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Gourmet guerrillas invade Berlin's culinary scene

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Gourmet guerrillas invade Berlin's culinary scene
Photo: Penny Bradfield
13:23 CET+01:00
David Wroe bellies up to the table to experience the latest culinary craze sweeping Berlin: eating gourmet food with complete strangers.

Chefs aren't supposed to be shy. They ought to be theatrical and rambunctious, and they should bellow orders at the kitchen staff while wielding a meat cleaver.

So we're not sure what to expect when we arrive at the secret address in Kreuzberg and press the doorbell marked scheu, which means “shy” in German.

Happily the door is opened by an affable Irishman who ushers us in and gives us a glass of Sekt. This fellow, who goes only by the name “The Shy Chef,” is part of Berlin's answer to the latest global trend in dining. Variously called “supper clubs” or “guerrilla restaurants” they are dinner parties with a couple of differences: you pay for your food and you are seated with strangers.

The idea has been popular for a while in the US and Britain and, earlier this year, the Shy Chef kicked off the craze here in Germany.

It goes like this: you book online and are sent a confirmation email with an address. You turn up to a private residence along with a varying number of strangers and pay about €50 for a five-course meal with wine. Normally, the mysterious Irishman's even more mysterious Scandinavian partner does the cooking while the Irishman plays host.

But the Shy Chef surprises me and my wife with a special guest chef named Roberto Cortez, who has been the private cook for comedian Eddie Murphy, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and acting couple Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, among others.

This bumps the price up to €61 per head (a recommendation from the Irishman, not actually enforced). For Berlin it is pricey, but actually good value when you include the excellent wines.

Cortez supplies creative gastronomy worthy of a top restaurant. As an appetizer there is a liquified onion ring which, abominable as that sounds, is actually delicious once you get past the appearance of dishwater that's been used to clean up after a roast. It's followed by salmon with whipped jasmine rice, pinenut risotto with vadouvan chicken, beef ribs with a mushroom froth and, for dessert, Amedei chocolate mousse with citrus caramel.

It is all superb. But the point of the Shy Chef is as much about the social experience.

“A good dinner is not just about the food but about the people and the conversation and the atmosphere,” the Irishman says. “A supper club is like a restaurant only everybody's forced to interact, which means you'll have some very different conversations from what you'd normally have.”

It's a bit weird at first but, after all, no different to being at a wedding or business function where you find yourself seated with strangers. Normally kept to just six or so diners, the Shy Chef has expanded the table on our night to about 20.

The company is impressively diverse. Some are visitors to Berlin who found the Shy Chef on the web and figured it was a better way to get a feel for the city than eating in a restaurant. There's a chatty couple visiting from London, a pair of colleagues from Microsoft over from Seattle for a conference, a boisterious Swiss group and some Belgians.

Seated around us are a German journalist and her boyfriend, a German of Iranian descent who is studying the philosopher Wittgenstein at university.

Then there is Matthias, a middle-aged German marketing and branding guru who designed the logos of two of Europe's best-known car companies, and his Spanish wife, both of whom are stimulating talkers.

“It's a very good group,” Matthias pronounces towards the end of the evening before adding, with admirable German bluntess: “There were only two boring people.”

Between courses, I wander into the kitchen to meet Cortez the chef, chiefly to find out how one makes a froth out of mushrooms. It is too complicated to explain here but Cortez gives me an interesting take on Germans and food.

“I really like cooking for Germans because they're not obsessed with how much fat there is in every dish,” he said. “In California, the first thing everybody asks is, ‘How many calories does it have?'”

He plans to return to Berlin in January to take his culinary career to the next stage.

“I want to live here now,” he says. “I think Berlin is brilliant and it allows the creative opportunities that a lot of other cities do not have.”

He and the Shy Chef are planning future collaborations, though no dates are fixed.

It seems I must be getting a bit more German myself, because, excellent though the meal was, the courses were a little dainty for my appetite.

So, on the way home, a friend and I commit the culinary equivalent of high treason: we grab a Currywurst at the train station. Sorry Roberto.

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