TookTook Eats with Nobelhart & Schmutzig
To the average tourist around Checkpoint Charlie, Nobelhart & Schmutzig would probably pass unnoticed. The dark curtained, minimally decorated window display doesn’t so much scream ‘restaurant’ as it suggests that you might be walking into a tasteful funeral parlour, or perhaps a sex club for people with very specific fetishes. It’s only when you pass through the darkened doorway and clean, black-and-white signage that you get a taste of the utterly unique experience that awaits. There’s a controlled intensity in air, as the staff prepares, which hovers over the long, gently lit countertop, which wraps around the open kitchen.
We were introduced to Bill Wagner, the owner. A man with a manicured beard that would make the average hipster envious. We also met his head chef Micha Schäfer, a serious and driven genius in the kitchen. Together they are the headliners behind Nobelhart & Schmützig, a Michelin starred restaurant and one of Germany’s most innovative and unique dining experiences.
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’s about knowing the origin of the ingredients, the people behind the food and how the food is grown. It’s a philosophy that he has been living by for many years. He avoids conventional supermarkets and only buys from farmers markets and directly from the individuals that produce the food.
Nobelhart & Schmutzig was created by Billy out of the belief that Berlin has amazing local produce, it is accessible and we should be celebrating it.
Billy’s journey initially started with wine. He didn’t have any professional background in wine. Instead, he learned on the job. His expertise comes from his own experiences and through the wine he has tasted over the years. He’s a self-made Sommelier, 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.
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!”
This is where you can truly understand Billy’s personality. He’s the ultimate host, with a unique ability to make a Michelin star dinner experience feel as comfortable as a dinner party at home. He’s eager to educate but never wants to overwhelm and suffocate. His idea of explaining wine pairings is to listen to a guest and perform what he sums up in a German phrase as “zwischen den Zeilen lesen“, which roughly translates to “Reading between the lines.”
I couldn’t 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’s 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 [how it should 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.
Micha was born in the historic town of Unterseen, Switzerland and grew up in a small village near Paderborn, Germany. It’s a region he describes as “having no culinary identity.” He initially began studying theology, but 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”.
His passion 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 Villa 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 dish] 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 & Schmutzig are the Asparagus and Radish. Both are indigenous to the region and created with less than 5 ingredients.
1. Asparagus (grown without fertilisers to intensify the natural flavours), linseed oil, salt, ground ivy and reduction made from salsify.
2. Radish, breadcrumbs in butter, rapeseed
At Nobelhart & Schmutzig, You’ll never see more than 5 ingredients on your plate. It doesn’t matter if the dish is the finest steak or a simple radish, the star of the dish is the produce itself. Because of the strict local sourcing, there are no “foreign” ingredients, such as pepper and lemon to twist the way the actual food tastes. Like buddhist temple cooking, the simplicity of the dish means the produce must be of the highest caliber. It’s what makes Micha’s dishes so special.
It was truly destiny, when Billy found Micha. 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 learn he 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. Beneath it all though, there’s 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?”
Food in Berlin hasn’t had a great reputation in general. For most, the closest thing to ‘local specialties’ in Berlin is a good döner or currywurst. War-time rationing, soviet isolation and post-war poverty have all dealt a blow to the culinary traditions of the city. Since Reunification, this has been the longest stretch of peace and prosperity Berlin has seen in over 200 hundred years. Thanks largely 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, music, and now food.
The idea of sourcing locally is not unique and is a popular concept, largely thanks to the Danish restaurant 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 is their biggest asset. Thanks to 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.
This to me, is the ultimate service Nobelhart & Schmutzig is providing Berlin. On the back end, 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.
At the front end, 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 good produce actually is. This awareness encourages you to not to procure from those supermarkets, where there’s no connection to the grower or source.
Establishing this seamless connection between producer and consumer takes fine dining to a whole new level, especially when you throw in some great wine, good vinyl and friendly strangers. To Billy, even the highest end dining experience should be fun in the end, as he 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 at Nobelhart & Schmutzig are on the right path. They have the opportunity to try things which are only possible in their region. I’m excited to follow their journey as they remap the culinary mindset of Berlin and continue reading between the lines.
TookTook Eats are stories about individuals in Gastronomy, with the focus is to learn more about their background, the stories behind their businesses and what drives them.