Gourmet guerrillas invade Berlin’s culinary scene

David Wroe bellies up to the table to experience the latest culinary craze sweeping Berlin: eating gourmet food with complete strangers.

Gourmet guerrillas invade Berlin’s culinary scene
Photo: Penny Bradfield

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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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.