Nobelhart & Schmutzig
Nobelhart & Schmutzig in Berlin-Kreuzberg puts the spotlight on producers from the Berlin area through its cuisine that is widely known as brutally local. Billy Wagner, owner, host and sommelier, and Micha Schäfer, the restaurant’s chef, tell us what this means for their daily work, the importance of collaborative exchange, and what a broader change within the restaurant industry can look like.
Billy, what was your motivation for founding Nobelhart & Schmutzig?
Billy: I wanted to ensure access to good food for myself as an individual, so it’s easier if you have a company that buys local food. And I wanted someone to cook food for me every day, so it is also easier if you have a company that employs cooks to prepare the food. The whole thing is quite expensive, so there must be someone to pay for it. These are the guests who come to us every day. To get them to come to us, we have created a concept that makes a lot of sense to us, based on the way I have been sourcing my food as a private person for the last 15-20 years. Namely, buying what is available at the market and making things from it.
Proximity to producers has always been important to me, and this has now been reinforced by working with Micha on the idea of Nobelhart & Schmutzig. That is also quite honestly the case, it is not a joke or anything, it’s actually a selfish thought. I have often called it that because that is how it is.
Micha, what makes the cuisine at Nobelhart & Schmutzig so special?
Micha: The most obvious thing is that we cook the way we cook, which is brutally local. We orientate ourselves exclusively on the agriculture around Berlin, which automatically brings us more into contact with the people behind the produce, instead of us just standing in the kitchen thinking about what we would like to cook. The guest who comes here to eat with us gets to experience what it tastes like in the Berlin area – that is the essence of it all.
Was there any other possible idea for you to do it differently or was the concept brutal local your vision from the beginning?
B: We must distinguish ourselves from the almost 8,000 restaurants in Berlin. At the time of our founding, there was no restaurant whose cuisine was brutally local, which is what we focused on. The second pillar of the Nobelhart & Schmutzig concept should be that there is a counter, so that you basically sit in the kitchen and eat. There were already a few of these, I had looked at shops with a counter concept all over the world beforehand. We then thought about the details and tried to work out all the details, always with the question in mind of why we buy, need, and use exactly this and that.
“We share the things we do and have done to change the food culture we always talk about, not just in one restaurant but in many more restaurants.”
You have a clear division of roles in the restaurant. What does that mean for you in concrete terms?
B: I am there for guests to come to us. They like our concept and that is why they come here and leave their money here, from which we can then pay for things again. I like to put it like this: Micha makes sure that the guests are full, and I make sure that there are guests at all. That is my job.
M: For me, the role of the chef means not only cooking, but also going out to the countryside to visit farmers and talk to them about what is currently in the fields, what specialities are growing now. And to learn and understand what makes good farming.
Within this work and the constant communication among each other, the necessity has become clear that the producers and the restaurateurs absolutely must be more strongly networked with each other to have a sustainable exchange at all. Otherwise, everyone will work for ten or fifteen years, then close down and that’s it.
And how do you approach the people who are not yet guests of Nobelhart & Schmutzig, Billy? In other words, how do they become guests?
B: Actually, I don’t do anything for the guest at first. I only do what I think is right at that moment. This makes us completely uninteresting for many guests. Because actually, in gastronomy, everything is first done for the guest. This typical being a host. I see it as similar to the fact that a book author or theatre actor does not write for his readers or play his audience. We work here as we see fit and hope that this will interest enough people to come to us. I can’t or won’t do certain things that the guest gets elsewhere. He comes to us because he wants to be guided in a certain way. Those who come here often come again. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have existed for six years. But at the same time, people don’t come here at all, because they find it all bogus from beginning to end. And that’s all right, too.
To what extent does it matter to your guests that you call yourselves the most political restaurant?
B: For the guest it doesn’t matter at first, many people probably don’t care at all. For us it is important because it gives us a roadmap of what we do and what we don’t do. And how we justify the work we do here. We do communicate that to the outside world, but it gives us much more of a chance to think about things and stumble upon topics that make our work more interesting and exciting than just serving food and drinks.
Micha, brutal local means working with producers from the immediate vicinity. How did you get in touch with them?
M: We had about a year of preparation time here, during which we tried to initiate many things. At that time, there were really few good producers in the surrounding area, which only developed gradually. It was not easy to find them, because there was no really good information anywhere. Sometimes I was told about certain farms and market gardens, but I also spoke to producers at the market or researched them on the internet. The only places to go in the city were the weekly market and the Markthalle. I often found out that the sellers there were not farmers at all, but only bought in. The really good things have come about over the years mostly through word of mouth, networking is really essential in this respect to get ahead.
What goal do you want to achieve through the close cooperation and constant exchange between gastronomy and agriculture?
M: Above all, it’s about the bigger picture and an economic impact. We want many more restaurateurs to do like us, many more farmers to work like David Peacock from Erdhof Seewalde, for example. The bigger this network becomes, the stronger the economic influence on the system, the more likely the city’s restaurants will get really good products, which in turn will attract tourists who want to experience how to eat here. Last but not least, agriculture would also receive much more money. It’s a system that only works if several restaurants participate, so it’s important to support it. Other good side effects are that you can get really good food in the city and buy good products, plus agriculture becomes more diverse.
How can the network be expanded and enlarged even better?
M: What may happen, and the community is already moving in this direction, is increased cooperation with politics. Legislators must pull in the same direction as we do, because they sometimes like to get in the way, occasionally even unintentionally. And they simply don’t pay attention to the fact that small farms are also doing well. Diversity within the group is also important – that not only small, specialised farmers or gourmet restaurants participate, but also canteens and large farms, etc. The more diverse the network, the better. The more diverse the network, the more secure the concept of regional supply as a whole is against slumps, failures or restaurant closures. That’s why I think it’s important that as many different people as possible join, to represent the whole range of gastronomy and agriculture.
Has anything changed for you through the work within the community?
B: We spend more money because everything costs something first. We have opened a huge barrel with the community, but this means that we have much more exchange with others and we benefit from this exchange on the one hand because we learn new things. On the other hand, others also learn from us and this creates an ongoing communication. We share the things that we do and have done with others in order to change the food culture that we always talk about, not only in one restaurant, but also in many other restaurants.
M: On the one hand, a sense of belonging has developed, a feeling that we are doing something together. We call each other more often, exchange information or pick up things for other restaurants when we go out to the producer anyway. Easier communication, without complications and less competition. Through the community, different restaurateurs have been able to get in touch with the same producers. The farm visits organised by the community were also very important.
When we look at the big picture, we notice that sustainable changes are taking place here and there in the food system. To what extent do you feel these changes?
B: I notice that there is a lot of interest in our work, right from the start. What we are doing here did not exist in Germany a few years ago. This has also drawn the attention of the media to us. We also feel the interest through our staff or those who want to become staff, who come here looking for something, expecting something, wanting to see certain things. And on the other hand, we also notice that many colleagues look at us and see what we are doing in order to do similar things to us. That’s exactly what we always wanted, namely for people to copy us. That’s why we are so open and transparent, share our producers, publish where we buy things. We do things to inspire others – whether it’s vulvas in shop windows or toilets that are standardised and no longer divided into male and female, to name just two examples.
M: I would say we are at the very, very, very beginning in terms of sustainable change. For one or two years now, there have been young people who really want to do something different in gastronomy and agriculture. Like Otto (owner of the Berlin restaurant Otto, editor’s note), for example. In general, you can no longer open a restaurant in Berlin without having to justify how and where you buy. The question comes up much more quickly now than it used to. Things are also happening in agriculture, young people have good ideas and start businesses, for example Olaf’s son (Olaf Schnelle, editor’s note). There is definitely interest in rethinking things in agriculture, too, and a kind of image change has already taken place. But we will only see the effects of what is happening in about five years.
B: Young people’s attitudes and values are changing, they are rather questioning where we shop, what clothes we wear, what detergent we use. Do we need a car or not, what alternatives are there, or very fundamentally: can we change at all? Which things are important at all? So of course things have developed here, through the most diverse influences.
“For me, the role of the chef means not just cooking, but going out to the countryside to visit farmers and talk to them about what is currently in the fields, what specialties are growing at the moment. And to learn and understand what makes good farming.”
And what is the biggest driver for broader change within the hospitality industry?
B: I think, again from an economic point of view, if we really want to create change, we first have to create demand. At the moment there are two or three farms in the Berlin area that produce good milk. Five to ten years ago there was maybe one. In order to drive this change, to make it possible for there to be more and more good products, we have to increase the demand for good milk and good products in general. As a restaurant, we have a certain amount of power with our eight thousand guests, but it is of course much greater if there are more restaurants pulling in the same direction. Once there is a demand, there is always a supply, that’s just the way it is. That’s how change automatically comes about, but at the same time that doesn’t have to mean that the existing one is bad, rather it means that there is also something else – that in principle there must be different realities. Like wine, where there will always be industrial wine to satisfy mass tastes.
Which things absolutely need to be pushed further?
B: It doesn’t have to be anything, rather each individual should dare to remain open to new things. Don’t be afraid to change things that you have always done. That is very, very important. Like the example with our toilets: six years ago, it was perfectly okay to have toilet signs for women and men, the woman was red and wore a skirt, the man was blue with trousers. Which was emblematic of the woman being hysterical and the man being hypothermic. The action of our vulvas in the shop window and the contact we had at the time with the people who initiated the project simply made that obsolete at some point. Because just because something is the way it is now doesn’t mean that it can’t change.
Not to stand still and also to question oneself again and again, that is important. How can you continue as a restaurant, even under the current circumstances due to the Corona crisis? Do I just close down, stop buying food, stop sending money to the Berlin area? Or do I try to change my concept so that I can continue to buy and therefore support my producers? Here, too, it is important to question things again and again. To be open to the most diverse topics and sometimes also to have a certain resistance – not everything you hear or see is automatically good. A certain skepticism is also very important.
Micha, who do you see as responsible for the further progress of the change?
M: Everyone who buys food is responsible. But politics can speed things up a lot if it puts money into it. The Berlin Senate Department is already doing something here, which is great. But at the federal and European level, things are currently going completely in the wrong direction.
What is your vision for the food system as a whole – how would you like to see it evolve?
M: There clearly has to be a shift in values. That people think much more about what they spend their money on when they buy food or go out to eat. Even with financial difficulties, low income and children, it can work, even if it is definitely a challenge. I’ve seen it all before and it still works. You just have to know how to cook. The most difficult place to cook is a school canteen. First of all, you have no money, secondly, demanding parents and thirdly – the complete opposite – completely undemanding children. It’s an absolute nightmare to find a common denominator. An interesting goal would be to offer really good food in state schools. Because that would mean that caterers, parents and children, as well as politicians, would be behind it and would want exactly that. And pay for it. That would make the importance clear and you would reach a turning point.
Caroline Prange, Robert Schlesinger
Text and editing
Elena Rodríguez de las Cuevas