is organized around a very strict time schedule. Indeed. The mayonnaise, the boeuf bourguignon, the pot-au-feu—every dish has its own timeline. We prepare a lot of them in advance. The tête de veau, for example, is slowly cooked overnight so that it’s always ready by lunchtime.
Waiter: Attention! Entrecôte! Tête du veau! Tartare de boeuf!
Gerard Joulie: The tartare is made on the spot, of course. That’s strict law in France because it’s raw meat.
Max Dax: Would you say dining at Bouillon Chartier is educational? It seems that if you’re a regular customer, you’ll automatically learn about the history and traditions of French cuisine.
Gerard Joulie: I suppose you could call the restaurant a living museum. When we renovated it two years ago, we only painted the walls and polished the mirrors and the wood paneling. Nothing else. And in terms of food, what you can eat here is prepared the same way it was a century ago. Take, for instance the dorade au choucroute de la mer [seabass with seafood sauerkraut], a dish we offer regularly. In France, it’s an old tradition to eat fish and seafood with sauerkraut. I know that you don’t eat it that way in the rest of the world, but if you’re open-minded, you come here and give it a try. Who knows? Some people even get addicted.
Thomas Schoenberger: So really only some of the logistics have changed.
Gerard Joulie: Exactly. Nowadays we type up the menu on a computer whereas we used to use a typewriter. But the waiters and most of the staff—some of them have been here for decades, doing the same job every day. As time goes by, they’ve become specialists. You just can’t internalize that kind of routine in a week, you know? And tips are divided amongst all staff members. As for the regular customers, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of recognizing the familiar face of “your” waiter. Everything at Bouillon Chartier is built on sustainability. And this is a big part of our formula for success. At the end of a regular day, almost every dish has been sold. Week after week, month after month, year after year. The system works.
Waiter: Cheese and dessert? Coffee? Cognac? ~
All photos by Luci Lux.