This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on getting your guests drunk. In a restaurant you can easily make a statement by ordering a super expensive wine. Or, the restaurant can make a point by refusing its clients the opportunity to make such a statement. In this tenth episode of Fast Food, Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax continue to debate the micropolitics of dining—and how to cook with maximum effect. We understand: Running a restaurant is also about defining a space where people can be equal. Suffice to say, some people are still treated more equal than others.
Dax: You and your crew limited yourself to the do-able, you’ve shown insight into what is earthly possible. Let’s talk about sovereignty. Natural authority comes from knowing exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it.
Schoenberger: I agree. I am to this day absolutely convinced that the success of the Restaurant Schönberger can be easily explained. I like to believe that the hungry guests who regularly came back during the night knew exactly what they would get and what they wouldn’t. They knew that we believed in the possible, not the impossible.
Dax: There is beauty in the daily grind, there can be eternal beauty in never changing routines and in the limitations you are confronted with when trying to live up to something. Most people are afraid of limitations. But the opposite is the case. Limiting yourself according to an idea you have in mind can be a guidance. It keeps you focused.
Schoenberger: The people who dined at Schönberger’s experienced pride. Every waiter was proud to serve the guests because they knew they were acting according to the rules. I know this might sound pathetic, but for many of our clients dining at the Schönberger was nothing less than a reality check. They might be used to bossing other people around in their own lives, they might even find it natural to ask for silly extras just to reassure themselves that they exist, but not at the Schönberger. I mean, you can drive waiters crazy by confronting them with your diet restrictions, your personal taste or ideological beliefs. Or should I say: so-called ideological beliefs? I bet that some people are vegan because, in some way, they like the confrontation it invites. But I see through those people, I understand that they just need any kind of reaction to reassure themselves that they exist – even if it’s a hostile reaction.
Dax: The do-able more often than not is also the reasonable. The interesting thing about the Restaurant Schönberger was in how the crew behaved. They were elitist, but not in the bad sense of the word. They were elitist by keeping traditions alive. And I don’t see anything bad in that. They sort of reminded people of how things have to be done.
Schoenberger: At the end of the day it’s a question of empirics. Most of the people who were confronted with our gastronomic attitude towards refusal didn’t come back. But there was this ever growing group of people who eventually understood what it was all about. They understood that a set of rules actually allowed to behave more naturally, less like performing animals. I guess you could call it give-and-take.
Dax: Behaving more naturally is linked to the consumption of alcohol. You were running a strict policy when it came to wine.
Schoenberger: That’s also true. We had a very limited selection of wines. One white and one red, one each from Veneto and from Tuscany. That was it. If guests were asking for the wine list the waiter would answer: We’ve got white wine and red wine and we’ve got carafes of a quarter, a half and one liter.
Dax: I mean, we talked about this before, but why this limitation? You could have served the most traditional cucina casalinga according to the rules and still offer a multitude of wines. You could have easily increased the total revenue night by night by night.
Schoenberger: Sure. And as I said before, maybe I would do otherwise nowadays. But back then the statement we made by offering only vino sfuso in carafes was so much more important. I mean, if I want to order a bottle of Montrachet, I’d insist on getting a matching glass to consume it. And I’d insist to be served by a waiter who is also a sommelier. And, of course, if I’d made such a statement by ordering such a super-expensive white wine in public, I’d demand the exact drinking temperature – something only a well tempered wine cellar can provide. But this wasn’t our policy. Wine connoisseurs – self-proclaimed as well as real ones – are of the same breed as cigar smokers. The discussion would start with the question of the night’s wine proposition and it certainly would not end there. If you are willing to spend a fortune for a bottle of vintage wine you have the unwritten right to be treated like a VIP. It gives you a right to rope the waiter or sommelier into an expert discussion about the temperature and the grape as well as the heritage of the wine – and how it matches with the food you’ve ordered. To toss all away that was a major part of the agenda. I personally know a number of chefs and restaurant owners who went bankrupt climbing the Michelin star ladder – simply because they had to invest vast amounts of money into curating a wine cellar that could fulfil the exquisite and eccentric wishes of their customers. Maybe I missed the opportunity to increase my turnovers. But I am very proud that we’ve made a real statement by offering only simple wines that were affordable for everybody in the house.
Dax: To put it simply: You didn’t want your space taken over by people who thought otherwise.
Schoenberger: Exactly. That’s why our tough women would place simple osteria Luminarc glasses on the tables as well as carafes filled with white or red wine and the people would start to drink. Whenever they’d emptied a carafe, a new one would turn up on their table until they stopped the waitress doing so. Whenever this signal came it was obvious that their stay at Schönberger had ended. They were only in the middle of the night. They either wanted to delve into the St. Pauli nightlife or they had to go on their nightshift or they simply wanted to switch to hard liquor.
Read the next installment of Fast Food here. ~ Photo: Max Dax
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.