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 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
Dax: And this room that was later painted white was used as a storage room for the wine?
Schoenberger: That’s right. I still remember very clearly that specific smell when I entered the room filled with all these wine bottles. It still happens to me every now and then that I feel like I’ve been beamed into another time and space when I nose the smell of wine. I can almost count on that Proust-like Madeleine moment. Our wine speculation business was very successful for quite a while. Maybe we even had been too lucky for beginners that we were. We eventually ruined our company by overspeculating with a wine that had lost its quality during the fermentation process in winter. As a result we had to give up our business. When we split up, I kept the wine and the contract for the old fish factory—and he kept the trucks. And somehow that room commanded me to start a new business in there. I decided to liquidate the remaining wine stock by opening a place where I could serve food as well as white and red wine. For a couple of weeks that turned into some few months I was living in a building site. And then we opened. One of the things I knew was that I didn’t want to call these beautiful, empty halls a restaurant. I didn’t succeed with this though. Everybody kept on calling it restaurant Schönberger from day one—and I accepted this pretty soon. But as we are talking, I just felt the urge to stress this fact.
Dax: What is it you don’t like about the term ‘restaurant’?
Schoenberger: The term ‘restaurant’ defines and specifies a place in a very predetermined way. But I had this strong idea to open a space where it’s allowed to drink a glass of Soave and to order just a piece of grana with it.
Dax: Can’t you do this in a restaurant?!
Schoenberger: You can only do this on a theoretical level. The definition of ‘restaurant’—even if the waiter wouldn’t force it upon you—is to offer a proper three-course menu, to imply minimum consumption, to have rules of etiquette. I, on the other hand, wanted something more like a social space where a proper menu, minimum consumption and rules of etiquette don’t exist. In other words: I saw my place mutually connected to the street and not to the belle etage. Of course, there were rules too at the Schönberger. But these were different rules, different at least to any other restaurant I knew.
Dax: That’s interesting. Because in a restaurant you realize in no time what is allowed and what’s not. We don’t have to go into greater detail to observe that a certain kind of people doesn’t feel welcome in a normal restaurant. They simply don’t like to be conformists. So, they wander until they find a place they feel at home. If you want your restaurant to attract these kind of people, you have to offer them a different space. And from then on, everything that is going to happen in this specific space falls under the category ‘adventure’. Is that so?
Schoenberger: Yes. But to be even more precise, I would rather call it an ongoing ‘social adventure’. When we started serving food, we already had something like a little routine. During lunchtime we would always cook for the print workers and all the other tradesmen who were running their businesses in the courtyard. We had done so before, when I still had my wine distribution. The restaurant’s name ‘Schönberger’—back then I still spelled my surname with the umlaut—just established itself without my help. The print workers naturally arranged to meet in their lunch break at Schönberger’s. That’s how the place got its name. And I served the dishes. And as we all know, hard working people fancy a glass of wine for lunch—and this perfectly fitted into my concept. One day I realized that I had imported—half by accident, half by intention—the original concept of the Italian trattoria across the Alps to Hamburg. The important thing was that everything progressed naturally. I knew what I didn’t want, though. I didn’t want to have a place that just faked a working people’s canteen—and that in reality attracts only wealthy people. I had imagined a real place, a consistent, logical entity. A hideout, say, where a particular kind of people such as poets, musicians and hustlers would feel at home. I know in hindsight that it might sound odd and like a nostalgic idea to invest everything you have—your money and your time—into a space that serves as a refuge for borderline people. But, you know, what we call gentrification nowadays was already looming in the mid-nineties in St. Pauli. In a gentrified quarter the logic of the market sets the rules. Rents go up and restaurants have to pass on the costs to their clients. It’s an unforgiving commercial logic that does not care whether traditions are going to be destroyed. I am not surprised at all that today our streets are paved with franchises of convenience food chains or theme restaurants. Regular customers who are willing to build up a personal relationship to a given restaurant—or a working man’s canteen—because they can tune into a specific space or cuisine or tradition are not relevant in the logic of the market. They are welcome to leave their money on the table and that’s it. Of course, tourists are welcome, too.
Dax: If the world that existed a long time ago doesn’t exist anymore, you have to reinvent it for yourself. Usually, this means that you have to retreat into privacy. Some establish a private salon, others invite guests for dinner into their own kitchen. You picked another road. You converted the wine stock step by step into a public space—the restaurant.