Check out our expert interview with chef Micha Schäfer. Expect a 10-course menu of ‘brutal lokal’ new German cooking, using a mix of modern and traditional techniques, such as pickling, preserving, curing and drying. Interview conducted by Hilary Armstrong.
The less said about currywurst the better. Suffice to say that Micha Schäfer, the 30-year-old chef of white-hot Berlin restaurant Nobelhart und Schmutzig, finds little to recommend the ketchup-slathered street-food staple of his adopted city. “Don’t come to Berlin for currywurst,” he says. “Go to Berghain.”
The world’s most notorious techno club is certainly one reason to visit the German capital, but for those olive readers whose tastes don’t extend to hypnotic techno and eye-popping hedonism, and who’d rather discover the city through its gastronomy, a seat at Nobelhart und Schmutzig’s kitchen counter is the best place to start.
Nobelhart und Schmutzig – the fabulous name fabricated from a cluster of adjectives in a newspaper headline: ‘noble’, ‘hard’ and ‘dirty’ – is the brainchild of Billy Wagner, Germany’s original hipster-sommelier, a.k.a. “the popstar of wine experts” (Die Zeit). At the time of the restaurant’s conception, Berlin, so dynamic in every other way, still lagged inexplicably behind other European capitals, having neither a destination-dining scene nor a regional cuisine to call its own.
Billy set about changing this, bringing in Micha, a rising star schooled in the pioneering kitchen of Matthias Schmidt, then at Villa Merton in Frankfurt. Billy and Micha opened Nobelhart und Schmutzig in February 2015. Nine months later, it had a Michelin star.
A year after that, it was declared Restaurant of the Year in influential German food title, Der Feinschmecker. Now, along with like-minded restaurants Horváth and Einsunternull, it’s in the vanguard of Berlin’s pulsating restaurant scene.
Nobelhart und Schmutzig is no ordinary temple of haute cuisine. It’s found in an anonymous concrete building on an unlovely stretch of Friedrichstrasse, minutes from Checkpoint Charlie. Without signage, its distinguishing feature is a shop mannequin wearing a T-shirt that pays a sweary tribute to culinary legend Paul Bocuse.
It’s a bold statement and a cue to guests to leave their francophile preconceptions at the door. Once through the locked door (‘Bitte klingeln’ – please ring – reads the sign) guests are seated at one of Germany’s few open kitchen counters, behind which a turntable plays an eclectic soundtrack ranging from the Wu-Tang Clan to Berlin DJ Oliver Koletzki.
It’s a fittingly unsettling setting for a €95 10-course menu of ‘brutal lokal’ new German cooking, whose central tenet is its full-on hardcore stance on sourcing. The idea, initially at least, was to source solely from Berlin and its environs, to eschew obvious ‘luxuries’ (turbot, lobster etc) and even such ‘exotics’ as chocolate, vanilla and lemon. It’s an approach that has connected Micha and Billy with a network of suppliers in regions that, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, had felt remote. “Originally we were going to use producers within a certain radius of Berlin,” recalls Micha. “It turns out that how far a product travels is not quite as interesting as the people behind it.”
Micha attends to every last detail, even ‘basics’ like milk. The ‘Nobelharts’ get theirs from David Peacock at Erdhof Seewalde in Mecklenburg, which Micha uses in an ultra-simple milk sorbet that shows off the pure taste of the creamy milk with just a touch of fresh wild camomile. Then there’s open-pan Luisenhaller salt from Göttingen, heritage Teltower turnips from Brandenburg, ikejime char from Lake Müritz. Matching wines are similarly true to their terroir: not necessarily German, but all made from grapes indigenous to their region.
“It’s a very important part of my style of cooking, developing produce with our suppliers,” says Micha. “We plan the year ahead together. They plan things for us and they grow things for us. The question I’m asking more and more is ‘what is available and what can I do with it?’ rather than ‘I want to cook this right now. How can I get it?’ Every day I discover that the year doesn’t have four seasons but 52. That makes cooking really exciting – and eating even more so.
“The ingredients are as German as they get. My style of cooking relates to flavours and memories people have of German cuisine. There’s always some kind of fat in a dish, often vinegar, all these ingredients you use in classic German cuisine, but it’s not classic German food – not at all.”
As in the new Nordic kitchen, one finds a mix of modern and traditional techniques, such as pickling, preserving, curing and drying, to see him through the privations of a harsh Berlin winter. Micha’s is a resourceful kitchen that finds beauty in blackcurrant stalks, dandelion buds, eel bones.
His dishes are minimalist, shockingly so sometimes; a classic is kohlrabi, harvested young and small, with stale bread, fresh butter and rapeseed. That’s it.
The self-imposed limitations have forced him to dig deep. “In March, when it’s deep, deep winter and you’re getting frustrated, you have to look harder. For example, one way we get acidity is to boil yogurt, pass it through a cloth then reduce the whey so it’s really acidic. We season char and young leeks with it. That’s something you’d never find if you weren’t really, really looking.”
It’s noble work for a chef, and ‘hart’ and ‘schmutzig’ too. And that, hope Micha and Billy, is the experience of the guests at the restaurant also. The evening may start out high-minded and noble, but, with the right food and the right wine, it doesn’t stay that way for long. ‘Nobel, hart und schmutzig’, just like Berlin. nobelhartundschmutzig.com
*Nobelhart und Schmutzig is on a summer break until 31 August.
Micha Schäfer in short
Favourite drink: Berliner Weisse.
Favourite dish: Potato soup with sausages.
Most memorable meal: At the two-Michelin-starred Essigbrätlein in Nuremberg.