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 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.