A Chef Takes on Berlin Cuisine

By Ann Brocklehurst
Originally published 16 July 1993, International Herald Tribune

Rolf Schmidt is as diplomatic as possible when discussing the state of cooking in his new home town. The Michelin two-star chef, who was lured to Berlin to help raise the standard of eating to one befitting a European capital, is one of the stars of the German cooking scene and a vigorous defender of his country’s cuisine. But he does not delude himself that the task ahead will be easy.

“Berlin is special,” he said. “Berlin cooking is very simple. The choice is very sparse.”

Schmidt, who comes from the Black Forest and made his reputation in the Rhineland, attributes Berlin’s problems mostly to its Prussian and Huguenot heritage. Neither group is renowned for its sybaritic tendencies and the recipes they invented and passed down were for modest, uncomplicated and filling fare. Traditional Berlin dishes include Eisbein, pig’s knuckle with sauerkraut, Boulette, a giant meatball, and Sulze, jellied meat. The food is usually washed down with beer and for dessert there is the famous Berliner jelly doughnut.

In search of variety, Berliners have turned to foreign foods and restaurants, but in the blending of the different cuisines, Berlin cooking, usually undeservedly, wins out. The city has the dubious distinction of having invented the enormously popular Currywurst, a boiled sausage sliced into bite-size pieces, sprinkled with curry powder and drenched in ketchup.

Schmidt, however, sees signs of an improving culinary climate. He is impressed by the food shelves of local department stores, particularly at the well-known KaDeWe, which devotes its top two floors to food and drink. “They are very well done,” he said. “People must be eating better at home.”

In his effort to help upgrade the restaurant scene, Schmidt, who is now in charge of the Silhouette Restaurant in East Berlin’s Grand Hotel Maritim, meets and talks regularly with the city’s other top chefs. There are no Michelin three-star restaurants in Berlin, just one two-star restaurant and two one-star restaurants. The chefs agree that a city of Berlin’s size and stature needs far more. At the less expensive bistro level, Schmidt says cooking is stuck in the 1950s with Wiener schnitzel and fried potatoes still popular fixtures on the menu.

Although he talks wistfully about south German cooking and refers to Munich as “the eating capital,” he is not neglecting the local recipes or products. Schmidt wants to develop Berlin cooking, using his style of classical cuisine with personal touches. Instead of plain old Eisbein, he has created an Eisbein roulade wrapped in a cabbage leaf, stuffed with goose liver and served in a truffle sauce. Perch from the nearby Havel River is filled with sauerkraut, encased in pastry and accompanied by a sauce of fresh young grapes. Crayfish, which can, depending on the season, be found in the region, have been flown in from California to be eaten with fresh Brandenburg asparagus.

Schmidt buys as much as he can locally and sends to Paris for the foods that either aren’t available or up to his standards.

THE restaurant has extensive German and French wine lists as well as wines from Australia, California, Israel and – yes – Berlin. Before a storm wiped out all the vines in 1740, Berlin was a flourishing wine center. On a small hill in the middle of town, it still grows the grapes to make 600 bottles of wine annually. A Kreuzberger Riesling sells for 135 Deutsche marks ($80) per half bottle, but management admits the price is based more on novelty than on taste.

Schmidt expects a difficult time winning two Michelin stars for Silhouette as he did for the Ange d’Or restaurant in Essen-H Kettwig in 1987. He says the French hold German restaurants to higher standards in awarding stars than they do their own. Just as important for him is to be recognized in his new role and at his new restaurant as one of the 20 best chefs in Germany.

“I maintain that here in Germany we have just as good food as in France and Italy and more good restaurants than in France,” he said.