BILLY Wagner & MICHA Schäfer

BILLY Wagner & MICHA Schäfer

Nobelhart & (sometimes) misunderstood? 

I wouldn't go so far as to call it a German phenomenon, but in the end we humans, at least some of us, are simply built that way. Perhaps it's part of our DNA – the right to grumble. What’s that you mutter into your beard? I know you know them, those so-called fussbudgets. Yes, but why were there only two pieces of asparagus on my plate? 

But. So small yet so arresting. In reality, it’s missing an extra “t”, then it would be self-explanatory and we could leave the grinch groups bleating in a field. That buffeting utterance of bijou protest, the nipper of every creative impulse bud, rearing a head of stubborn discourse to the contrary. Well! There’s no buts about this place! Cheeks or no! What makes Nobelhart & Schmutzig so special is the (overall) experience. Everything should not and does not have to be perfect. Some may not like the one course while others may be choking on their pot-ah-toe-tom-ah-toes, but … that’s just dandy! Not every wine is to everyone’s liking, and we most definitely don’t have to call the whole thing off - better to have loved and lost, etc. In the end, the sum is of its many parts – so those of you who would go home less happy over a single scrap, well, you’d be that man who lived on bread alone.

While we're on the subject of the word "but", I hear you ask "Just what kind of an attitude to life do you have anyway?" Now there’s food for thought for you - whilst I focus on the bright side. That is the right side anyway, right Monty? 

A review:

Nobelhart & Schmutzig is special, Nobelhart & Schmutzig wants to be different? Nobelhart & Schmutzig is different! All of that goes down well and Billy & Micha’s idea has hit the mark with many. In fact, they were awarded a star immediately after opening in 2015, and in 2018 their eatery, as they call themselves, made it onto a list of the one-hundred-and-twenty best restaurants in the world. I was particularly pleased about this editorial addition: they are now in 45th place on The World’s 50 Best list. The second German restaurant - next to the Restaurant Tim Raue! In German we would now say “Krass!” rolling the “r” around like a dodgy tractor, to mean “badass!”, rather than its English “blundering” counterpart.

The place is packed every evening and with all this saucy success, you might ask yourself who these two chaps are. The faces behind the fandom. Strictly speaking, of course, there are many more people behind Nobelhart & Schmutzig and every single member of the entire team finds their place on the menu - even before the meal. Props!  

But back to Billy & Micha. The pair is like night and day, an Othello expression of yin-yang opposites; one completes the other. Afterall, without a day there can be no night. 

Billy has uncorked many a jug of juice in Berlin's upscale gastronomy world (and far beyond) even before Nobelhart & Schmutzig came into being, including at the Rutz wine bar. The fact that he is particularly good at this has earned him a star title amongst the sommeliers, among other things. Billy was actually Sommelier of the Year several times. However, desires to steward his own ship drove him to distract Matthias Schmidt at Villa Merton, who put him in touch with Micha. The fates smiled! Seemingly simple cooking with the best possible and, first and foremost, exclusively regional ingredients. Brutally and unconditionally local - no pepper, no lemon, no "chi-chi ingredients", nada!

This shared philosophy is their common ground, their clashing personalities making them apples and oranges, reserved, extrovert and equally authentic.

There is no other way for me to be. I am what I am, and I have to be this way or I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror.”

No fakes, nothing bent out of shape. There is a kind of “take it or leave it” mentality. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it doesn’t have to be, does it!? 

However, if you open the guidebook published by a well-known tyre manufacturer, you will read the following about the food: “The meals are as reduced as they sound yet innovative, emotive and well-considered.” The products themselves are the stars on the plates as it is Micha’s topmost maxim to preserve flavour and not bastardise the dishes. Hence you won’t find a plate with a multitude of ingredients. Let’s track back to the asparagus example from before: the asparagus is the protagonist and is of exquisite quality and flavour. A dab of fatty sour cream, some ground elder and camelina oil is all you need – purist is as purist does! This style of cooking has nothing to do with following trends. It is a result of his inner convictions, using techniques from all over the world.      

Brutally local!  Now allow me to put the cart before the horse:

The term opens a new dimension of regionality. It doesn’t matter whether it was a novelty in 2015 or a pitstop on the Road to Rio – from today’s point of view, the term “regional” has increasing branding use in the industry. The majority of gastronomes in Berlin are part of the regionality and quality offensive. We could call them the Local Massive! Yet, Territorial Tings all in, Billy and Micha know exactly what kinds of wonderful products are available in the Berlin ‘burbs. However, since the terms “regional” and “brutally local” have become a vernacular, they no longer do the concept behind Nobelhart & Schmutzig justice. Much like everyone and their cousin’s dog is “regional” these days. Oh yeah? Just beet it, punk (cough wobble). Still, Billy & Micha have created something that is bigger than themselves and also bigger than their restaurant.

Billy’s eyes light up when our conversation steers in this direction. Actually, they are lit the whole time, but now they are even brighter. The Nobelhart family, together with Restaurant Horváth, are founding members of what has become a formidable collective called "Die Gemeinschaft" (“The Collective”). The Collective is committed to the maxim of advancing critical engagement with current and future issues of our food system. So far, so good! After all, it’s all about establishing a broad food culture rooted in regionality. Honour and esteem to whom they are due, the idea behind it is a noble one. To create something not just for the sake of creating. 

"When the day comes that the door to Nobelhart & Schmutzig is permanently closed, I still want everyone in Berlin to be able to drink the wonderful milk we work with here."

I talked about the overall experience in the beginning, but this place is special on so many levels. What is the mystery that is “Nobelhart & Schmutzig”? What’s with that name?  Well, this restaurant couldn’t have a better one, it’s perfect.

The source of inspiration is a sport that at first (and perhaps second) glance you wouldn't associate with either of them: polo. Yes, that's right, that Iranian equestrian sport where two teams each try to drive the ball into the opponent's goal according to imaginary rules, using a long-handled wooden mallet in one hand, whilst riding and steering a horse in the other. Ruddy hell! The actual sport becomes a secondary matter though as long as the champagne’s being necko’d: Long live excess! But don’t let that turn your chips, the point is it’s something hard, dirty, maybe even warlike, but above all honest! An image that Billy liked so much that not only did he make it the motto of every evening at Nobelhart & Schmutzig, but he also nailed it on a sign above and next to the door of the restaurant. The word “nobelhart” cannot be found in any dictionary, but together translates as “Noble, Hard & Dirty”. Trying to find a synonymous restaurant is probably just as impossible. 

What makes the name so perfect? It is clearly in a class of its own, with down and dirty associations doffing their competitive gastro hats, the title offering an entire room for interpretation! Obviously, this contains a highly subjective component, but that is what makes it so interesting. Mystical and secretive, anything and nothing all at once. Limitless, principled and explicit. This is the stuff of legends –  they walk the line between fairies and tales. How does it begin? “Once upon a time at Nobelhart & Schmutzig ...”

Oh, before I forget! This nimbus is fuelled by the location itself, which can’t really be learned about, you must experience it selfishly. If you don’t believe me, just rev up your search engine and try to find results for “Nobelhart & Schmutzig interior”. Find anything? I doubt it.

Is that a calculated move? It sure as sheep’s cheese aint no Millionaire’s Shot, if you ask Billy and Micha. It is important to both of them to create an ambience for their guests in which time, place and, above all, the outside world can be fazed out. What really counts is the moment and, of course, paramount, your enjoyment. You find yourself somewhere in a cosmos between reality and fiction. The memories of this multi-sensory experience - a mixture of food, drink, art, music and exuberant togetherness - should be stored in the minds of their guests and not on their smartphones. Even if this might not be easy for some "foodies" from time to time, the value of an experience cannot be defined by the number of likes on Instagram. A visit to Nobelhart & Schmutzig is quite stoically, chukka, set and match.

When you visit the first time, you have to make sure you don’t run past it. Aside from the aforementioned sign there isn’t much to be seen from the outside. You wouldn’t think there was a restaurant inside. The shop windows with the discreet curtains that regularly showcase works of artist friends suggest anything could be behind them; from gallery to funeral home, to swingers’ club. Apart from the undeniable vogue factor, it is primarily a safe space where you can succumb to the moment. You go in and at some point you come back out again.  But especially when you are slightly to moderately drunk and open the door back on to reality in the shape of Friedrichstrasse, you should do so with the pleasant feeling of having experienced something special.  

An experience for the senses. In this day and age, anyone can serve food, tasty food to boot. Yet this cannot be equated with interchangeability, because that definitely does not apply to Nobelhart & Schmutzig. Still, guests are becoming ever more demanding as is the gastronome - a good thing. Often, experiences and impressions are processed on the way to the experience, which the gastronome may have taken with him as a guest elsewhere –think Trading Places without the farts in the tub. 

This of course, includes negative impressions along the lines of “that’s not how I would do it”, but the majority of experiences is probably positive. 

These are by no means abstract thoughts. Just replace the word “gastronome” with “Billy and Micha”. Micha cooks what he personally likes and above all, how he does it at home. Billy only serves wines from people he has come to know and love - and which appeal to his personal taste. Food and drink are enjoyed in a room that is more a bar than a restaurant, but that’s how you get talking – with everyone sitting at the same counter. Naturally, guests need to engage in the conversation themselves, but they do, made possible by the design of the room. This is an extremely important factor for Billy and Micha. The walls of the room are adorned with works of art by artist friends. Some art is also available pressed on vinyl - for your ears only, where the components come together to create an experience that is sometimes noble, sometimes hard, and sometimes dirty.

Mallett’s mallet association: Like the establishment’s creators, you can’t have one without the other.