Over the past few years, Berlin, the world’s flagship hipster metropolis, has gone from a culinary wasteland to the heart of a new and exciting food community. Fun and adventurous concepts are flourishing on every corner. People here have the courage to try unusual things. Everything’s constantly changing here, and quickly. In this storm of transformation, Michelin-starred chef Hendrik Otto is like the eye of the hurricane, a longtime constant in a polarizing city always on the search for the next big thing, where stark contrasts are celebrated. With Zen-like serenity, he’s forged his own path to the top: straight down the middle.
The central road less traveled
A lot of his colleagues in the German capital make food that can be described using a few keywords or a short philosophy, but summarizing Otto’s position is relatively difficult. No definitions really seem to fit. Which is just how he likes it. “I hate the way people are always forcing new cooking trends on everyone,” the two-star cook says. “One day it’s all about regional, the next it’s all vegetarian, and then it’s without this or that. I think it’s such a shame the way certain foods get demonized — this tendency for everyone to cook only vegan, or only serve a leek leaf with leek ashes, or whatever. Variety is what makes the culinary world interesting and wonderful.” With that, Otto illustrates a few of the principles he’s used to transform the Lorenz Adlon Esszimmer into a nirvana for gastronomic pleasure-seekers.
The customer is always front and center, he says, and everything should be entertaining, from interactions at the table to stories describing the inspiration behind individual dishes. Of course, it’s all about taste, too. “It’s also important that you be able to sit and enjoy a second spoonful and a third, rather than just the waiter coming over and explaining the dish, and then one bite and it’s over. They have to keep getting the effect, even the third and fourth time and so on. Better to leave one course out and enjoy the others properly.” That also includes returning to simpler culinary fare, he says. The chef needs to create a story arc that gives the customer something to think about. On the other hand, the dish itself needs to be easy to eat. “It should be logical,” he says. “I shouldn’t have to tell someone to start eating at the top left and work down to the bottom right, or give them an illustration and a drawing in explanation.” His goal is for each individual component of a meal to be fun by itself, and for the components to form a harmonious whole. “People cooking at home are doing it at an unbelievably high level, so a professional kitchen can’t just rely on using products that are hard for their customers to get,” Otto says. He adds that chefs shouldn’t rely on gimmicks — the complexity of a dish and the elaborate processes involved in making it shouldn’t necessarily be obvious in the final product.
On the cusp of happiness
Considering that his restaurant is in the renowned Hotel Adlon, which is directly beside the Brandenburg Gate and has become a city landmark in its own right, you might think that Otto’s hit the culinary jackpot. “A lot of people tell us, ‘Oh, you all are living the good life, you can do whatever you want,’ but we have to be financially responsible just like everyone else,” Otto explains. In fact, the location can also be a handicap. “There’s a little ‘fear of the unknown’ there, you might say. Some people don’t come here because they think we’re too stodgy. I’m not going to stand here and say that we’re the coolest or the craziest restaurant in town. Our service philosophy is tailored to the hotel, of course. But it all depends on what customers want. That’s what makes great service great: you don’t treat everyone the same way.”
The Lorenz Adlon Esszimmer has had two Michelin stars since 2012. So where does Otto feel like he fits into the Berlin scene? “There are so many amazing concepts out there! It’s crazy how much is happening in the Berlin culinary world — almost too much, because a lot of places fade away that would have thrived in a place with more breathing room. That’s obviously a huge challenge for us, because there’s so much specialization out there and the people behind it are really good at what they do. So we have to keep redefining ourselves, keep questioning what we’re doing.” He learned this philosophy of anti-cyclical thinking as a child, on his father’s farm. Nowadays, rather than surfing the latest trend wave, he focuses on the luxury segment of the market and remains true to his own concept so that he can emphasize exclusivity as a unique selling point.
So does that mean he’s got his sights set on a third Michelin star? “I think every two-star chef in Berlin would like to have three,” Otto says. “That’s totally normal for any ambitious person.” But he’s got other priorities: “My wish list is for people to step back, concentrate on the important things, and appreciate each other more often.” And little things make a big difference, which is why his staff are all on a two-shift system that make it easier for them to handle peak rushes without needed to do overtime. “We’re not just giving our people things for free,” Otto says. “A restaurant is a company like any other, and we’re trying to run it that way.” Sometimes, though, the journey is also the destination.