“This is a thin slice of biodynamic wagyu from Helga’s farm outside Vienna,” says Canadian chef Dylan Watson-Brawn, placing an impeccably composed plate of meat in front of each of his eight diners. It’s the 18th of some 40 dishes on the ever-changing omakase menu at his unmarked, counter-only Japanese restaurant, Ernst, in Berlin’s scruffy Wedding neighborhood.
That’s when I understood gastronomy in Berlin. His toss-off, mid-service sentence says it all. Forget organic—anything that can be biodynamic should be. There’s an audience for prestige ingredients and the accolades that go with them—the place already has a Michelin star and just landed at spot 62 on the World’s 50 Best extended list. Young creative foreigners can make their name serving a third country’s cuisine in a European capital that still has relatively reasonable rents. And of course they’re 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 butcher their own meat—their cows are calm and content right up until the end—but in Germany the animals must be transported to the abattoir. Watson-Brawn explains that those final stressful hours affect the taste. He’s one of many people around Berlin are talking about ingredients in that sort of hyper-specific way—the summer milk versus the winter milk. The chef mentions that one of his dairy farmers can tell you which cow produced a particular batch of milk.
I didn’t get to meet Helga or her cows, but I did meet artist-turned-farmer Maria Giménez, who supplies Ernst with many of its vegetables. Watson-Brawn and his partners met her the first time she brought her vegetables to a farmers market in Berlin. They were so taken with her produce that they set down their crates to take photos. Then they filled those crates with everything she had.
For Giménez, farming is a political act. The market garden is part of her audacious food sustainability project, Wilmar’s Gärten. When her father-in-law 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, she thought, humans have killed the land, we’re doomed. Except then she reconsidered.
She decided not to give up but to try to fix it instead. And so she set out on a mission to prove that regenerative agriculture is practical and achievable. Anyone can make a decent living with this, she’s showing, and it’s not just that just some hippie fantasy. (It’s worth noting that she strenuously 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 whole country, one that gets about as much rain as southern Spain.
“Why is industrial food the stuff we call ‘conventional’?” she asks, noting that if we got serious about curbing food waste, which she says currently captures some 45% of produce, then her way could absolutely feed the population. “Food that’s sustainably produced should be the standard”—the convention. “What if we stopped putting special labels on organic food and instead required industrial producers to put warnings on their food about all the pesticides that went into it?”
She has a point. And so she invites chefs, gardeners and anyone curious to see what regenerative agriculture looks like to see her property, including the market gardens, forest farming, cattle pastures, beehives, and a guest house for the food-thinkers who come here to lead workshops. There are plans for an agriturismo accommodation in the near future.
Giménez and Wilmar’s Gärtern are part of Die Gemeinschaft (German for “the community”), an organization of chefs, farmers, cheesemakers and anyone else along the food chain. What started as a network for Berlin’s chefs to find top-quality products from small-scale farmers who might not even have websites has grown into a bigger force in the city’s food scene. It has about 45 full members and another 45 supporters who exchange experiences, skills, ideas and knowledge.
They maintain that good food is culture, just as much as visual or performance arts, says activist Friederike Gädke, who leads the association. But since the thoughtful food sector—one that redistributes a significant amount of wealth from well-off diners to working farmers—doesn’t get the same recognition and support as other forms of culture, they’re taking it into their own hands.
Another member is Urstrom Käse, a craft cheese-making project that began when an old-school dairy farmer from Bavaria, transplanted to Brandenburg, decided he wanted to do more than just selling his milk to the large dairies nearby. He looked around and found Yule Seifert, a Belgian who worked in high-end cheese shops, and Paul Thomas, an Austrian who is a master in the science of cheesemaking. He offered them a percentage of the milk from his 450 Jersey cows—a breed that produces less milk with better quality than the standard Holstein dairy cows, they all say—to do with as they please.
What they please is a small production 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 cheeses. Each is sort of comparable to something else—the ashed one is a bit like a Loire Valley chèvre, and the gooey one is not unlike a camembert, but also entirely its own, a reflection of the place that it’s produced.
That sense of place is especially important to Billy Wagner, a cofounder of Die Gemeinschaft, who was born in East Germany and arrived as a refugee in West Berlin at age 7. “People and things from the East were looked down on then,” he says. Even now, critics try to tell him, “Brandenburg is not Provence.” That’s why his big message is “Au contraire.”
Products from the former East Germany are the stars at his Michelin-star restaurant in Berlin, Nobelhart & Schmutzig. (He took the name—noble heart and dirty—from the title of a newspaper article about polo, of all things.) It’s one of those places where each item on the ten-course tasting menu has a cryptic name like “Carrot” or “Bresse chicken,” and where each dish is credited to the chef who came up with it.
Those chefs are the other stars, cooking in the center of the room with most of the guests at long counters in front of them and a few at a VIP table in the back. Wagner serves as sommelier and host, holding court and enforcing the restaurant’s ground rules, like the one that strictly prohibits phones and cameras. This comes as a relief.
Wagner also ensures the place’s playful vibe. He’s serious about products but also serious about fun. The camera ban follows the same idea as the one in force in Berlin’s clubs, where he is a regular—no documentation. This makes sense as soon as the aperitif arrives in some very distinctively shaped drinking vessels. 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 goodie bags handed out after dinner include condoms—with instructions to get enthusiastic consent before use. Makes sense.
But Berlin is nothing if not a city of contrasts. About 250 meters, and a few spots 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.
A former gang member who became a celebrity chef, Raue is unapologetic about who he is and what he stands for. While he respects his colleagues who champion hyperlocal ingredients and brag about removing the trash cans from their zero-waste kitchens (something he notes that people with fewer resources have been doing all along), he’s happy to be something else.
He describes himself as a “white guy making Asian food in Berlin” and makes a point of not even specifying one cuisine. It’s not necessarily “authentic,” but it’s quite good, especially the famous wasabi langoustine that’s cooked as tempura, doused with spicy mayo and served with deep 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 his disinterest in anyone’s judgment.
“I have a huge carbon footprint,” he says without shame, referencing his partnerships with cruise lines and his preferred style of procurement. “I don’t forage. I shop.”
At the same time, Raue is embracing local traditions, in his own way. As the chef at Villa Kellermann, in the posh Potsdam district of Brandenburg, he’s making his version of his grandparents’ food in the “fun aunt’s” home, one that’s resplendent with peacock patterns and Warhol-esque portraits. But if you pay attention, you see that his Königsberg meatballs, normally made of humble meats, are made here with veal and sweetbreads. The dish got famous after he served it to the Obamas. Even now, 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 branded,” says Christian Tänzler, who as the press speaker for Visit Berlin, is kind of in charge of branding the city. “That would be sticking it into a box. But there are so many different initiatives, people doing things from the heart. The system is that there’s not really a system.”
Or as Gädke says, “The system in Berlin is ‘F*ck the system.’”