Micha Schäfer (Nobelhart und Schmutzig): brutally local
He first studied theology, before discovering his true vocation in the kitchen. Now at the restaurant ranked at 17th place of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, he is on a mission to elevate food. Interview.
Jérôme Bloch: A quick warm-up. I give you one word, you answer with one word.
Farmer: Hard work.
Favorite product? These are 2 words. Fresh tomatoes.
Nobelhart und Schmutzig? Building the future.
Who are your typical clients?
Micha Schäfer: We welcome anyone that wants to have a good time.
An important theme of your restaurant seems to be the “recognition” of products, farmers and so on. How do you define recognition?
MS: It is foremost an economical factor. Your recognition is where you spend your money. Not where you say you spend it. Where you truly put it, without negotiating. You pay the farmer the price he asks for. The price that we demand. All the rest is a chain reaction after that.
“Most farmers struggle to be part of a system asking for a high price”.
How do you know that the price asked is fair?
I have a feeling. I use my experience, by knowing how the farm works, how the farmer lives, how much he charges on the market; his personality; the size of his farm. I try to figure things out, and most of the time I tell him to ask for a higher price. Keep in mind that most farmers have a simple lifestyle and struggle to be part of a system asking for a high price.
So you teach them business?
In a way we do. We explain that they can ask for a different price on the market and for Nobelhart und Schmutzig. We try to show them that things can be uncomplicated. Our business is flexible enough to deal with nature, mistakes or traffic. We are prepared to pay a higher price and simply expect the corresponding quality. The biggest issue is not the price of the food, it is the price of the staff!
Would you define yourselves as a political restaurant?
So what is your programme?
We are a platform for agriculture. We promote the idea that the products of small agriculture are highly valuable. We enhance culinary, sustainability and diversity values. We try to make every decision a conscious one. For example, it took us 6 months to validate the sign on the toilet. At the end, the solution was to divide between sitting and standing.
How do you implement your programme?
Up until 2 years ago, none of the small farmers had a voice. Now we all have a voice in the city and in Germany. During Covid, many people started ordering directly from farmers. It is a positive move, but if you want to change things in a meaningful way, you need more than that. Our “Gemeinschaft” projects - which means “community” - is connecting farmers with farmers, farmers with chefs, chefs with chefs. They network, they meet at a symposium with 400 peers, they train, they visit farms. We also take part in the carbon footprint initiatives, which are much more complex in restaurants than in offices with computers. This is a long-term effort with a myriad of initiatives.
“We try to be sustainable, but it is a joke”.
How do you conceptualize a dish?
First, I try to understand the value of the product by talking to the farmer. A celeriac for example has a very high value for him: it requires a very good soil. Some carrot sorts have been refined over 10 years and so on. I focus on this value and try to make it approachable to guests by using a maximum of 3-4 ingredients per dish. Fat, acidity, pleasant taste. I come from a generation of chefs who grew with el Bulli and Nordic chefs, all techniques were available. We had a chance to learn everything. Now I try to select down what works best for each product. We relearn simple things: the best way to cut an animal. How to make cheese.
Do you sometimes see a contradiction in your acts, for example when you ship products to Munich?
We are in a luxurious position here. When things are taken away from you, you start feeling how great they were. So during Covid, we faced many contradiction: packing, driving, letting people warm up a dish at home? Even now, the contradictions are huge. We try to be sustainable, but it is a joke. The energy we use is insane. We don’t use plastic except for vacuum, but we use a dishwashing machine. People come here driving a car, flying a plane. It is very unclear where we go. It is only the beginning of a very long story. Sustainable is a big and dangerous word.
How independent are you?
The main question we ask ourselves is: how much does it help or destroy the purpose. We won the award of biggest progression in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. So they wanted to record a video presented by ‘villa massa’. We went for it, because it allows our story to be told all over the world. It might be worth it. The 50 best list makes us packed. That is the biggest asset we have. We have been raising prices from 85 to much more. It helps the purpose.