Nobelhart & Schmutzig has been at the heart of a fine dining renaissance within Berlin and in Germany as a whole. The hyper-local venue is ranked at No.17 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, a rise of 28 places from the previous year that sees it awarded the Villa Massa Highest Climber Award. 50 Best sits down with charismatic owner Billy Wagner to discuss Nobelhart’s original mission, its successes and its role in crafting a regional culinary identity
When people think food in Berlin, they frequently fall back on the same stereotypes such as currywurst, eisbein and doner kebabs. But recent years have started to see a shift in how Berlin and Germany are perceived as dining destinations.
Within the leading restaurants of what is Western Europe’s most populous nation, a quiet revolution has altered Germany’s culinary narrative to place its own produce, and its people, first. At the helm of this movement is Nobelhart & Schmutzig, the internationally renowned but community focused counter-dining spot based in the capital. Offering a 10-course tasting menu that shines a light on the Greater Berlin region, the restaurant has also gained notoriety for integrating gastronomy into the city’s rich arts and culture scene.
When first conceptualising the restaurant back in 2013, owner Billy Wagner and head chef Micha Schäfer knew they faced a stringent challenge. While Germany did have some successful high-end restaurants, they weren’t sourcing locally. “Even within the few fine dining restaurants within Germany at the time, we realised that most were importing high-quality produce from France or other countries rather than looking locally,” says Wagner.
The pair began a process of reaching out to farmers across the Berlin region to find quality product and build relationships with small producers frequently overlooked by the restaurant sector. “German cuisine is usually based on the idea that it has to be cheap and available in big quantities,” explains Wagner. Convincing a whole region, including its suppliers, to celebrate quality and locality over quantity was no small feat.
Berlin is, of course, located in what was once East Germany prior to reunification, even if the city itself was divided by the notorious Berlin Wall. “After the Wall came down in 1989, the East German identity was mostly erased. East German music wasn't cool anymore; everyone wanted to listen to Bon Jovi. East German clothing, cars and industry - everything was erased. Everyone wanted West German things,” he says. Food was no exception.
Owner Billy Wagner (left) and head chef Micha Schäfer work together to champion the best of Berlin
Part of Nobelhart & Schmutzig’s key mission has been to craft something that those from the city and its surrounds can call their own. “We are building an identity for the region and its people, so that they can be proud of what they are doing and where they are from,” says Wagner. Now, with diners travelling across the world to get a taste of Nobelhart’s distinctly German fare, it’s clearly working. Better yet, it’s done so largely via word of mouth - as opposed to through social media - thanks to the restaurant’s no photo policy.
This uncommon approach has been in place since the restaurant opened more than seven years ago to encourage diners to fully connect with the food, setting and mission curated by Wagner and his team. Paying homage to the city’s history of getting lost in music at Berlin’s famous clubs, Wagner, too, wants his guests to live in the moment away from the superfluities of social media. He hopes this creates a more organic environment that leaves visitors mentally stimulated and yearning to return.
While acknowledging the restaurant’s achievement in being ranked among the world’s very best, Wagner is most proud of how his project has started to redraw the gastronomic reputation of the city and region. “What we received now is not only an achievement for us, it's actually an achievement for the region of Berlin as we’re seeing the benefits unfold for everyone within the sector.”
Dishes like Kartoffel & Apfel - potato and apple - demonstrate the refined simplicity of the restaurant
As Nobelhart & Schmutzig only caters to 40 guests a night, Wagner understands that its impact on wider structural change was always going to be limited. To bolster this, he co-founded Die Gemeinschaft, translated as “the community”, to help educate, connect and build a more sustainable future for Berlin’s food, both in terms of produce and people.
Wagner believes the region’s historic lack of culinary innovation has been grounded in limited knowledge. Die Gemeinshaft’s priority has therefore been to help extend food knowledge to those immediately outside of the wider sphere of gastronomy, in order for more people to reach and realise their own potential.
“When you don't know what a good tomato tastes like. how can you make a decision when buying tomatoes?” he says. With some funding from the German state, the initiative has therefore been able to connect farmers with chefs, and includes an upcoming educational programme for 10 students to help craft a brighter future for the local food ecosystem. Prompted by this initiative, more local farmers are also now making their higher-quality produce available to consumers as well as to the restaurant trade.
“When people ask me why we opened Nobelhart & Schmutzig, really, I just wanted access to good food,” Wagner laughs. Yet the wider influence of the restaurant cannot be underestimated. In becoming the champion of artisanal producers and high-quality local ingredients, Nobelhart & Schmutzig has helped craft Berlin a new culinary identity from relatively humble beginnings in less than a decade.
The list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2022, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, was announced on Monday 18th July at a live awards ceremony in London. To stay up to date with the latest news, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.