Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Reading between the lines

Nobelhart & Schumtzig | Mitte, Berlin | TookTook

It was 3pm in the afternoon and we found ourselves near Checkpoint Charlie. It is generally an area I rarely come to and if anything I try to avoid. We made it down the tourist filled streets of Friedrichstraße to reach our destination. To the average passer-by, the restaurant Nobelhart and Schmutzig might go unnoticed. With its black curtained front window and minimal signage, this Michelin starred restaurant could easily be mistaken for a funeral home or sombre, minimalist art gallery.

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Billy Wager | TookTook

We rang the doorbell and were escorted to the main dinning area. The place was dimly light along the long counter top that wrapped around a well-lit open kitchen. We could sense a controlled intensity in air, as the staff was getting ready for dinner guests. We got introduced to the owner, Bill Wagner, a man with a manicured beard that would make most hipsters around the world jealous in envy. We also met his Head Chef Micha Schäfer. Together they are the headliners, behind one of Germany’s most innovative and unique dining experiences.

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Micha Schäfer | TookTook

Billy was born in Mittweida, in East Germany and he still has vivid memories of his grandmother’s garden. His grandmother, like other families in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), would grow and produce their own food to supplement what they would get from a Konsum, the GDR version of a supermarket. The Konsum, would generally stock only the basics and as Billy points out,

“you would miss out on the interesting things like strawberries, apples and cherries, if you did not grow it yourself!”

There was also a culture of “sharing”, a world where neighbours would barter to get things they did not grow themselves.

 

Billy lived under these conditions for a short period during his early childhood, before his family escaped to West Germany. The impact of his early childhood has affected his relationship with food. Buying Food for Billy is a personal experience. It is about knowing the origin of the ingredients, the people behind the food and how the food is grown. This is a philosophy that he has been practicing for many years, avoiding conventional supermarkets and only buying from farmer’s markets and directly from the individuals that produce the food.

Nobelhart and Schmutzig was created by Billy out of the belief that Berlin has amazing local produce, it is accessible and we should be celebrating it!

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Mitte, Berlin | TookTook

Billy’s journey initially started with wine. He did not have any professional background in wine but instead learnt on the job. His expertise comes from his own experiences and through the wine he has tasted over the years. A self-made Sommelier, if you will, which makes his achievement more incredible. He has earned the reputation of being the rockstar of Sommeliers in Germany, with numerous awards under his belt.

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Mitte, Berlin | TookTook

His concept of wine is simple,

“wine is practical, it’s about the experience, it’s about knowing the guest and what they want and it is also about not knowing everything!”

And this is where you can truly understand Billy’s personality. He is the ultimate host, with a unique ability to normalise a Michelin dining experience with the comfort you would feel having a dinner party at home. He is eager to educate but never wanting to overwhelm and suffocate. His idea of explaining wine pairings is to listen to a guest and which he sums up in a German phrase “zwischen den Zeilen lesen“, which roughly translates to, reading between the lines.

And I could not agree more with this refreshing approach, because let’s face it; the majority of us, including me, are amateurs, when it comes to picking wine. It is great to have a host, who gets that.

Billy’s previous experience was at another Berlin landmark, Weinbar Rutz, where he was the Head Sommelier and after five years, he was yearning to do his own thing.

“I wanted to open my own restaurant, where I can fulfill my own expectations, on how a restaurant should look like and (be) experienced. “

You could call it serendipity or possibly a razor focus, which lead Billy to connect with his partner and Head Chef, Micha Schäfer.

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Micha Schäfer | TookTook

Micha was born in the historic town of Unterseen, Switzerland and grew up in a small village near Paderborn, Germany. It is a region, he describes as “having no culinary identity.” He initially began studying theology however, his part-time job at a restaurant led to his true calling of becoming a professional chef.

“What inspired me most then and now is the profession’s incredible potential for learning”.

This passion for learning paved the way for Micha to work in one of Germany’s most exciting restaurants, the two Michelin starred, Villa Merton.  Under Head Chef Matthias Schmidt, Micha became one of the standout chefs and was given the opportunity to present new dishes for the menu. Micha credits his rapid growth and creativity to what he calls his “culinary blank space”.

Micha was already 24, when he entered the world of professional cooking at Vila Merton. Due to his limited exposure to “good food” prior to this, he had no previous biases. He used his lack of prior experience with food to his advantage and made it his greatest strength.

This self-understanding and his experience at Villa Merton, helped forge the identity of the Chef Micha is today. The philosophy of his dishes described in his own words.

“They must show the product, the simplicity, and the optics. The dishes have to taste amazing and look amazing on a plate.”

And the two dishes that truly epitomise what food is all about at Nobelhart and Schmutzig are the Asparagus and Radish. Both are indigenous to the region and created with less than 5 ingredients.

Asparagus (without fertilisers, tastes a lot better because it takes longer to grow), linseed oil, salt, ground ivy and reduction made from salsify.

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Asparagus | TookTook
Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Asparagus | TookTook
Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Asparagus | TookTook

Radish, breadcrumbs in butter, rapeseed

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Radish | TookTook
Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Radish | TookTook

This holds true regardless if it is meat, fish or vegetable. You will never see more than 5 ingredients on your plate. The star of the dish is the produce itself and because of the strict local sourcing, there are no “foreign” ingredients, such as pepper and lemon to twist the way the actual food tastes. So, the produce must be of the highest caliber, which is what makes this place so special!

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Mitte, Berlin | TookTook

It was truly destiny, when Billy found his way to Micha, when he was trying to find his Chef. In a lot of ways, you can see their personalities complement each other. Micha always looks composed, a figure of authority in the kitchen, a no-nonsense boss, earning the respect from his staff. But after spending some time with him, you know this guy has a huge heart, when it comes to life and his food.

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Micha Schäfer | TookTook

It was truly destiny, when Billy found his way to Micha, when he was trying to find his Chef. In a lot of ways, you can see their personalities complement each other. Micha always looks composed, a figure of authority in the kitchen, a no-nonsense boss, earning the respect from his staff. But after spending some time with him, you know this guy has a huge heart, when it comes to life and his food. Billy on the other hand, seems like the life of the party, a total extrovert, always looking to engage with his guests. There is however, a serious side of him, driving the business forward. With his crazy ability to multi-task, between restaurant operations, wine tastings, phone calls, emails and hosting his guests.  He is the commercial brain behind the operations with a clear business strategy, which Billy is unashamedly happy to proclaim,

“Opening (a) burger, steak place or yet another Vietnamese place is easy. But no one was doing local! So, why not open one?”

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Billy Wager | TookTook

Food in Berlin has not had a great reputation in general. In a lot of ways Berlin food is a döner or currywurst. The reality is however; Berlin is now finally catching up with the cosmopolitan capitals of world. Since Reunification, this has been the longest stretch of peace and prosperity Berlin has seen in over 200 hundred years. Largely thanks to cheap rent, government subsidies, and promotion of the arts, Berlin has attracted some of the most creative people from around the world – creating a Renaissance of culture, art and music.

In more recent times, there has been a significant shift towards food, with the influx of chefs bringing in their own style and promoting quality. Which is why the arrival of Nobelhart and Schmutzig is very well timed and to their credit, revolutionising the way the world views Berlin cuisine.

The idea of sourcing locally is not unique and is a popular concept, largely thanks to Noma. But, what is very interesting is Billy and Micha’s approach to local food. It goes beyond finding what is available in the region but going back to the people. As Billy describes it,

“We buy groceries from people, not companies. We know the people, we visit them, we discuss things and we dig into the topic.”

This local network of over 40 different producers, are their biggest asset. With these relationships, they have inside knowledge of what is being produced in the region. They have the ability to ask the right questions and suggest techniques from around the world, to potentially enhance the locally cultivated produce.

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Mitte, Berlin | TookTook

This to me, is the ultimate service Nobelhart and Schmutzig is providing Berlin. On one side, they recognize how amazing regional produce can be and they advise farmers on improving quality by suggesting new techniques. They encourage their suppliers to create higher quality produce, in smaller quantities, while keeping the produce sustainable and viable.

On the other hand, they show their guests how beautiful food can be, when you you use amazing, local produce. The idea is that, once you have something at their restaurant, you learn what is good produce. This awareness encourages you to not to procure from those supermarkets, where there is no connection to the grower or source.

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Mitte, Berlin | TookTook

Establishing this seamless connection between producer and consumer is disruptive. When you add elements such as, complimentary tap water, rubbing elbows with strangers and vinyl records, it takes fine dining to a whole new experience. Most importantly what dining out should be about, as Billy eloquently puts it,

“it’s about having a good night out, drinking too much, and hopefully ending in a hot tub with a girl!”

The team of Nobelhart & Schmutzig are on the right path and humble enough to admit, not everything they do is 100% right. They have the opportunity to try things, which are only possible in their region. I am excited to follow their journey as they remap the culinary mindset of Berlin and continue reading between the lines.*

Nobelhart & Schmutzig | Mitte, Berlin | TookTook

* Nobelhart and Schumtzig has made it to The World’s 50 Best Restaurant List for 2018, debuting at 88. Tim Raue is the only other restaurant from Berlin on the list, which is currently ranked 37.


TookTook Stories

TookTook Stories covers the people behind the most exciting restaurants, bars and hotels from around the world. Running a restaurant or working in hospitality is incredibly hard. It takes more than a few visits to really be able to judge a quality of the experience. This is the reason why this is not a review. We only cover places we admire, with the focus to learn more about the background of the individuals, their work and what drives them.

Sachin Obaid

Chief Eating Officer, Mumbai

Food has always been a huge part of my childhood growing up. Every meal at home was a family meal in Saudi Arabia. The summer vacations I would spend at my Grandparents home in India was a lesson in eating seasonal, long before it has become in vogue.

It was not until I really started to travel, I was able to connect my affinity for food with searching for authentic local experiences. So, after a stint of working finance in New York and London and dabbling with various startup ventures, I have decided to follow my passion for food and travel to start TookTook in Berlin.
Oliver Moertl

Photographer, Berlin

As long as it's not spicy hot, I'll eat it! I love to experiment eating food from Michelin-stared restaurants to the mom-and-pop diner in a small town. But eating for pleasure is not the only reason why I consider myself a foodie. For 2 years now I have photographed chefs preparing, cooking and serving food across Europe. The images I take, help to tell their personal stories, to better explain why they cook the way they do.

Through these experiences, I’ve noticed one main thing, food brings people and cultures together, in a way very few things can. My hope is to share with you my images from the restaurants we cover and to share my personal experiences, so hopefully you could have the same experiences for your next meal!

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