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 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.