Finding Food and Community In Berlin
Posted on November 4, 2013
Lead image by Richard Manders
The summer’s barely faded at all when I land in Berlin still shouting about catering. I’m staying with Brain Wash brothers Jim and Joe and Joe’s lover Kali. It turns out that Joe’s making an Orwellian living as a KP whilst working on his novel, which isn’t far off my own plans. As it happens I’ll be living in the kitchen of the guys’ new flat for the week I’m here. Given that there’s only a sink and a cooker in there, it’s pretty spacious. Catering is inescapable and addictive. Dishes here, though, will have to be composed using Netto produce such are the ruins of my finances. Catering is a way of life, not a get-rich-quick scheme.
‘You do say ‘catering’ a lot Craig.’ Joe and Kali get me immediately.
‘I’m afraid I’m stuck this way. I went too far…I’ll make dinner.’
Days pass filled with Kinder eggs, supermarket trips and cheap, cheap beer. After a punishing summer of endless festival food making, it’s good lie down and work on my appetite with friends. There’s a city to be explored and I get out there plenty, avoiding museums and the city centre. I’m taken to punk bars and gigs and 3 Euro donner huts. Decent food seems hard to find here, though the trash is dirt-cheap. White Trash, a burger joint that has the interior of a mazy pirate ship and cover charge on the door, is not cheap. The beef is organic though and Joe’s feeling flush so treats me to dinner.
‘I used to work here. Hardest job I’ve ever had. You can see the size of the place, and they have only one person washing dishes. And then in the kitchen every chef has a box at the end of their bench for dirty shit that I had to collect. Those guys didn’t give a fuck, they just used everything. I was SURROUNDED by dirty dishes. I had to have a system of things soaking whilst I washed others. Boxes everywhere in order of priority.’
The restaurant looks like it could seat 100 people, a mad maze wildly leaning here and there. I can’t quite get all the details, the day has a fairly large twist on it; they let you blaze up in bars here and these luxuries quickly become unhelpful. Still, they have great onion rings and I ask very little else from these places.
Wandering a city in no particular order and without research or destination is the only way I know how to get about. Such tramping led to stumbling upon the wonderful Prinzessinnengarten. Berlin is a place of community and action, despite the more wondrous housing projects getting incresingly squeezed. Prinzessinnengarten is an organic oasis in a deeply grey bit of the city. Jim and I were walking entirely the wrong way to somewhere when we came upon the project. Organic vegetable plots and great catering are just the surface appeal of this place, which should be model of how to bring cities to life. Just imagine the wonderful wild space we could have if we burned down Westfield! DEATHCAMPS FOR IDIOTS! Anyway, it turns out a great old friend, one Jonathan Hamnet, is working in the garden and forages in the area around Berlin. He writes a beautiful blog and only a brief talk made me feel that we’ll have to spend a lot of time together again in the future.
The air is thick with ideas of how to live here and it’s not long before I get a real taste. Joe and Kali used to live in shared house, a former squat turned housing project. Here, a mad collection of humans live cheaply in a beautiful old building of flats and rooms arranged over four floors. Some people have their own room, some share with a significant amount of other people, all have access to a cheap bar and community kitchen. We visit on a Friday night when you can get pizza for 2.50 and a beer for much less. The people in the kitchen are the people that live here, just putting a shift in for the sake of the people around them. Money comes from the bar and any profits go back in to the place. These people have the right idea and their pizza is much better than some 3 Euro high street madness we’d previously had that tasted like a bad frozen effort and probably was. Still, when pockets are empty and the munchies are hard, cardboard pizza with plastic cheese isn’t the harshest reality.
After this visit Kali tells me that she’s been invited to do the Monday kitchen shift. The deal is simple, you get 50 Euro to make around 40 portions and sell each one for 2 Euro. All profits back to the bar and labour rewarded in drink. This is my kind of gig, so I tell Kali we’ll do it together, we’ll cater the fuck out of these people. In between times we digress into various adventures. Joe shows me a great gig hole with garage bands and a lovely lonely dancefloor and crowd of mad people, sexually aggressive women and wild ideologists. I’m exclaiming laughter all over the place, whilst some loud anti-facists from Prague steal one of our guy’s much needed crutches. Joe and I chase it down and return it to our stricken friend who seems to want to kiss me but I’ve not yet fully converted to men. His next plan is take a boat we’ve found out on the 3am river but our search for oars comes back negative. We’ll not sail tonight.
Our next land-based adventure came in Maurpark, where Jim and I spent a bright Sunday afternoon. Conveniently, this Sunday hotspot is just by the flat so we could roll out of bed and dig the biggest flea market in Europe. The place is like Brick Lane on a Sunday but with more buskers and art and less true tat. The catering is disappointing and I only eat a two Euro bratwurst in a typically ill-fitting bun. The star of food came in whole coal-grilled mackerel that looked sensational served with harissa. My tastebuds being complete dicks means I don’t actually enjoy fish but I’m pretty sure that’s the true eats of Maurpark. I’m almost considering coming over just to cater, to bring some sensational snacks to these poor people with their broken speed bellies that just need something more soothing than a sausage. Not far from the park there’s also a place that does the worst doughnuts I’ve ever tasted.
‘It tastes of fuck all.’
‘It tastes of cold oil.’
‘It tastes like school dinners.’
When the day to cater rolls around Kali an I start slow, prioritising a zoot and an episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia to warm us into the day. We get down to the house in good time to pick up the cash and meet more of the cast. There’s all kinds of people here and the brief for eats is open, though there must be both meat and veg on offer. I settle on doing some kind of burrito and we take our 50 Euro to a mad Turkish supermarket. It’s the kind of place we have in London, an emporium of spices and vac-packed olives; all kinds of veg regardless of season. We get about it cumbersomely, endlessly distracted and confused. I have to reassure Kali that everything will be fine, that I’ve yet to fail at catering yet. There will, of course, be a day when I do and I’ll apologise to my victims and get more serious about this novel.
We pick up cheap flat breads and beans and all kinds of veg, getting discounts here and there as there’s a rotund Turkish man letching at Kali who’s in charge of labeling our tomatoes and pumpkins and onions and coriander. This saved cash comes in handy so we can go wild in the aisles at Aldi and pick up some final bits of shit. As we struggle back to the house with heavy bags I realise I’m a beer short of a complete shop. I’ll be well lubricated by the bar all evening but I need some kind of dark beer to cook down with some beans. Stout and beans is BIG. However, schwarzbier is hard to come by at the best of times and round these ends there’s little to pick from. I end up with an Erdinger Dunkel and that’s the first job done.
There are few things I love more than getting noodle-deep in some mise en place. Smashing through all of the things that you can prep and not give a fuck about until service is one of the purest joys of catering. The people here are going to be hungry, it seems there’s some home improvements going on. As furniture rains down outside the window, we get out boards and sanitise surfaces. Deep chopping with inconsistent knives sees a salsa blasted, left to sit and mature to sweet and sour deliciousness. Sour cream gets to know some lime and coriander. Bulbous pumpkins make beautiful arcs and beer brings big life to canned beans. Crisis hits when we burn a huge pan of rice, but it’s also averted quickly with a joint and a shrug. Who truly likes rice? It’ll only harsh the vibes of the other dank flavours I’m endeavouring to put together.
The thing goes like this: toasted flat bread, lettuce, tomato and red onion salsa, beer beans, refried garlic beans, roast pumpkin, spiced beef mince, coriander sour cream and jalapenos. Yours for two Euro. There’s all kinds of spices and pans in the kitchen and the space is great, so long as you work neat and tidy. I’m mumbling all of this trite shit at Kali throughout, reassuring her with maxims of ‘prep hard, cater easy’ and going on and on about ‘having a quick wipe down.’ As full of shit as I am, prep is a joy and the place stays pretty spotless. Lovely little pre-service lull for a snack, a beer, a joint. It’s one thing to cater well and professionally, it’s another entirely to be constantly up against the troubles of confusion and bewilderment and distraction and still push push push through.
Service is soon on us like drunk German girl in a bar with smoke on her breath shouting over lousy fag music in an attempt to edge into your conversation with an exhibition of faux-interest. People come to the hatch and exchange a wooden chip that they’ve purchased from the bar for an eats. What a system! I fucking hate handling cash, especially when I’m catering. I want my hands caked in food, not the filth of people’s noses and pockets. Everything’s set up lovely, with all of the cold components neatly along one bench and the other bits held hot on the hob or in the oven. Order comes in, bread is toasted in the pizza oven and then the toppings are layered up neatly. Some people clearly think I’m mad in my precision and posturing but it’s these layers of bullshit that deepen the flavour of food.
Joe’s soon around, with this wonderful smile looking over the operation and gearing himself for eats with bud and beers and the scene is joyous. As ever, he’s filled with good advice.
‘Stay away from the Sterny, it tastes like a headache.’ I go with this advice though I do like to taste the true cheap shit, to really know how mad all these drunks really are. I stick the regular lager, which will probably ravage my mind the next day anyway. Nothing kicks deeper than a lager hangover.
‘Fleisch oder veggie?’
‘Can I get more Kürbis?’
Cater cater cater. The evening blasts on and we feed the people. We’ve done enough to teeter into profit whilst also stocking enough to feed people twice at no extra cost to them. The only troublesome customer is some awful gay who keeps appearing at the hatch talking some shit.
‘Who’s he then?’ He’s talking to Kali about me and I’m staying out of it, having a quick wipe down. He’s been chatting absolute crap for some time about some self-made drama or other but now he’s shifted his attention. Kali’s trying to bat him off but he’s clearly after some arse.
‘Craig? He’s our friend from England.’ I don’t want any of his shitty dick. He persists and mumbles as I stick close to Joe who’s at the sink showing me his KP skills. ‘Oh no, he’s married!’
‘Well fuck him and fuck her too!’ This is a thick American accent as he twirls and leaves. I find out later he’s Danish and that the accent is just evidence that he’s a mad prick.
The night tails off in the bar and I get to know a bit of the crowd who seem like they’re a European collection of the kind people you’d find in Bukowski’s LA. There’s some fine characters and they’re all thankful for their food. A man buys me vodka and I pour it into the Club Mate I’m drinking for a boost. Another older dude turns out to be the guy who designed the kitchen. He asks me about the place and how I found it to cater here. I’m lightly mashed and enthuse about the perfect height of the work surfaces and the lovely layout. Conversations go on and on and we drink and smile until it’s time to retire.
Back on Joe’s mattress we project more Sunny on to the wall of the room. Everything’s digested and I know I have to get back on a plane tomorrow. All I can think is that surely there should be so much more stuff like this style of community kitchen available. When I’m back in London I want to seek it out and if it doesn’t exist surely we can create it? I love food and all of the creative, weird shit that comes with it but the fact is we absolutely must eat or it’s death for everyone. I’d like to find a way to make the necessity more fun for people, whilst also not taking all of their money off them. In this world gone mad, it’s essential that we focus on survival and enjoyment, rather than capitalism and conquest. Fuck Tesco and the Tories, let’s have a blast and get some snacks.
For a coffee and free Wi-fi: Linnen
For a decent beer: John Muir Liquid Libations
For eats: White Trash
For quenching thirst: Crew IPA (Munich)
Thanks to Kali for being wonderful to cater with.
More from this Berlin trip on Brain Wash