Fast Food 18

This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on milk foam and fish trawlers. How are these two entities linked? Well, you might enjoy a cup of cappuccino in the morning while reading the newspapers, and then receive the phone call from your trusted fishmonger informing you that a big slice of swordfish will be on sale soon at a bargain price. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. We pick up the conversation where they left off in episode 17.~

Photo: Max Dax

Read previous episodes of Fast Food here.


Schoenberger: But don’t get me wrong: I certainly can appreciate regional cucina casalinga such as what they are serving at the aforementioned Locanda Ciacci. If I lived in that area, I probably would make it a ritual to eat there every evening. But for sure, I am not a friend of the so-called slow food movement or the constant praise of regional cuisine. I would never limit myself in terms of using spices for instance—just because they are typical for a certain region.

Dax: I didn’t suggest this. I was just impressed that you can basically educate your clients by always serving them the same, regional dish. I mentioned it because sticking to a pattern makes it so much easier to calculate your purchases. I wouldn’t refrain from using cumin just because it grows in Turkey. The same goes for Asian ingredients such as coriander, ginger, or Thai chili.

Schoenberger: Point is, if you know what you are doing and why you are doing it, you are actually allowed to experiment. I will never forget your way of serving salmon with a sauce made of olive oil, lemon, and white wine that you’d flavor with ginger, green pepper, chili, freshly roasted pine nuts, and lemon leaves. This would be the antithesis of regional cooking. But it is allowed as long as you are using the best possible products.

Dax: Do you believe in globalization?

Schoenberger: Absolutely. Travelling is all about tasting. And every culture that allows cross-influences—say, from immigrants or even from a colonial background—is richer than a hermetic culture. Imagine Paris without the Vietnamese cuisine from the Indochinese heritage or London without its colonial Indian counterpart.

Dax: What about favoring regional products when you are shopping for vegetables or meat?

Schoenberger: Nothing speaks against that as long as the product is good. The problem is, though, more often than not, novo regio turns out to be a half-hearted whim of fashion. Restaurants that claim to purchase only goods from a radius of, say, one hundred kilometers mostly still do offer tea or coffee or wine from France, Italy, or even California. It becomes evident if you take a closer look at, for instance, Noma in Copenhagen. Check their website and you know what I mean. Nothing against serving moss or poached eggs as part of a nova regio menu that clocks in at €200. They are offering truly distinctive dishes. But one glance at the wine list and you realize that they don’t differenciate at all. They simply offer everything that is good and expensive—like any other three star restaurant in Europe. If you ask me, nova regio is a hopeless attempt to impede globalization in the kitchen. I really see it as substantial progress that Metro Cash & Carry offers fresh fish. It wasn’t always like that.

Dax: How was it before?

Schoenberger: I remember the daily routine of checking the remainders from the night before, together with the crew. Of course, we had to literally eat it up in order not to throw it away. Usually, there were a couple of cases of unused vegetables, and we’d receive phone calls from our meat and fishmongers who would offer us their odds.

Dax: How could you know that this was good product?

Schoenberger: We had a bond of trust with our suppliers. That’s basically the reason why you’d only purchase your goods from one single supplier. Because you trusted them.

Dax: I remember constantly seeing your fishmonger having dinner with his employees at the Schönberger.

Schoenberger: That’s what I’m saying: He trusted me as well. But to answer your question: Hamburg has this old tradition of passing through provisions. Take a fishmonger at the Hamburg fish market, for instance. If he receives the call from a trawler that a tuna fish of a certain size had been caught and he decides to buy it, he immediately starts to sell parts of it to his customers—before the fish even has arrived at his shop. He will sell the best and most expensive parts to sushi restaurants and Japanese hotels, of course. If he doesn’t sell the entire fish within a certain time frame, he starts to sell the remaining parts for bargain prices. The reason for this is obvious: you shall not waste a single gram of such a valuable animal. So, if we were lucky, we’d get a big slice of sword or tuna fish for little money, grill it and would put it on the slate. You must not forget that on a normal day you couldn’t offer expensive dishes like that. You were dependent on the phone call.

Dax: The crew had to be responsive to these calls.

Schoenberger: That’s true. It didn’t make things easier. But the overall effect was that we were able to serve better food within our price range. When everything was bought, chopped, and prepared, the entire crew would sit down at 6 pm to have dinner together. This was an important ritual. And it was the only time the waiters and the kitchen crew were allowed to drink wine. Of course, when the battle was over, we’d drink a lot. But in the time between it wasn’t allowed.

Dax: Were there other rituals?

Schoenberger: There were more rules than rituals. Obedience was key. It was clear that we’d never serve fruit juices, caffé latte or cappuccino. You cannot lead a restaurant properly if you offer drinks that don’t philosophically match with the food you are serving. You drink milk and coffee in the morning, not after dinner. A restaurant that is, drinkwise, based on the pillars wine, water, beer, espresso, and schnapps cannot offer anything else. It would destroy the perception.

Dax: But I remember that I witnessed people would get served a cup of cappuccino with the dessert.

Schoenberger: Yes, you are right. But only until the day I disconnected the hot water tube from my beloved Faema E-61 coffee machine with flat pliers. I remember putting the faucet on my bedside locker. Of course, I mounted it again when we had to close the restaurant, as I kept the precious coffee machine.

Dax: The machine is now located at the Electronic Beats office and continues to serve us good coffee. Actually, I always say that the machine makes the second best espresso in town.

Schoenberger: Where would you get the best espresso?

Dax: I don’t know. But why this anger when it comes to coffee with milk?

Schoenberger: Children and cats drink milk in the morning. Besides that, preparing a cappuccino or a latte macchiato simply wastes time. Time is the most valuable currency in gastronomy. You simply can’t offer a cup of cappuccino to 150 people after dinner. You’d need an extra waitress. For milk foam! That was strictly against the philosophy.

Read Fast Food 19 next week.

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Fast Food 7

Fast Food is a new, regular feature on 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

Read previous episodes of Fast Food here.

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?

Schoenberger: Exactly.

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.


Read the eigth episode of Fast Food here.

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