This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on the concept of the Bavarian Biergarten as well as why we shouldn’t be too angry with McDonald’s. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. The photo was taken at Hofbräu Biergarten in Munich under the chestnut sky. ~ Photo: Max Dax
Dax: The funny thing is that in a McDonald’s restaurant nobody would ever place a special request.
Schoenberger: McDonald’s is a very good example of a system that is stronger than everything else. McDonald’s—or Burger King for that matter—is like a dictatorship: Nobody has any rights—neither the guests nor the people at the cashpoint. You want more ketchup? That’s 20 cents extra. A seller at McDonald’s probably gets fired if he or she doesn’t ask every guest, and I mean every single one without any exception, if they could consider ordering the full menu instead of a plain burger. That’s how they maximize the turnover.
Dax: You cannot order your burger rare or medium rare at McDonald’s. This would already bust the system. A perfect system by the way, don’t get me wrong. It would never occur to me to really have “dinner” at a fast food restaurant such as McDonald’s, but I am certainly willing to give props whenever appropriate.
Schoenberger: Yesterday night, I was having dinner with my ex-officer Werner Geyer at the Paris Bar in Berlin Charlottenburg. We got served a steak that tasted like rotten meat and squishy French fries. It was just horrible.
Dax: That’s interesting: Claude Lanzmann was equally disappointed having dinner at the Paris Bar the other day. I had to invite him to Grill Royal to get him back on the tracks.
Schoenberger: Funnily enough, going to the toilets I met Rolf Eden on his way out.
Dax: So you at least caught a glimpse of what the Paris Bar used to be.
Schoenberger: What I’m trying to say is: If you’ve got a working system, don’t you ever dare changing it. That’s why I want to pay my tribute, too, to McDonald’s—because they would never change their laws, regardless of what you could criticize, ethically or otherwise.
Dax: I can see real beauty in perfectly functioning systems. It occurred to me the other day when I went to have a late night dinner at Adana Grillhaus in Manteuffelstraße after a Wolfgang Müller exhibition opening at Künstlerhaus Bethanien. This is probably the best Turkish restaurant in Berlin, if not in Germany—open 24/7. Many dubious low-life and backstreet people seem to gather there during the night shift. Some of the regular customers are musicians. Sometimes they start to play Turkish music there at 4am in the morning.
Schoenberger: What are they specialized in?
Dax: We went there once or twice together. They have an open wood charcoal grill—in a way it looks just like the Themroc as the grill is visible for all the guests. They offer lamb chops, shish and adana kebaps and many other grill dishes. Actually the adana kebap is their special dish, thus the name of the place. Kebap in Turkish means ‘spit’. You must not mix it up with the fast food of the same name.
Schoenberger: I remember. You’d order an adana kebap there and drink ayran.
Dax: It’s basic traditional Turkish food, but they’ve brought their dishes to perfection. Of course, they don’t serve pork. But they do serve grilled gilthead if you happen to be a vegetarian. I could eat there every night. I don’t know why, but strangely I don’t even feel bothered by the TV set that is running there all the time. They are only showing süper lig football matches and traditional Turkish music programs anyways.
Schoenberger: The German equivalent to these kind of perfect gastronomic structures would probably be the concept of the Bavarian Biergarten.
Dax: Nothing compares to a lazy afternoon in a Munich Biergarten under the chestnut trees, boozing Bavarian lager and enjoying grilled sausages or Schweinshaxn.
Schoenberger: True that. But let’s focus on the enormous quantities of beer and food being sold there on any lovely afternoon. On a good day the big beer gardens in Munich such as the Hirschgarten or Chinesischer Turm sell hundreds of hectoliters of draught lager and thousands of meat dishes— they have seating capacities of more than 7,000 each. The system has proven efficient over the centuries, so the system works out very smoothly. As a customer you usually have to queue to get your Maß of lager at one of the enormous dew points. In some of these traditional places you even have to flush out your Maß in deep barrels of ice-cold water on your own in order to get your refill.
Dax: There we go again: McDonald’s didn’t only copy the concept of the French brasserie, but also that of the beer garden. You have to queue at the counter to get your food and drinks.
Schoenberger: No gastronome would ever challenge this concept. It’s like a mathematical formula, like Sudoku. Especially when it comes to sausages and Schweinshaxn. Point is, you can prepare endless amounts of these kinds of dishes if you know there is a demand. Brez’n and Weißwürste, baked Leberkäse and Obatzda served with fresh cottage loaf. You can literally prepare thousands of Bohemian dumplings that are kept warm in meat broth in enormous copper pots—if you have the logistics ready. If somebody wants a plate of these Knödel, you just fish out one or two of the broth with a skimmer and put them on a plate. Once everything is prepared you just bang the dishes out one after another. I have been fascinated all my life by logistics like this.
Dax: Obviously, you can’t order à la carte in a Biergarten. The Bavarians probably invented the self-service restaurant.
Schoenberger: Exactly. I know a small beer garden in Berlin—the Berghain Biergarten—where they tried to serve sophisticated food. It was a nice try, but it went down the drain. You just can’t put carré of lamb cooked à point on the menu when the goal is to serve as many hungry lost souls as possible. I was there and I immediately had to think of Don Quixote.
Dax: The system is the challenge. It’s like a matrix you can put on any setup. The Themroc is a different setup compared to the Schönberger or the Chinesischer Turm. It’s less a question of the selection of dishes you offer than knowing what is doable. The setup defines the terms and conditions. At the end of the day people want to have the best food the system allows. And to make this clear: They have a right to get the best food. Regardless if they are willing—or capable—to spend ten Euros or 100.
Schoenberger: Let me explain something: It is a huge misunderstanding to offer a large variety of differently cooked dishes just to please any possible consumer’s wishes. Wrong. You need an army in the kitchen and the according logistics to offer various modes of cooking things correctly from the same stove. Of course you have to do your job well. But if you do so, it’s enough to offer variations on the same method. The pizza is the best example for this: You can offer forty different pizzas—but it’s still always a piece of dough that will be baked and delivered with a variety of toppings.
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.
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.
Fast Food is a new, regular blog by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. Every Saturday you can read a new part of their ongoing conversation about cooking, traditions and how to read the menu of any given restaurant. Of yeah, and why so many chefs listen to “electric period” Miles Davis’ after an exhausting night in the kitchen. The photo by Arnd Hoffmann shows an interior view of the Restaurant Schönberger in 1994.
Dax: If you take into account that we have to eat and therefore cook on a daily basis, the lack of documentation is absurd. I have both vivid and at the same time blurry memories of the Schönberger. Of course, there’s no book about it—you will hardly find any books on restaurants or bars that you might assume worth a volume or two. Of course, sometimes you can find books that examine certain phenomena when it comes to restaurants; books about the Venetian bacari, the Viennese Heuriger wine taverns or the Paris bistros do exist. But only in rare cases would you consider these proper records of traditions. Speaking for myself, if somebody would ask me to tell the story of my life, many chapters would be staged in restaurants, trattorias, bistros, ouzerias, osterias or brasseries. You’d probably find more places that are linked to something that you might call the gastronomic street culture, something that gets lost as soon as, say, an osteria closes forever.
Supposedly semi-legal places like Palermo’s Zia Pina, where they grill the fish in the osteria’s entrance corridor and not in the non-existing kitchen, will be forgotten one day unless, well, unless you document the memory. Zia Pina hasn’t been written about beyond the casual newspaper article, even though spaces like that live in our memories until we die. Ideally, they’d become the backdrop of a novel or even a film, which means they then enter the realm of fiction. Just like the history of the blues or American folk music, the story of the simple taverns and tables has traditionally been told as an oral history. Thomas, I have the impression that an integral part of our dialogue will be just like that—jumping from one memory to the next, as memories are all we have. Especially if we talk about the techniques and procedures of cooking itself, I have this premonition that, more often than not, we’ll be discussing specific memories linked to a specific time and space. That’s why I want to get back to the white industrial loft space that was your restaurant: How the hell did you actually get hold of this space?
Schoenberger: Back then, before I opened the restaurant, I was a partner in a company called Vertrieb trockener Weine—Distributor for Dry Wines. My associate and I regularly shuttled between Venice, Tuscany, Frankfurt and Hamburg. In Venice and Tuscany, we were buying large quantities of Italian wine for little money, and were praying that we’d get it to West German wholesalers before the wine would lose its quality.
Dax: You mean the temperature and altitude changes that occur when travelling through the Alps? That’s what can ruin a local wine from Italy and make speculating with wine a game of chance, correct?
Schoenberger: I prefer to give you the short answer because I think we should talk a whole evening about wine, but not tonight. Here’s a brief explanation of the procedure of wine speculation: Every autumn I’d travel to the north of Italy to visit vineyards and buy large quantities of not yet fermented wine, where the owner would mark whole barrels with white chalk, signifying that they’ve been sold. As soon as the wine has completed the fermentation process in spring, I’d return to the vineyard and attend the filling procedure from barrel to bottle in the cellar. Should the wine have suffered a loss of quality during the winter or, God forbid, gone bad, it’s not the problem of the estate but that of the speculator. The chalk mark on the barrel is the archaic proof of an archaic and binding deal.
Season 1: The Restaurant Schönberger. 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
“Lisbon has a certain number of eating establishments in which, on top of a respectable-looking tavern, there’s a regular dining room with the solid and homey air of a restaurant in a small trainless town. In these first-floor dining rooms, fairly empty except on Sundays, one often comes across odd sorts, unremarkable faces, a series of asides in life.” Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquit
Dax: I remember that fall afternoon in 1995 as if it were yesterday. It was a hazy Saturday and, as is often the case, the city was bathed in a milky light. Reality was languid—traffic, people, the wind, everything. For some strange reason I had plenty of time so I decided to pay a visit to your restaurant in the Große Freiheit, hoping to meet you there. Indeed, you were sitting on one of the huge, natural untreated wooden tables, facing two piles of string beans: a very big that had to be cut, and a very small one which was already prepared. You had obviously just started. Also on the table: a Luminarc glass and a bottle of white wine.
Schoenberger: I was late; I had to finish the beans. I brought you a chair and told you what to do: cut the ends off, sort out the bad ones and throw them on the floor. Put the cleaned beans on the other pile. When you’re finished, clean up the mess.
Dax: You brought me a glass, too. We toasted. Your phone rang. I think it was one of your wholesalers. You took the call, and went off to a distant corner of the spacious restaurant. From that moment on I was left on my own for the rest of the afternoon. I cleaned the beans one after another and enjoyed the white wine. Eventually, the big pile was worked off and only the good beans remained. The stone floor was littered with green.
Schoenberger: The restaurant Schönberger only existed for a couple of years. It was located in the courtyard of an old former fish factory in Hamburg. Or, to be more precise, in the heart of St. Pauli, next to a small printing plant in Große Freiheit. It was an enormous space, like a giant white cube. The bar and the shelves were brick, painted white. The big wooden tables and chairs, however, came from retailers or second-hand dealers whose business was buying out apartments or liquidating restaurants; thus, the furniture resembled artifacts from forgotten times. The contrast between the stark white color of the walls and shelves, the dark and irregular stone floor and the diverse, old furniture was strong. On one of the walls we had a black slate that we bought at a nearby gravestone dealer. Every night we would write the various courses on it with white chalk. Eating and drinking at Schönberger, you could easily forget that you were in St. Pauli, only a stone’s throw away from touristy Reeperbahn.
Dax: With every sentence you conjure a space that no longer exists; a space that was completely different to the interiors of all other restaurants. For me, the disused factory loft was the starting point of an adventure called life. I unfortunately witnessed only a brief period of the Schönberger, as you were forced to close due to a massive rent increase. But by recalling the proportions and the grid of the space, you open a door to memories that were long trapped inside of me. I find it remarkable that in art, we track down, document, archive and contextualize every movement, every artist and every damn artwork. But as soon as we talk about cooking and gastronomical traditions, all we have are memory lapses, fractions of stories and loose ends.
Schoenberger: The problem is obvious: In the field of gastronomy and among chefs there’s a dramatic lack of consciousness of the discipline’s own historicity. Here and there you can find a certain kind of consciousness when it comes to traditions or schools of cooking, but this knowledge is not connected—there’s no broader approach and the various schools aren’t aware of each other. Of course, in every bookstore you can easily find random collections of recipes that were compiled for an arbitrary market. But you hardly find any guides that are able to teach you the necessary structure or methodology when it comes to cooking these dishes.
Read the second episode of the dialogue.