Historical Perspective From Food Entrepreneurs Club Founder
Understanding what is happening in Berlin‘s ever evolving food sphere can sometimes mean walking the line between anthropology, sociology and yummy yummy feels in our tummy.There are a lot of dissenting voices these days of regionality, of locality, of brutality and those are just the voices going on in Mr. Eatler’s head. With the profound successes of restaurants like Nobelheart & Schmutzig et al. the brutally local movement and a “general” local food movement has taken on a life of it’s own and this leads one to ask all sorts of questions.
How did we get away from local food to begin with? Why local food now? Why is this a thing and is it something that should take precedence over merit? After all, we don’t buy local IPhones, or local laptops, we don’t buy local sneakers, because the global market usually offers something far superior and more cost effective. But is it different when it comes to our calorie count? There had to be some way to put this into perspective. There had to be some answers out there.
The confusion loomed large and so Mr. Eatler contacted the person who is most in the local trenches. Fighting the good fight, talking with suppliers, with farmers, with young restaurateurs, with old restaurateurs, creating a local community and helping to explain what the local movement is all about and why the local community we build around each other is the right thing and the profitable thing to strive for. Who is this person? The founder of the Food Entrepreneurs Club, Stefanie Rothenhöfer. We sat down with Steffi to dig into some of the work that she is doing and for some enlightenment into the way the Berlin gastronomy scene is shaping up. But not before finding out a little bit about Steffi’s own history. Without further ado, here is Stefanie Rothenhöfer’s feature on Eatler.
How did you get into the restaurant industry?
When I started my career, I studied hospitality and food service management. I worked for Feinkost Käfer, which is one of the leading catering companies that is owner based and not part of a big chain. The owner was a legend, he was really cool, he took the company over from the family. He brought me around to different events, and he was really a a sort of quality guru for me. Even though he did like three events a night, when ever the food came out of the kitchen, he was always there to check every single plate. He would do things like go to Paris in the middle of the night to the international food markets, pick the quality, knew what he wanted and flew back. It was very inspiring, and at first it seemed completely normal.
How long have you been here and how have things changed since you started working here?
I’ve been here for six years now, and I think that at the moment Berlin (pause) It was interesting to see. Because when I launched my business here six years ago we had craft beer, we had a hot sauce series, and we had a pretty forward thinking menu and I recently looked at our menus for a consulting job and I thought “wow we really had something” but our business failed because people didn’t understand it. We were at the right place at the wrong time.
Do you think it would be different now?
When we started at Markthalle Neun, people didn’t know what craft beer means, and with Street Food Thursday it was really the beginning of the current climate of the Berlin food scene. Now, about four years later, when all the restaurants are opening, a lot more people are coming into the market, spaces are harder to find, the rents are going up.
How do you see the current Berlin scene?
For me we are at the crossroads, because we’ve got all of this hype around us, but I feel like now we need to prove it. I think there will be a filter, and I think some people will survive, and some people wont survive and I think it’s a good thing for quality and service. Of course, we all love that Berlin is so chill, that we don’t all work as hard as New Yorkers, so perhaps we will lose our laid back behavior. Don’t misunderstand me, I think people here work hard, but I think the emphasis should really be focused on to the quality, into understanding food, sourcing properly, into just being a professional and being the best you can be.
Lets talk local. What is german food for you?
For me German food is seasonal and regional food, and I think this is the biggest strength of German food. It basically goes back to the 18th century when Germany wasn’t yet a unified entity, it was still split into different principalities. Germany was organized very regionally and so was the food. Everything was extremely regional. So in the south you had the spätzle and the pretzel which remain until today, but then you also have things like green kale in the north, which in New York is this super food, but then you have northern Germans who live in this amazing Kale region and they don’t even put it on the menus. And to top it all off, of course because of the two major wars, we didn’t have the capacity to develop the food culture.
You think the wars amputated the culinary culture to a degree?
I think the war has a big influence. Because people grew potatoes. They grew food that would be filling. They didn’t have the energy, they were displaced, everything had been destroyed. It wasn’t like in France or in Italy where you had this centuries of developing a kitchen. In Germany we had other problems, we didn’t have the ability to develop our food culture. Food was one of the latest things for us that we have tried to develop as a culture. We needed food to survive, to be full. It was heavy big plates, not much of the finesse, that you see in other cultures.
Do you think that the food culture will develop here, the finesse, do you see it growing organically and becoming as refined as French cuisine or Japanese cuisine?
I think it could, but it doesn’t have to. For example, if you look at the menu of Gärtnerei, you see local German ingredients, pumpernickel, local yogurt, and they create something quite refined, even though as a list of ingredients its completely German. I do think the heaviness should go away. I think German food should be more fresh and I think the guest should be aware of and demand more seasonal food.
Where did local food begin for you?
I think for me, it all began in my moms garden. I remember when my mom was always so excited in summer. She would say “It’s so great we don’t have to put the trash bin outside, everything just comes from the garden and you don’t have any waste” which seems silly, but its actually so great. Thats the kind of the thing that stuck in my head since forever. My parents also had a huge field that they rented and farmed for a few summers before they gave it back because they saw how much work it was. It was my family history, even my grandparents come more from an agricultural background. My uncle always slaughtered rabbits, and hens, and when we were little kids we always went with my grandmother to the chicken coop and got the eggs ourselves. That was exciting for me. It was normal.
What’s the biggest problem you see in the German Restaurant industry today?
I think a lot of the older German restaurants have just lost their connection to food. The middle range, average German restaurant you find all over Germany, which actually feed 90% of the people in Germany, and also tourist. They even buy their potatoes at convenient suppliers. Of course there are a lot of problems that they have, with staff, they just don’t understand the quality any more. When I do consulting for them, they tell me that they have good quality sources but when I eat the food it’s obvious that the vegetables have just come out of the freezer. Where you have the prepackaged vegetable mix with the indents from the bars where they’ve been sitting on the freezer shelf. I think that the new generations don’t do this anymore, and the customer wants to have new things. They have much more awareness and when they come to a German restaurant they expect better things.
What do you think of the service culture here in Berlin?
I think with more competition in Berlin, the service has to improve. There has to be a change so that new food entrepreneurs should keep their passion for what they do, but they should also see their restaurant as a business. If you see it as a business then you run it differently. You also invest in your staff, in training. When you go to London, people welcome you at the door, they smile at you. It’s their business! At the end it’s nothing less than inviting your friends to your house. You are looking forward to meeting them, you say hello at the door, take off their jackets and offer them a drink. This lack of awareness happens in Berlin, but also all over Germany, people here don’t understand that if a customer comes to you, they’re coming also for the service.
What is your dream for Food Entrepreneurs Club?
My dream is that a lot more people take the help that FEC offers. A lot of people try to save money by cutting corners. They think they can do it better. I think people could really take advantage of what FEC has. We just launched a coaching service where we work with amazing people, super professionals that really know what they’re doing.
Trends! What needs to die, what needs to take off?
Gastropubs need to take off! The trend that has to die is that all the breakfast menus look the same. The avocado toast has to die! The breakfast menus have to develop in different directions. We have a such a wide ethnic variety in Berlin and diversity in the city! Let’s work with that!
Anything else to add?
Im really excited about the exponential growth of restaurants in the city and I hope that the willingness to spend money on food matches. You don’t really have waiting lists for restaurants yet so it’s interesting to see who will thrive.
Well, how’s that for a little historical perspective? Check out all of Steffi’s inspiring work with The Food Entrepreneurs Club where you can learn about workshops, follow up on interesting articles and get to know your local entrepreneurial restauranteering community.