In conversation with Thomas Imbusch and Sophie Lehmann from the restaurant 100/200 Kitchen in Hamburg about building a community, the relevance of food culture and consistently breaking new ground.
Please introduce yourselves briefly – what kind of business do you run and what are your roles there?
S: We run the restaurant 100/200 Kitchen at the Elbbrücken in Hamburg, but it’s actually better described as a kitchen, because it’s always been about focusing on the craft and being together. The restaurant is Thomas’ lifelong dream, which we realized together in 2018. We have been running 100/200 together since the beginning, with Thomas in the role of chef and me as restaurant manager and sommelier.
T: I’m just cooking, Sophie takes care of all the public relations and everything that goes into making money.
S: Yes, over the course of time I have also become the marketing expert and the office aunt. We do everything ourselves that has something to do with the shop.
What is special about 100/200 Kitchen and what distinguishes you from other places, especially in Hamburg?
T: Living food culture. We cook with heart and see ourselves as a mouthpiece between producers and guests, and that is exactly what we want to tell people every day. That’s where the name “100/200” comes from – we want people to understand what cooking is all about for us, namely heating water and the oven, not some high-tech gadget. We want to make the topic of food culture what it is again, namely elementary.
S: We don’t sell an empty product, although represent here exactly what we ourselves stand for: Food culture, sustainability, doing things differently, every day. We want to create special moments through which we can learn and grow.
T: And we work de facto without industry and without trade, which is quite unique. We do it very stringently and hardcore, so that in the regular restaurant business we can’t say in the morning what we’ll be eating in the evening. We only work with small producers and only use natural resources – if the hunter hasn’t shot any game, I can’t offer it in the evening, that’s the way it is.
What is the motivation behind wanting to do things differently?
T: How can I make the topic of food culture what it is again without being too dogmatic about it. Through our way of working, we have a much closer relationship with the products and come into contact with people we wouldn’t otherwise get to know. For example, we are currently talking to people from Denmark who produce a tonic based on natural fermentation. However, the taste is not yet one hundred per cent right.
S: At least it’s no longer a classic gin and tonic. When we take such steps, we have to ask ourselves whether we want to say goodbye to the classics more and more; we don’t offer rum and cola anymore. However, the guests often have a rather classic taste, which you can’t satisfy with unconventional combinations. We therefore constantly ask ourselves how and what alternatives we can create and how we feel about them, whether and how they suit us.
T: We always try to offer alternatives instead of saying that certain things don’t exist. Not everyone understands that, so we try to get as close as possible to the expectation through balancing products.
S: But not for the sake of the alternative, but only when we ourselves are one hundred percent convinced of it.
How important is cooperation with other companies for you and how did you build up your producer network?
T: The problem here in Hamburg is that in connection with associations or initiatives, the term greenwashing comes up very quickly. There are incredibly great ideas and concepts here that try to do it right, yet the truck from the wholesaler stands in front of it every day and unloads its goods. There are also some smaller market halls, but they not only cheat their customers, but also their employees. A truly sustainable and functioning cooperation would be an enrichment, but the status quo is unfortunately far from that.
S: The search for partners and people with whom we want to and can work is very laborious. Even if the research is productive, that does not mean that the cooperation will run smoothly. Do you understand each other, does your counterpart understand the gastronomy, how do you communicate with each other? We have often had great projects where it unfortunately turned out that the seeds of the small organic certified farm came from the Monsanto catalogue. Even if the farm is run by the eighteenth generation and is still so great, it is exactly this kind of thing that we want to avoid. It is a daily learning process, because the key to good, sustainable agriculture and food culture does not exist. Therefore, we are part of the community, to find and define it. You must rub up against each other from time to time, but above all you must build trust – and that is currently even more difficult in Hamburg than in Berlin, where the idea of community within the gastronomy sector is unfortunately not yet well developed.
T: And no one seems to be interested in changing that. There is a big capitalist motivation, even bigger than in Berlin, and we are constantly confronted with questions like “You are booked up every night, you are successful, you have received all kinds of awards – why do you do it this way? Why do you invest so much money in the small producers?” Our answer is simple: because we believe that is the only way it works.
S: You can afford expensive wines now, why do you put unknown winemakers on your menu? Why organic? Why don’t you have a big Bordeaux cellar? Yes, we could afford all that. But that’s not what it’s all about.
“We want to make the topic of food culture again what it is, namely elementary”.
So, a lot more groundwork is needed within Hamburg’s gastronomy, it sounds like.
S: Yes because people have a fundamentally different mindset.
T: Not necessarily with the guests, it’s rather the opposite, they are totally open-minded.
S: Yes, people are certainly keen on what we offer them. But the network and the interaction with each other are still lacking. Suggestions to get together and, for example, buy a whole cow together and cut it up – we have the space here – have so far only been met with rejection. Something like that doesn’t work here yet.
T: So far, none of the other restaurateurs have agreed to participate in something like this. But you have to have the courage to invest in order to get something back sooner or later. That’s how we run our business, we always try to act to the best of our ability and are not out to make three euros profit from one euro invested.
That sounds like a quite rocky road. Are there also advantages for you from the status quo?
S: Because there are no paved paths, we learned a lot very quickly. You go into an intensive exchange, get to know yourself, learn things that you would never have dealt with differently. That is very inspiring and exciting. The pioneering idea is often exhausting, but it’s also very appealing, because you can then share your experiences with the outside world.
Keyword exchange and togetherness – I would like to go into more detail about Die Gemeinschaft. Why did you become a member of the community?
S: Every time we encounter advertising from big corporations that talks more and louder about sustainability than agriculture ever can or will, it has become increasingly clear to us that it is not enough to do something on a small scale alone, but that we want to bring these issues to the table in a collaborative way where we can enrich each other. The big issue of food culture impacts so many areas of life and the economy, so it is hugely important for us to do our part, no matter how small or big it is.
T: What unites the members of the community is that they are all people who are incredibly passionate about what they do, even though they don’t have a platform or political support. Die Gemeinschaft offers a great way of being together, which ensures that gastronomic and agricultural issues are heard, because otherwise the whole system will eventually go to the dogs. And even if you disagree, it’s always a constructive exchange.
S: At the end of the day, we want to reach all kinds of people with what we do, so the mix within the community is so important to create some friction.
Are there goals that you want to achieve together with the community?
T: There is a romantic destination in our lives where we see ourselves when we can no longer do what we are doing right now – and that is to found a Culinary Institute. The aim of this institute would be to raise the social status of all gastronomic, food-related topics and activities and to lay the groundwork for good training. An institute that is about learning service culture, cooking, slaughtering, farming, baking – everything that also has to do with our tasks as restaurateurs. In principle, to make the very elementary things important again.
To break up outdated structures?
T: Our trainee told us the other day that his vocational school teacher bought salmon for 5.80 euros a kilo. How can it be that people spend almost ten euros on a packet of cigarettes, but then again are not prepared to pay anything like the same price for a kilo of food? We must get away from that, this attitude has to change urgently.
S: The other, somewhat less concrete point is that food culture always has to do with everything – with the way people interact with each other, which is expressed in service and communication, with agriculture, an understanding of sustainability and value, an understanding of health. There are so many topics that cannot be answered and covered on their own. You need experts for certain topics. That is what I hope for and I also see the future of the community in this – that many people with many different focuses come together and everyone can benefit from it.
Because a more multi-layered education offers a great opportunity to move towards a better overall understanding?
T: That’s exactly it! Because you cannot cook without understanding what service means. You cannot start claiming to be a great cheese connoisseur without knowing the agricultural structures behind it.
S: One can then still specify according to talent and personal inclination. But it should be achieved that all those who work in the food system have the same basic understanding to understand the connections.
T: We already do it that way. With us, a kitchen apprentice has the obligation to also work in the service and vice versa.
If we now take a step back from what is supposed to happen and look at what is already happening, would you say that something positive has happened overall in the food sector, including crafts, gastronomy, and agriculture, in recent years? If so, where specifically?
T: What I really have to say is that the food industry is so smart – they have developed apps with which you can call up all the information on your phone with just a click. So, if you’re looking for a pig from a barn in Lower Saxony, the farmer appears on your screen and gives you all the details. People who are enthusiastic about this also get involved with us in the restaurant, so that we can basically do whatever we want that evening. That is the only way our concept works, because we have to be guided by the producers, what they have available and what’s good at the moment. I am personally aware of this development.
S: You notice in the supermarkets that things are suddenly becoming ‘green’ and there is a much wider range of organic products than there was a few years ago. I see it with a certain ambivalence, though. Something is happening, yes. And maybe it must get worse before it gets better. But as long as people associate sustainability with Unilever or Nestlé, it will be all the more difficult to get them to see real sustainability and value in food. Too many fall for the green logos and packaging. I don’t know if you have to call this development good or bad. But there is a process going on, definitely. The need to look at better food has increased. Unfortunately, the food industry is also using this realization for itself.
What advantage do products from small producers have in marketing?
S: It is not difficult at all to sell something if I am fully behind it. Of course, large industrial groups have completely different liquid assets, can market it much more broadly via social media, for example. If you put 10,000 euros a week in my hand, I can tell completely different stories – which they must do because the products themselves do not tell anything. They first must be blown up in the agencies of large corporations. But what we want to achieve is long-term, sustainable change that really speaks to the people behind it and does not just trigger short-term consumer decisions.
And what are the most important adjustments that still need to be made in this system? Is there a kind of best case that you would like to see?
S: I always have a hard time with that. I’m more of a worst-case person and work my way from there to the positive. But what should be our personal best case is that we do not lose motivation in what we do. That what we do is not a random fight against windmills that it demonstrates every day that we can give our guests impulses to change things at home, in a very small way. Or simply sensitize their taste buds and well-being because their body sensation is different than when they have consumed fast food. And I think that can only be achieved through positive experiences and personal contact.