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.
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