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.
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.
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,
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!
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.
His concept of wine is simple,
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Radish, breadcrumbs in butter, rapeseed
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,
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,
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.
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,
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 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.