Mention German cuisine and most people’s thoughts automatically turn to one of the following: pumpernickel, pork knuckles, sauerkraut, sausages and possibly Black Forest cake. Despite being a European powerhouse historically and politically, Germany has, arguably, fallen behind neighbours such as France and Italy, continental cousin Spain and the Nordic nations when it comes to claiming a stake on the gastronomic scene.
From the vestiges of its turbulent recent history, Germany’s dynamic capital Berlin has been making a name for itself as one of the most exciting European cities for music, art and fashion over the past two decades – thanks to an increasingly vibrant creative community. But it’s only really been in the last five years that Berlin’s food scene has finally caught up. Alongside the influx of immigrants and cosmopolitan young, the city’s dining mise-on-scène has seen a proliferation of international cuisines and an increasing appetite for global culinary trends. Yet amid all these is a group of chefs and restaurateurs who are taking inspiration from within, reinterpreting traditional local fare for contemporary palates and creating a new German cuisine.
Tim Raue and La Soupe Populaire
When Berlin-born chef Tim Raue was growing up in the then-rowdy (but now completely gentrified and hip) neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, the slightly rebellious teenager skipped classes and released most of his creative energy in the form of graffiti. A holiday job in the kitchen of a resort sowed the seeds for his acclaimed career as a chef, not only teaching him discipline, but also providing an avenue to expound and develop his creativity. After almost two decades cooking in kitchens around Germany and the globe, Raue truly came into his own in 2010 when he opened his eponymous restaurant, which promptly received two Michelin stars in 2012 that it has retained since.
While the restaurant Tim Raue showcases innovative Asian-inspired cuisine, it is one of Raue’s latest ventures that truly reflects his local roots. Located within the former 19th-century Bötzow Brewery, which is currently being refurbished into a multipurpose arts complex, Raue’s casual joint La Soupe Populaire (currently undergoing renovations) first opened in late 2013.
Raue initially planned for his menu to change according to the exhibition theme of the art gallery, which the restaurant overlooks. Two local artists started with an exhibition titled Futuring, so Raue developed a menu inspired by the city’s traditional cuisine but reinvigorated for present times. Dispelling the notion that all German food is rich and heavy, Königsberger Klopse, a traditional Prussian veal meatball dish, is served with fluffy potato mash, lightly cured and thinly sliced red beet, and a light yet robust gravy. Another dish of Berlin-style liver is given similar delicate treatment and served with pickled pearl onions. Raue describes these dishes as the modern versions of what his grandmother used to cook.
The contemporary interpretation of traditional local food was a hit with diners and even obtained dignitary approval – German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally requested Raue to serve these modern German dishes, instead of his menu from Tim Raue, during a dinner she hosted for US President Barack Obama. Given the immense popularity and demand for these reinvented classics, Raue decided it was a natural decision to keep them as the standard menu at La Soupe Populaire. This, in turn, sparked a renaissance of German cuisine that has since seen many places around the city o ering contemporary reinterpretations of classic Berlin fare.
Nobelhart & Schmutzig
At the other end of the spectrum are restaurants trying to redefine what Berlin or German cuisine is, and leading the charge are sommelier Billy Wagner and chef Micha Schäfer, who are getting diners excited about local and regional produce at their restaurant Speiselokal Nobelhart & Schmutzig. The pair explain that they see it as their responsibility to support producers in Berlin, so they’ve spent a great deal of effort seeking out farmers, fishermen, foresters and hunters, not only as source, but also to work together with them to yield better produce. All this is in a bid to build a menu that emphasises the sustainable pleasures of the table, while opening up eyes to the beauty of Berlin and the surrounding region.
Wagner notes: “We might use culinary techniques from all around the world, but by using strictly German produce, we are creating a unique taste. This is something very important, because nobody in Germany does this. We are searching for a German idea of food and we would like to change the feelings people have towards local produce.”
The intimate restaurant – it seats 26 along a large U-shaped counter, with 14 more at a separate oval table – takes its philosophy of locavorism seriously. An ever-changing 10-course degustation menu, which also focuses on seasonality and sustainability, places the spotlight on provenance, as farmers, producers and suppliers are highlighted beside each course. Each dish is presented by staff who expound on the ingredients and its origins, an education Wagner believes is essential in creating value and importance in local produce. Clearly, this is an education Berlin diners are eager and glad to receive, as the popular restaurant is booked out months ahead and already sports a Michelin star, despite being less than two years old.
When it comes to letting the produce speak for itself, Schäfer’s dishes are beautifully uncomplicated, with no more than a handful of components. For seasoning, pepper isn’t used, and the only salt is a mild German rock salt. In one instance, simple Jerusalem artichokes are roasted three times to achieve varying degrees of texture and tastes, while in another dish, the lamb is accentuated and delicately balanced with wild garlic only. Schäfer’s ingenuity comes through in a pre-dessert course of parsley root, hazelnut and malt, with a refreshing granita made out of parsley root stock, paired with silky hazelnut cream and topped with toasted malt.
Hot on the heels of Nobelhart & Schmutzig is the new kid on the block, Einsunternull. Located in the Mitte area, this contemporary fine-dining project by three former employees of two-Michelin-starred Reinsto operates from a sleek, minimalistic venue, where the food and wine take centre stage. There is a dining floor on ground level, where three-course lunches are served; and another dining hall in the basement, where in the evenings diners partake in degustations ranging from six to 10 courses.
A culmination of the recent culinary trends, the kitchen focuses on regional, hyper-seasonal and heavily vegetarian produce. Its inspiration comes from where everything begins to grow – in the fields and pastures, in the region’s forests, or eins unter null – which translates as "one floor below," meaning under the ground. Traditional food preservation methods, such as lactic acid fermentation, are used to enrich the idea of new Berlin cuisine by drawing out inherent tastes in the produce and bringing these to the plate in unusual combinations.
A simple but straightforward amuse bouche of steamed vegetables – kale, radish, carrots, cabbage and brussels sprouts – sets the stage, each ingredient naked yet full of individual expression. The subsequent courses feature one highlighted produce with a maximum of three other components as a juxtaposition in texture and aroma: kohlrabi with pear slices and dehydrated pear purée; sturgeon with pickled fennel; and fennel broth accented with camellia oil.