Berlin is known for being Germany’s edgy, arty alter ego. So, too, is its culinary scene, with the city forming an enclave of progressivism in a country that is generally conservative about what it eats.
The new generation of Berlin’s chefs is rising up in defiance of the predominant classic haute cuisine imported from France and is defining the city’s culinary identity based on local flavours. Their choices are political — community before capitalism, fairness over greed, real food rather than industrialised agriculture. They are sourcing radically fresh produce directly from producers as close to the kitchen as possible and serving it stripped of fuss and fancy.
One restaurant in particular has shaped Berlin into the gastronomical powerhouse it is today. Nobelhart & Schmutzig, opened in 2015 by sommelier Billy Wagner and chef Micha Schäfer, brought to Berlin the minimalism, and more crucially, the obsession with hyper-local sourcing, of the Nordic approach spearheaded by chef Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen.
You will not find any olive oil or black pepper at Nobelhart & Schmutzig, nor lemons, tuna, or chocolate. Only naturally growing raw ingredients sourced directly from people within the greater Berlin region make their way into Schäfer’s kitchen, in what is known as their “brutally local” approach.
“I consider us the most southern part of northern Germany — here we grow grain and make beer; we’re not a wine region like Tuscany or Madrid. I thought what all the Nordic chefs were doing was interesting, showcasing their identity and their area,” says Wagner.
“But back in 2015, many people said to me, ‘Berlin food and identity? That’s kebab and currywurst! There’s nothing else.’ So I thought I would create an identity by seeing what we have in the area.”
He set up a network of producers, from the potter who makes plates to the cabbage farmer, bread baker, dairy farmer, and butcher. He also set about educating others in the hospitality industry in order to create a bigger demand for excellent local products, which would benefit producers, chefs, diners, and the environment.
His philosophy extends to the restaurant itself, where he is strict about workers’ rights, with staff working four-day, 40-hour weeks — a rarity in the hospitality industry — and he has a code of ethics, written collaboratively with his staff, that protects them from discrimination, sexual harassment, and abuse of power. The restaurant, which has a Michelin star and a green star for sustainability, plus is No.45 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list this year, is known as Berlin’s most political — “eating is a political act”, proclaims Wagner.
But there is a fun side to Nobelhart & Schmutzig, too. The restaurant’s name is an amalgamation of three words: “nobel” or “refined”, “hart” or “tough”, and “schmutzig” or “dirty”. This encapsulates the restaurant’s uncompromising quality, excellent ingredients, hard-edged approach, and wine-fuelled hedonism. It also describes Wagner’s ideal dining experience: It starts refined, gets a bit tough as the empty wine glasses stack up at the table, and ends enjoyably dirty in Berlin’s legendary techno nightclub Berghain.
In 2015, many people said to me, ‘Berlin food and identity? That’s kebab and currywurst! There’s nothing else.’ So I thought I would create an identity by seeing what we have in the area.Billy Wagner, Owner of Nobelhart & Schmutzig
Wagner’s provocative sense of humour is well-known — he gives diners genitalia-shaped soaps after dinner instead of the usual chocolates to take home, and he launched a series of dinners in galleries, factories, clubs, and even sex shops during the pandemic years.
Growing a community
While Wagner’s naughtiness remains a uniquely Nobelhart & Schmutzig trait, his greatest influence has been through Die Gemeinschaft, a non-profit organisation he set up with another Berlin-based chef, Sebastian Frank of two-Michelin-starred Horvath. The organisation links chefs and retailers with growers and producers who share the same values, such as responsible and regenerative production, knowledge sharing, diversity, and fair pricing.
A long list of the city’s restaurants are now members of Die Gemeinschaft (which translates as “The Community”), and Wagner’s obsession with local sourcing has influenced a wide array of chefs who share his politics and want to build a more circular, sustainable, and ethical food system that supports the local community and is better for the planet.
Individualised takes on “brutally local” cuisine have today become almost mainstream in Berlin’s progressive restaurants. However, not all restaurants — whether members of Die Gemeinschaft or not — are as uncompromising as Nobelhart & Schmutzig. Many take the approach of using local ingredients as much as possible, but not exclusively.
Café Frieda, the wonderfully warm and convivial new restaurant by sommelier Samina Raza and her partner chef Ben Zviel, who are also behind Berlin’s much-loved (and temporarily closed) Mrs Robinson’s, has “F**k industrial agriculture. Farm regeneratively or die.” emblazoned on menus. The team sources seasonal ingredients grown close to the restaurant, cultivating personal relationships with those who produce them.
The birds in their wild duck, liver, and comté pie, for example, come from the women-owned Prignitzer Landhof farm a couple of hours from Berlin, while their niçoise salad uses greens from the community terraforming project called Wilmars Gaerten just outside of Berlin, along with anchovies from Cantabria, Spain.
Sculptor and chocolatier Kristiane Kegelmann opened Pars a year ago, where head chef Alina Jakobsmeier, also a trained patissière, serves pared-back, refined dishes that showcase the ingredients on the plate. Their elegantly arranged, mutely shaded dish of dumpling with sour cream and sauerkraut has lardo and pork head meat from Erdhof farm, located a couple of hours from Berlin, while the chocolate in their strikingly architectural pralines is from local luminary Holger in’t Veld, who sources the most fairly produced beans from around the world.
At Hallmann & Klee, the rustic-chic neighbourhood restaurant in the now-trendy Neukölln district, Sarah Hallmann won Restaurateur of the Year 2023 in the German edition of the prestigious Gault & Millau guide for her elegantly minimalistic yet still vibrant tasting menus. Her lightly wilted local greens topped with gorgonzola and draped over bouchot mussels are a captivating marriage of umami flavours lifted by a herbaceous oil. Her Nordfriesland Wagyu tartare with crispy Jerusalem artichoke chips offers varying textures, while the delicacy of the meat is counterbalanced by the acidity of dehydrated apple vinegar drizzle.
No air freight please
René Frank of two-Michelin-starred Coda, who won the World’s Best Pastry Chef award from 50 Best in 2022, says he too was inspired by Wagner’s philosophy. He says that working closely and directly with producers rather than going through a middle-man supplier ensures quality control.
Coda is described as a “dessert dining” restaurant, although what Frank is doing defies pigeonholing. His 10-course menu shakes up our ideas of savoury and sweet, with some dishes using traditionally savoury ingredients, such as vegetables, in sweet courses, while others use dessert techniques in savoury courses.
His famous Caviar Popsicle is Jerusalem artichoke ice cream dipped in a coating of Oscietra caviar and served on a stick, while Buttercream, which is reminiscent of a cupcake, combines walnuts, dulse seaweed, and miso and is served with a drink that blends Portuguese Madeira and black tea from Sichuan.
The nature of his cuisine necessitates using ingredients from afar, including chocolate, but he eschews produce that has to be flown in by aeroplane for environmental reasons.
“I’ll only use exotic ingredients if we don’t have to fly them in, so we won’t use pineapple, passionfruit, or mango, although I’m jealous of chefs in other countries who can. For me, it’s impossible to work without cacao, but this and bananas, for example, can come by ship,” he says. “In winter, I can’t get plums, but in season, I get loads of amazing plums from France or here in Germany, so we preserve them for winter use. Same for cherries; we semi-dry them to preserve them.”
Working around restrictions
Sourcing ingredients that match a chef’s values and specific requirements is not always easy, and Berlin’s younger generation of chefs has sometimes met frustrations. Canadian chef Dylan Watson-Brawn, the culinary brains behind eight-seater Ernst, initially tried to source fish from German waters but now works with fishermen in Brittany, France.
At Ernst, he serves 40 courses of Japanese-inspired dishes, with a strong focus on fish and seafood. This exacting chef, who was the first Westerner, at the age of 16, to train at Tokyo’s fiercely precise, three-Michelin-star RyuGin, says local fishermen were not able to provide what he needed: “We wanted it to work,” he says, “but unfortunately it wasn’t mutual.”
Ernst’s dishes, which Watson-Brawn says are their way of “exploring the regions and climates of our own backyard here in Germany and of Europe as a whole,” change daily according to available produce. His winter season is strong on seasonal citrus flavours, adding acidity hits among ingredients such as squash, beetroot, mini shrimps, and some of the sweetest, most sublime uni you will likely taste.
Watson-Brawn, Gault & Millau Germany’s Chef of the Year 2022, recently announced that Ernst will close at the end of 2024 when he will be focusing on his casual food, natural wine, and coffee spot called Julius, just nearby in the rough-around-the-edges area of Wedding. The menu changes weekly to reflect the season and relies on the close relationships the Ernst team has built with their farmers and producers over the past few years.
Ernst’s closure notwithstanding, Berlin’s dining scene continues to grow, with more chefs offering a taste of the region through their unique and varied approaches. If eating is a political act, Berlin’s restaurants have created a thriving democratic community.