star cook Kitchen Confidential

Berlin's culinary pioneer and Michelin-starred chef Tim Raue talks about the lure of cheap food, addictive flavor enhancers, and why Germans have a conflicted approach to what they eat.
Tim Raue's talent has driven Berlin's culinary scene forwards.

Born in 1974, Tim Raue was a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. As a youth in a problem neighborhood of Kreuzberg, Berlin he joined the street gang “36 Boys.” A vocational counselor explained that for someone like him, the career options were either painter, gardener or cook.

After getting his secondary school certificate, Mr. Raue began a cooking apprenticeship. In 1997, he became a kitchen chef. The next year, he was named Achiever of the Year by the gourmet magazine "Der Feinschmecker." In 2007, the gastronomic guide Gault & Millau named him Chef of the Year.

His gained his first Michelin-star at his restaurant Ma, in the high-end Adlon Hotel.

In 2010, he opened his own restaurant, Tim Raue in Berlin with his wife Marie-Anne. His terrain is the kitchen, hers the restaurant. The restaurant was awarded its second Michelin star in 2012.

By noon, the eponymous two-star restaurant is already running full-speed when the chef arrives. Located not far from Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, its atmosphere and menu is much like the 41-year-old chef himself: casual, genuine and direct. Mr. Raue took some time away from the steaming pots to talk about the state of the German palate and what he learned from his time in Asia.

 

Mr. Raue, what kind of relationship do Germans have to cooking and eating?

Tim Raue: A schizophrenic one. On one side, we have many discounters who, although offering organic food products, pursue low prices more than ever. On the other side are people who are extremely demanding and well-informed. And if they don’t know a product, they even Google it at the restaurant table.

Are we as customers too hysterical or too apathetic?

After the scandal over horse meat being included in frozen lasagna, I asked myself: How can people be so stupid to believe they can pay 99 cents for a half-kilogram of food that is also good? On the other hand, Germans are more wary about what is in their food products. But we shouldn’t be surprised when there are way too many products with which we – and I will say it drastically – will be treated like crap from start to end.

An example, please?

Yeast extracts have become a miracle weapon of food chemistry. My friend Tim Mälzer once cooked a commercial broccoli soup from a bag. Naturally, there was hardly any broccoli in it. Only after he added MSG did the flavor pop.

Many people prepare soup from bags everyday. Some even have to.

First, you can prepare a real soup for very little money, completely naturally. Second, this price sensitivity in food is so strange. Although many people are prepared to buy a sedan car for €80,000, they are astounded if a pork filet costs €8 rather than €7 per kilogram. The same consumer then indulges his motor with high-performance gasoline for €2 per liter. That’s insane!

Who is responsible for this ignorance?

There are many factors. One is how everything here is regulated. The only thing lawmakers don’t tell us is when to go to the toilet. But the really important thing is that schools do not teach us the essentials.

You mean about cooking?

About life! We as people only exist when we eat and drink. Why do we not learn that? Why does no one teach us that?

Food science as school subject?

Eating as a life's work. Instead, it is still about making money and saving money. Everywhere.

Tim Raue and the team get busy in the kitchen.

 

Do you agree that your restaurant only appeals to a circle of privileged people?

Clearly – and your point is what? I can't be a missionary for every social touchpoint. I also don’t want to. Aside from our two-star flagship, we have also opened three more affordable restaurants with a big, widespread impact in Berlin. But I will never be mainstream. Otherwise I’d be running around on TV yelling “Hoo hoo! Ha ha!” rather than standing in the kitchen and doing my job.

Are television chefs a curse or blessing for your industry?

Oh, they do help in a way to sharpen the public consciousness. Unfortunately, German chef television is like a local TV series. It all looks so pale. Anglo Saxon formats are much more sexy and more conversational. It is pretty crazy. In industry, Germans are leaders around the world because of our innovations – from cars to mechanical engineering. In the culinary area, on the other hand, we have been gazing spellbound for decades at the French and have forgotten to have ideas ourselves.

Where is cooking currently the most exciting in the world?

The most important places are the melting pots like California and New York, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. There, all the cultures of the world meet in an almost Babylonian way.

How would you rate German gastronomy?

No country on the earth has such meticulous hygiene standards.

How sad, that cleanliness comes to mind first.

Wait a moment! Don't underestimate that! That's the alpha and omega. Even in France, they were shocked by the conditions in many top kitchens. In the craft, Germany is way ahead. Unfortunately, the guests are also extremely conditioned.

By the discounters?

By Maggi, Knorr & Co. From childhood on, we long for taste enhancers, because we do not know anything else. That is how I grew up in my Kreuzberg neighborhood: currywurst [a fried sausage served with ketchup and curry powder] and kebabs with fries. Those were my drugs.

There are harder ones.

But also ones that are more insidious and therefore more dangerous. For example, I am convinced that white sugar is a drug. I personally would describe myself as heavily addicted to sugar and would like to get rid of it. But it is hard. Nevertheless, I have changed my nutrition. Today, when I feel some flavor enhancers on the palate, it is as if someone rammed a laser sword into my mouth. If you want to experience the taste of the masses in general, you only have to go to McDonald’s: sweet and salty. We are limited to that.

Even McDonald’s is trying salads and low-fat burgers. So something is changing.

That would be great. They are learning from young street food competitors that even fast burgers can be made well. A Big Mac used to only look good in the ads. The contents of the paper container kind of looked like a jeep ran over it. Even McDonald’s can learn.

Would you cooperate with the company, like star chef Alfons Schuhbeck?

Sure, I would work with McDonald’s. If they would ask me tomorrow to create three Asian burgers, I would be there immediately.

Why?

How else could I reach millions of people – and at the same time also teach about, for example, good burger buns? That would be a huge opportunity.

None of the food in your restaurants contains lactose. What other trends do you follow?

I hate trends and don’t do that because customers want it. In 2003, I traveled for the first time to Asia and got to know Chinese and Thai cuisines. There's no bread, no milk products, little white sugar. Everything is oriented toward balance and should give people energy not rob them of it. For me, that was a health revelation. So I decided to cook like that too – even though we had to pay much more for lactose-free ingredients, because they simply weren't trendy yet.

You also value vegan nutrition, but don't offer it here at your restaurant.

We want to offer a culinary universe here. Our normal guest gets about 20 courses, naturally many very small. And then a vegan comes and wants to have everything different? No thanks! You also need to be able to say no as a gastronome.

What other special requests do you get?

When the house is full, there are 40 guests. And that’s twice a day, afternoon and evening. If I would ask about their intolerances, you could assume that today 75 of them would respond. Ten or 15 years ago, we had one guest, once or twice a week, who couldn't eat shellfish or had a walnut allergy. That was it.

Does a lot of food get thrown out?

No, we make stocks or broths out of most things. On top of that, our products are simply too expensive...

What do think about the food industry in general?

As the name says, it is an industry. Products are continuously created and the creators know what they are doing and how to optimize their profits.

One can also rent you for private parties …

…  now that sounds a bit dirty.

What does it cost for an evening with Tim Raue?

About as much as we turn over at the restaurant in an evening.

How much?

About €10,000. But for that, I first come and say “hello.” For cooking and eating, you have to calculate the equipment, the flights, normal menu prices. This aspect of business is booming. Today, I am flying with two of my chefs for a 20-person birthday party on a Spanish island. About a dozen days out of the year, I am on the road like that.

How do you nourish yourself?

Hardly, during the day. On six of seven evenings, I get out of here and eat Asian. I go to a Thai, two Chinese and a Vietnamese restaurant here in Berlin. I cook very rarely and very reluctantly for myself. And by the way, I could die for crispy fried pork, even though I know it has 4,000 calories. However, it makes me happy. Nevertheless, I have managed to lose 15 kilograms in the past two years.

 

Thomas Tuma is a deputy editor in chief at Handelsblatt. Stefani Hergert reports on education for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: [email protected]; [email protected]