What does Berlin taste like? That’s what Chef Micha Schäfer wanted to discover when he opened Nobelhart & Schmutzig with Billy Wagner. Five nights a week, their guests sit down in the elegantly spartan space to experience a 10-course menu unlike any in the city, or the world.
The concept of locavorism, Berlin style
While many restaurants use the term “locavore” these days, Nobelhart & Schmutzig takes the concept to the next level. They source only from the German capital and its immediate surroundings. That means pantry staples that most chefs take for granted, including olive oil, lemon, vanilla, black pepper, and chocolate, are out. It also eliminates any lacklustre, out-of-season produce; in winter, there’s nary a tomato to be found.
“Part of the reason [we do this] is out of cultural interest. What if we could only taste things from around here?” explains Schäfer, who previously worked at two Michelin-starred Villa Merton. Together with owner Billy Wagner, formerly host and sommelier of two Michelin-starred Rutz, he’s been challenging preconceptions and turning heads since Nobelhart & Schmutzig opened in 2015.
In Schäfer’s words, “Tasting has a lot to do with memories. It’s kind of a social experiment that’s turned out quite great.”
Recreating Berlin’s local cuisine
It’s a dramatic departure from much of the rest of Berlin’s gastronomic scene, which, in recent years, has turned increasingly towards exotic sources of inspiration. Today, Berliners can choose among authentic Japanese ramen, Peruvian ceviche, American barbecue, and Korean bibimbap. Despite the staggering range of international options, the city has long lacked a culinary identity of its own, and little thought has gone into creating one.
“What if we could only taste things from around here?” asks Micha Schäfer
Schäfer and Wagner’s social experiment may not provide a definitive answer, but the results are often thrilling. Last year, they created a dish of grilled celeriac with rhubarb preserved in a rhubarb stock. “Then we add[ed] some ground ivy for a mild bitterness,” Wagner explains. “The celeriac has a really nice sweet smokey flavour, nice in the combination with the sour rhubarb.”
“It’s not because we try to be different or because we try to be polarising. It’s not because we’re hipsters. It’s because we’re stubborn,” says Schäfer. Initially, Berliners were both intrigued and slightly wary that this approach might be too avant-garde. Yet Schäfer insists that it was never their intent to be exclusive or inaccessible. When asked what he hopes diners take away from an evening, he says simply, “I hope they’re drunk, I hope they’re full, and I hope they’re happy.”
Being a locavore restaurant starts with ingredients
So far, it appears that diners and critics alike are very happy indeed. The 28 nightly slots are some of the hardest reservations to score in town, and Nobelhart & Schmutzig has been sweeping up accolades including a Michelin star and 16 out of 20 points in the Gault Millau guide. While much attention has been paid to the ingredients that aren’t on the plates, at the restaurant itself, the emphasis is squarely on what is.
“I start with a question of what is available at the moment and what is good. We’re looking to serve the best products we can, and we’re pretty convinced that that’s only possible by getting to know the people behind those products,” says Schäfer. In order to track down the best suppliers in the region, he regularly travels to small farms, to understand the process and to seek out ingredients he might not otherwise find.
Over the years, he’s built up a web of relationships. “It’s a kind of social network. It’s about working with people that have a certain sense of what is extraordinary, whatever they do, whether it’s meat, or fish, or fruits.”
At the end of the day, the focus is on highlighting those exceptional ingredients in ways that are innovative, honest, and deeply delicious.
“What we do sounds very dogmatic and very intellectual, but really it’s not. The intellectual part is up to us. All you have to do is sit down and be able to enjoy yourself,” he says. “That part’s up to you. We can’t do that for you, but we’ll do everything in our power to give you that night. It’s our profession.”