This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on the Roman Empire and how to successfully cut a leg of beef from a cow. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. The photo was taken near Arezzo on the superstrada to Florence and features a street sign announcing a truffle vendor selling truffles at street level prices. ~ Photo: Max Dax
Schoenberger: I would kill the cook who’d dare to pour cream into a mussel brew.
Dax: There’s that aggression again. Why do you always get so excited when people become creative and start to experiment with recipes? I understand that cooking is not about being creative and certainly not about pouring cream into a mussel brew. But then again, it is certainly allowed to alter recipes to a certain degree—when ingredients are missing for instance, or when you try to reproduce a dish at home that you’ve enjoyed in a restaurant.
Schoenberger: Sure. But I always get annoyed when I hear the term creativity in connection to cooking. Why not use another term instead? I’d suggest variability. Most people seem to have not understood that cooking is just another word for dictatorship—in the sense of the Roman Empire. It basically means that the laws of the galley apply. The captain recites the poems of Horaz. His pacing as he is reciting dictates to the drummer the speed at which to beat the drums. And those who are in the belly of the galley have to row according to the drum beat so that the ship can move. I guess you call that a chain of command. And it makes sense. If you’d allow your cooks or the service people to articulate an opinion you are doomed. And yet there were possibilities to bring in ideas.
Dax: Like what ideas?
Schoenberger: Any ideas were allowed. But the procedure had to be exactly like Machiavelli described it in The Prince: If the prince needs any advice, he asks his consiglieris. If he doesn’t ask for a counsel, nobody has to offer any. The captain moveth in mysterious ways. End of the story.
Dax: Can you name an idea that was brought to you and that you did accept?
Schoenberger: Actually, I adapted quite a lot of ideas from my people. When I felt there was a need to redirect I would call for a summit and ask for suggestions on how to improve certain things or how to confront specific problems together. I am just saying that you cannot allow, at any time, to invite people to constantly bother you with so-called ideas for improvement.
Dax: No examples?
Schoenberger: I told you we were cooking lunch for all the people who were working in our backyard on a daily basis. Since it was always the same people who were eating somebody suggested that we let them always pay their bills at the end of the month. It was a tiny thing to change but it made such a difference! People felt like they were members of an exclusive club or something.
Dax: If you were serving lunch for your friends and dinner for the masses, when would a typical working day at the Schönberger start in the morning?
Schoenberger: People started to pop in around 11 a.m. Never ever would anyone show up earlier as the nights at the restaurant were always long. Nonetheless it was often my duty to visit the fish market, the food wholesalers or the abattoir at 3 a.m. or at 7 a.m. in the morning. So, when we all met again around 11 a.m. we’d dish up an improvised breakfast while two of the cooks were preparing the lunch—composed of a salad and a main course. If the cooks weren’t too hungover they’d even prepare a dolce for everybody.
Dax: This reminds me of lunch traditions that you can sometimes still find in places such as provincial towns in Italy, France or Greece. At least that’s how I recall it. As a guest, you’d enter an osteria in, say, Jesi or Sassocorvaro, queue with the other people holding a tablet in your hands and then get something delicious for lunch and a carafe of wine. You never knew what they’d be serving you. But it was always great.
Schoenberger: And don’t forget: Serving a salad didn’t mean that we were taking the easy option. The kitchen hand would have to clean the salad for as long as it took for it to no longer contain any traces of soil. Ask any chef in a kosher restaurant how often they clean a salad or the vegetables. Always remember that soil is not a sign of freshness. In autumn when it rains a lot you may have to wash a salad ten times until you can consider your work done.
Dax: What other kind of preparation work had to be done in the kitchen?
Schoenberger: The fish had to be gutted and scaled. And with my personal working background as a slaughterer I would bone the meat whenever necessary. Usually twice a week I’d also boil out the bones and extract meat stock. The important thing—if you cook for a lot of people—is that you prepare everything in advance. And I mean EVERYTHING. Even if you’d find some time in the evening you certainly wouldn’t find the space to do it. Especially in this regard cooking in a restaurant differs from preparing a three-course menu at home.
Dax: How do you extract meat stock?
Schoenberger: You chop the bones to pieces with a cleaver and put them into a big braissère together with some olive oil. You then braise the bones with the oil in an oven until they get dark, then add some celeriac, bay leafs, carrots and just a little bit of flour to bind the oil while roasting the bones. You then deglaze everything with red wine and broth and let it reduce for a couple of hours in the oven. The broth you get by concocting vegetables and meat—otherwise you’d call it a bouillon. While you keep the broth to use it for the meat stock you throw away the boiled out vegetables. The meat you can serve as a cold starter together with homemade pesto.
Dax: By what means did your background as a slaughterer help in that regard?
Schoenberger: I certainly had some advantage when it came to merchandise knowledge. I did save a lot of money buying entire pieces of meat that I would then dissect myself. But even more importantly, people wouldn’t sell me bad product at the abattoir. If someone told me a piece of meat had been well-hung for eight weeks then I had the capacity to be able to see that it might’ve been hung for just two or three weeks instead. At the abattoir people respect you immediately if you tell them that you can cut the leg of beef yourself from the quarter because they realize that you are one of them.
Read Fast Food 17 next week.
This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on roasting the perfect brasato and why you can read the menu—or any plate—like a book. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. The photo was taken at Metro Cash & Carry in Berlin and features sea urchins that you can eat raw—if you know you can trust your seafood dealer. ~ Photo: Max Dax
Schoenberger: Our philosophy could only work because we were fully aware of the fact that every single dish has a certain structure, like DNA. There is often only one or two right ways of preparing a dish. If you follow the roadmap you’ll get the result you were heading for. Once you have fully understood the structure of a given dish you are probably allowed to give it a personal spin. But only then—after you’ve successfully completed your homework.
Dax: Let’s talk about one of the classic dishes at Restaurant Schönberger—the piedmont brasato. It was a very special experience to secure a table with a white papercloth in that noisy place and then were served a caraffe of red wine and a plate of brasato. Why was that particular roast such a unique match?
Schoenberger: The answer is simple. We could prepare it in advance within the limited possibilities that our kitchen offered. We would put the brasato into the oven during afternoon—and we knew that the roast would be stewed and ready at 8 p.m. Of course you have to marinate the centerpiece of the leg of beef for at least 24 hours before you cook it. Now, let me tell you how to cook the perfect brasato: A day or two in advance you put the freshly bought raw leg of beef into a large pot together with root vegetables, the so-called Mire poix—celery, parsley root, onions and carrots. You add bay leaf, garlic and red hot chili and then you cover it all with red wine until the beef is completely covered. If you think about it, this is not hard work at all. Then you leave it to draw for one or two days. Immediately before you put the marinated brasato into the oven you have to sear it on every side to seal it with a roasted surface. This is also easy, and presents a good opportunity for show cooking as you are handling very hot oil and a huge piece of meat that you’ve just put into the torrid pan. You can have some really impressive flames lapping at a beef on a gas stove.
Dax: So, what’s the secret?
Schoenberger: There is no secret. To marinate the brasato dictates the timeframe and narrows down the vegetables that you are allowed to use. You certainly shouldn’t experiment and try to fool around with white instead of red wine, and you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of covering the whole brasato with wine. This, by the way, dictates the kind of pot you are going to use as you don’t want to waste liters of a perfectly drinkable table wine just because you don’t have the correct container. Which leads us to the process of searing the brasato: The oil must be very hot and you sear the brasato quickly but long enough so the typical roast marks appear on the surface of the meat. The only secret is the discipline. I mean, you can’t marinate a leg of beef in two hours.
Dax: And after having seared the brasato? What then?
Schoenberger: From now on you can’t do anything wrong anymore. I forgot: add some salt. Then you set the heat in the oven to 80-90 °C and let the roast braise there for three or four hours, depending how well-cooked or saignant you like it. The only thing that needs some expertise is the so-called Beurre Manier—butter that you knead with just enough flour to a soft dough. After some hours in the stove, the wine and the fat will be reduced to a thicker sauce, but not yet in a state to be called a sauce. That’s why you need the Beurre Manier: you carfully stir the butter-flour dough into the reduced gravy juice and it will thicken. You call this process of producing a sauce “binding”. But this is also nothing but a structured chemical process and thus easy to learn. Now multiply this. Put two brasatos into the oven and you have double the amount of slices of brasato roast that you can serve. Have three ovens and three brasatos in each of them, you have nine times the brasato, with almost the same amount of work, thoughts and time invested. A crowd of 90 hungry guests you have to feed with brasato isn’t impressive at all anymore. We can serve it with bread that we would bake ourselves in the same ovens or with polenta.
Dax: Wait. How do you do the bread?
Schoenberger: Water, flour, rosemary, sea salt, yeast. Then bake.
Dax: That’s it?
Schoenberger: That’s it. Our readers aren’t stupid, they know that they have to knead a dough a couple of times before they can put it into the oven.
Dax: So, in other words: the four or five dishes that were handwritten on the slate as the menu of the night were like a formula—a formula of the do-able.
Schoenberger: Exactly. If you know how to read a formula, you can tell from the slate whether a restaurant is good or not.
Dax: Since the dish you get served in a restaurant is the result of both a system and a process, the mistakes you can make are clearly defined as such. In other words: as a guest, you don’t only read the slate as a formula but also your plate like a book. If you get your pasta with vongole veraci served with chopped coriander instead of parsley you know that this is either a mistake or an interpretation. As a guest, you will certainly taste the pasta accordingly—with knowledge. You don’t need to be a connoisseur of food to know which way the wind blows. It’s actually enhancing, if not something utterly positive, if you can judge the food you are being served.
Schoenberger: In the ideal case, as a guest I agree to a pact with the devil in the kitchen. I mean, if I get perfectly prepared spaghetti with vongole veraci—parsley or no parsley—I immediately know that I am part of a well-run system. As I said before: I love perfection.
Dax: Stick to your limitations. Serve perfect spaghetti vongole veraci or perfect moules frites. Both dishes signify the impossibility of molecular cuisine. To quote my favourite lines from Franz Kafka: “The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens. There is no doubt of that, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for heaven simply means the impossibility of crows.”
Schoenberger: You cannot improve the brasato or the spaghetti vongole veraci or moules frites. You can only do things wrong. You can clean the mussels sloppily and in doing so endanger your guests, risking that they get food poisoning. But this has to be filed in the same category as marinating the brasato: stick to the rules and nobody will get sick. To make this point crystal clear: It’s not that difficult to reach world standard. It’s all a matter of discipline.
Dax: Cooking at the Themroc with everybody passing by looking at you didn’t allow you to make any mistakes. Everybody was watching. Everybody would see it if you’d pour cream into the mussel brew.
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.
This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on discretion and toughness. If you happen to be famous you probably don’t want to be bothered while dining. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. Due to a heavy traveling itinerary, this week’s episode didn’t get published until today. The photo was taken at Bouillon Chartier in Paris. ~ Photo: Max Dax
Dax: While the cooks at Themroc experienced their own visibility by stepping out of the anonymity of the kitchen, the waiters had to take care not only of the service but also provide the audience with a space where they could behave freely. I am talking now about discretion and shelter. Sometimes big stars frequented the Themroc, such as The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, Atari Teenage Riot’s Alec Empire, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley or Faust’s Jochen Irmler—as well as Nan Goldin, John Giorno or Michael Stipe. They all had heard about the Themroc being a particular space offering something they probably wouldn’t get that often elsewhere: They were treated as equals among equals.
Schoenberger: I’m not sure I get your point. The guests in the Themroc were visible. The place was brightly lit. What do you mean when you say that the guests felt protected?
Dax: Nobody seemed to take advantage of it being well lit. That was definitively the case. They could feel safe.
Schoenberger: Only 300 meters up the Torstraße, in yet another restaurant with an open kitchen, things were handled in a different way. That other place attracted a lot of Hollywood’s A-list stars. The restaurant seemed like they wanted to capitalize on their reputation as being one of Berlin Mitte’s hottest spots. Every time a star would show up you could be sure that the local newspapers would have a photo story ready the next morning.
Dax: How did you treat celebrities at the Schönberger?
Schoenberger: We treated them like non-celebrities. As you were saying, confidentiality is important. It doesn’t matter if people are famous, if they are gangsters or if someone’s dining with his or her affair, cheating on their partners. They all had their privacy.
Dax: I have to point out yet another aspect of that particular philosophy that was shared by both the Schönberger and the Themroc. Both had a squad of tough women who served the guests. I remember plenty of moments at the Themroc in which, for instance, a waitress called Tatjana Kononenko insulted her guests. She was and is a stunningly beautiful film director from Ukraine who was working shifts at the Themroc to finance her studies at Berlin’s film academy. Being a proud woman, she refused to accept money from her family, insisting to fund her life and studies all by herself. Growing up in both Ukraine and a Soviet military barrack near Weimar, as a girl she used to play tactical warfare with her pals in old, discarded Red Army tanks. So, whenever a guest would behave arrogantly, was pushy or confront her with sexist preconceptions because she was beautiful and from Kiev heritage, she had her ways of turning the guest’s stay at Themroc into a living hell.
Schoenberger: How did the owner Alireza deal with it?
Dax: For some time, say, for two years, he’d let her perform that way—knowing that this would help build the Themroc’s reputation as being a somewhat different place. I will never forget how Tatjana once refused to serve a hipster couple that annoyingly continued to boss her around, calling her “service”. After a short while she didn’t serve the table anymore at all and ignored the couple. When they apprehended her she presented them the bill and calmly told them the address of another restaurant nearby, the Grill Royal, where they could try their luck instead.
Schoenberger: That reminds me of our tough women at the Schönberger. I officially sanctioned such a behavior. I considered it proud and professional. My waitresses didn’t have to fear punishment if they’d piss off a certain kind of customer.
Dax: Didn’t you also run this system of putting “reserved” signs on the tables even though they weren’t booked at all? This way you could always refuse to seat people you didn’t want to have in your restaurant.
Schoenberger: That’s partly true. But we mainly used the “reserved” tables policy to make sure that regular guests would still get a table when we were overcrowded. But tell me more about the women at Themroc. Your wife Luci used to work shifts there too. How would you describe her role as a waitress in this context?
Dax: I’d say she was as important during the formative years of the Themroc as were the other members of the core crew—the three owners Alireza Farahmand, Manuel Schubbe and Olivier Lapeyre, but also Tatjana, the French cook Julien Ponthieu and the Danish steward Ole. They all played their part in defining the Themroc as a nocturnal refuge for Berlin’s lost and hungry drifters. If you had Luci as your waitress, you could be sure that you were served correctly and warm-heartedly. But if she didn’t like you, she’d kill you with her gaze. An ordinary night at the Themroc ended around 4am. That’s tough shifts for anybody involved. You have to find ways to survive such patterns. You have to be tough on a certain level or the job will destroy you.
Schoenberger: Let’s talk about the extreme working shifts for a moment. Unlike the usual restaurant we didn’t serve the regular dining hours. That’s just another similarity between the Themroc and the Schönberger. Tell me a restaurant in Paris or in Rome that would serve food after 10pm? You will not find any. Whereas in our joints you could be sure to still get some of the menu’s remaining dishes at around 11.45pm. And of course, after the last one was served you were allowed to smoke and the whole set-up would change naturally. It would give way to a more bar-like situation where everybody would continue drinking—and, by the way, from this point on music would matter too.
Dax: At the Themroc the same girls would serve the guests when the kitchen had already closed. That’s what made these working shifts so draining.
Schoenberger: As you know, we had this bar in the next room. We called the bar the Nebenraum—German for “the adjacent room”. Different girls were working at the bar alongside Ernest Hausmann who was running it. The waitresses by then had ended their shifts. Nonetheless you’d usually see them around until the restaurant closed its doors late at night. I’d call it a certain lifestyle that you don’t just want to go home after an exhausting working shift but to stay and talk to the various guests, many of them being friends and acquaintances. Basically, the whole place turned from a restaurant into a bar. That moment often reminded me of these magical situations after a theatre premiere when the actors and the staff intermingled with the opening night audience at the theatre’s canteen. At the Schönberger, we witnessed on a daily basis how the bar attracted its own audience night after night after night. Arriving at the Themroc or the Schönberger at, say, 12.30am. on any given day, you could be sure to experience the same solemnity you’d have after a celebrated theatre premier.