“It’s a thin slice of biodynamic wagyu from Helga’s farm near Vienna,” explains Canadian chef Dylan Watson-Brawn, placing an impeccably composed plate of meat in front of each of his eight diners. It is the 18th of some 40 dishes on the ever-changing omakase menu of his unmarked Japanese restaurant, Ernst, in Berlin’s seedy Wedding district.
It was then that I understood gastronomy in Berlin. His mid-service sentence says it all. Forget organic, anything that can be biodynamic should be. There’s an audience for the prestige ingredients and the accolades that come with them – the place already has a Michelin star and just landed 62nd on the extended list of the world’s 50 best. Creative young foreigners can make a name for themselves by serving third-country cuisine in a European capital at still relatively reasonable rents. And of course they are on a first name basis with farmers and suppliers.
Not only that. Watson-Brawn chose Helga and her Austrian beef for a reason. Austrian farmers can slaughter their own meat – their cows are calm and happy until the end – but in Germany the animals have to be transported to the slaughterhouse. Watson-Brawn explains that those last stressful hours affect taste. He is one of many people in Berlin to talk about ingredients in this hyper specific way – summer milk versus winter milk. The chef mentions that one of his dairy farmers can tell you which cow produced a particular batch of milk.
I haven’t met Helga or her cows, but I have met artist-turned-farmer Maria Giménez, who supplies Ernst with many of his vegetables. Watson-Brawn and her partners first met her when she brought him vegetables at a farmers’ market in Berlin. They were so taken with his products that they put down their boxes to take pictures. Then they filled those crates with everything she had.
For Giménez, agriculture is a political act. The market garden is part of his bold food sustainability project, Wilmar’s Gärten. When her stepfather offered her 24 hectares of unhealthy land on the condition that she do something useful with it, she considered making art about the apocalyptic nature of it all – it’s too late, thought – her, humans have killed the earth, we are doomed. Except then she reconsidered.
She decided not to give up but to try to fix it instead. So she’s on a mission to prove that regenerative agriculture is practical and achievable. Anyone can make a decent living out of it, she shows, and it’s not just some hippie fantasy. (It should be noted that she vigorously avoids the word permaculture.) Even in the sandy soil of Brandenburg, just outside Berlin in the former East Germany, which is the driest part of the whole country, the one that gets about as much rain as the southern Spain.
“Why is junk food what we call ‘conventional’?” she asks, noting that if we take the fight against food waste seriously, which she says currently captures around 45% of produce, then her path could absolutely feed people. “Sustainably produced food should be the norm” — the convention. “What if we stopped putting special labels on organic foods and instead required industrial producers to put warnings on their foods about all the pesticides they contain?”
She’s right. She therefore invites chefs, gardeners and anyone curious to see what regenerative agriculture looks like to see her property, including market gardens, forestry farming, cattle pasture, beehives and a house. hosts for food thinkers who come here to lead workshops. . There are plans for a agritourism housing in the near future.
Giménez and Wilmar’s Gärtern are part of Die Gemeinschaft (German for “the community”), an organization of chefs, farmers, cheese makers and everyone else along the food chain. What started as a network for Berlin chefs to source premium produce from small farmers who may not even have websites has grown into a bigger force in the city’s food scene. It has around 45 full members and 45 other supporters who exchange experiences, skills, ideas and knowledge.
They argue that good food is culture just as much as visual or performance art, says activist Friederike Gädke, who heads the association. But since the thoughtful food business, which redistributes a significant portion of wealth from well-to-do diners to active farmers, does not enjoy the same recognition and support as other forms of cultivation, they are taking it into their own hands.
Another member is Urstrom Käse, an artisan cheese-making project that began when an old-school dairy farmer from Bavaria, transplanted to Brandenburg, decided he wanted to do more than just sell his milk to big dairies. neighbours. He looked around and found Yule Seifert, a Belgian who worked in high-end cheese factories, and Paul Thomas, an Austrian who is a master in the science of cheese making. He offered them a percentage of the milk from his 450 Jersey cows – a breed that produces less milk and better quality than standard Holstein dairy cows, they all say – to do with as they please.
What they want is a small production run of several types of cheese, which are made and sold in a former East German community hall, with much of its 1980s kitsch still gloriously intact. There they make three main types of cheese. Each is in some way comparable to something else – the ashy one is a bit like a Loire Valley goat cheese, and the gooey one is not unlike a camembert, but also quite its own, a reflection of where it is produced.
This sense of belonging is particularly important for Billy Wagner, co-founder of Die Gemeinschaft, who was born in East Germany and arrived as a refugee in West Berlin at the age of 7. “The people and things of the East were looked down upon then,” he said. said. Even today, critics try to tell him: “Brandenburg is not Provence”. That’s why his big message is “On the contrary.”
Products from the former East Germany are the stars of his Michelin-starred restaurant in Berlin, Nobelhart & Schmutzig. (It took the name—noble and dirty heart—from the headline of a newspaper article about polo, of all things.) It’s one of those places where every item on the ten-course tasting menu has a name. enigmatic like “Carrot” or “Bresse Chicken” and where each dish is attributed to the chef who imagined it.
These chefs are the other stars, cooking in the center of the room with most guests in front of long counters and a few at a VIP table in the back. Wagner serves as sommelier and host, holding court and enforcing basic restaurant rules, like one that strictly prohibits phones and cameras. It comes as a relief.
Wagner also ensures the playful atmosphere of the place. He’s serious about the products, but also serious about the fun. The ban on cameras follows the same idea as in Berlin clubs, where he is a regular – no documentation. This takes on its full meaning as soon as the aperitif arrives in very distinctive drinking containers. A fellow food writer at the VIP table with me told me that Nobelhart & Schmutzig has the only working condom machine in a restaurant in Berlin, and the goody bags given out after dinner include condoms – with instructions on how to get enthusiastic consent before use. Logic.
But Berlin is nothing if not a city of contrasts. About 250 meters away, and a few places on the World’s 50 Best List, away from Nobelhart & Schmutzig is Restaurant Tim Raue, another Michelin restaurant (two stars this time) that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Former gang member turned celebrity boss, Raue is unapologetic about who he is and what he stands for. If he respects his colleagues who champion hyperlocal ingredients and brag about removing trash from their zero-waste kitchens (which he notes people with fewer resources have always done), he’s happy to be different. thing.
He describes himself as a “white guy who does Asian food in Berlin” and insists on not even specifying a cuisine. It’s not necessarily “authentic”, but it’s quite good, especially the famous wasabi langoustine which is cooked in tempura, drizzled with spicy mayonnaise and served with fried green rice. He notes that almost all of his “Asian” ingredients come from Europe, while his flavors and combinations come from everywhere, mostly his imagination and disregard for anyone’s judgment.
“I have a huge carbon footprint,” he says unabashedly, referring to his partnerships with cruise lines and his preferred style of sourcing. “I don’t forage. I buy.”
At the same time, Raue embraces local traditions, in his own way. As chef at Villa Kellermann in Brandenburg’s posh Potsdam district, he prepares his version of his grandparents’ food in the “funny aunt’s” house, resplendent with peacock motifs and portraits à la Warhol. But if you pay attention, you can see that his Königsberg meatballs, normally made with modest meats, are made here with veal and sweetbreads. The dish became famous after serving it to the Obamas. Even today, the chef, who avoids eating with guests, makes an exception for the meatballs, “because they bring back so many memories”.
Raue, like most people, is a bundle of contradictions, which makes him as good a mascot as any for a city like Berlin.
“Berlin doesn’t want to be stigmatized,” says Christian Tänzler, who as Visit Berlin’s spokesperson is sort of in charge of the city’s brand strategy. “That would be putting it in a box. But there are so many different initiatives, people doing things from their hearts. The system is that there really isn’t a system.
Or as Gädke puts it, “The system in Berlin is ‘F*ck the system.'”