Words by Hannah Stein
I sit across the kitchen table from Tyler Hanse & Lea Schelling, where we enjoy coffee and a freshly baked slice of rhabarber streuselkuchen (in english, rhubarb crumb cake) together; it’s nothing short of a quintessentially German afternoon affair. Though, his finesse with German baking could have fooled me otherwise, Tyler is originally from Philadelphia, USA. Lea, on the other hand, is a local German from Munich. They may come from different backgrounds, but both Tyler and Lea have at least one thing in common, their love for good food. The two met for the first time in Italy, during their studies at the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo. After initially heading their separate ways, they eventually found themselves reunited in Berlin, Germany where they both now work as cooks in two of Berlin’s hottest restaurants; Lea at Lode & Stijn, and Tyler at restaurant REMI.
Like so many staff and members of the food and hospitality industry, Tyler and Lea have experienced a major shift in their lives since the start of the pandemic. After months of stagnancy, they’re both finally back to work, but I wonder, what exactly does that actually mean for them? “It feels weird to be back to doing something for eight hours a day.” Lea says, “I am looking forward to being back at work, but I just think it will take a little time to get back into things”.
Until now, Lode & Stijn have been closed completely, but the gradual loosening of restrictions and the growing impatience among the team to work together again, has led them to steadily restart; they’re currently preparing for the restaurant’s reopening on June 2nd. Lea mentions that a plus-side to this kind of work is the reasonable hours it offers staff, “It’s all during the day, which is really nice actually, it’s very rare as a cook to have that kind of schedule.” Not having to work late into the night and having more freetime is something that Lea has enjoyed, and she struggles with the thought of returning to going back to the way things were.
Tyler on the other hand, feels differently about the slower pace, “We’re working during the day and we’re home in the evening, but that (kind of) service does not have the same vibe. The dining room isn’t dark, people aren’t drinking wine, and it’s like we’re just sending away items. It misses the buzz, and I look forward to having that again”.
I wonder if the two have any hope that certain aspects of the industry will improve, upon the reopening of restaurants?
In general, Tyler hopes “[that] they’ll take giving us better hours more seriously and not just take it for granted that we’re there for the passion. Maybe this will be an awakening for cooks, employers and employees to push for a more sustainable work environment”.
Lea remarks that she’s impressed by the ethics of her workplace, Lode & Stijn when she compares their ethical standards and treatment of staff to that of many other restaurants.
“I feel quite lucky with our bosses. We already had a 4-day week before the lockdown, and they also consider holidays really important. I appreciate this a lot, because I experienced it very differently in other places. If there’s something I would consider most important when opening a place, it’s good hours for employees. It should be attractive. It’s a trend now for people to really value and want to preserve their free time and people have a different work mentality”.
Tyler dreams of eventually opening his own restaurant, Bardele. It’s another plan that was put on hold by the events of the pandemic, but until the time is right, he continues to explore the concept through pop-up events and social media.
The concept for Bardele was born of necessity. After the abrupt closing of the restaurant in Kreuzberg where he worked as a kitchen manager, Tyler and his friend and colleague Paolo Bertocchi decided to open a restaurant of their own. The chef-duo noticed an obsession for pasta among German diners but were unimpressed by the offerings available in Berlin. More specifically, they missed pasta reminiscent of the cucina povera they had both experienced back in Italy; simple, subtle, and nothing less than sublime.
He jokes endearingly about the dogmatic nature of Italians when it comes to food: “It’s got to be a national pastime, just arguing about what is the original version of something. There are reasons for everything I do and ultimately, I’m just looking for it to taste nice and I don’t like the rules. You’re just looking for the best version of the dish, whether it be traditional or not”.
He believes whole-heartedly in the integrity of Italy’s cucina povera: the poor person’s food. “I love it because it’s simple, comforting and delicious – it comes from a good place, not out of ego, it usually comes from necessity or celebration. That means much more to me than something more original or experimental that I could display to people.
“It’s comforting for me to draw back to something that someone has done before, that has a history. It’s good but also understanding how I can contribute to it. There’s no clear guideline but usually less is more”.
With Tyler’s vision and passion, coupled with quickly improving circumstances for the industry as a whole, perhaps the dream of opening Bardele as a restaurant is not so far from becoming a reality. I ask Lea about her dreams for the future. “I’m not so stuck on being a cook as you are,” she smiles to Tyler, “I love being a cook and I love this kind of work, but I just find these hours and circumstances very challenging. I’m looking for another access for myself to food, laying all the options on the table and figuring out if I want to study something more”.
I have no doubt in Lea’s hopes. It’s a growing and exciting phenomenon – perhaps as a by-product of the uncertainty and upheaval of this pandemic – that many chefs, cooks and restaurant staff are reimagining ways to apply their skills to new career paths. It’s a testament to growing respect for this industry and for the people within it, that the adaptability, skill set, and knowledge of restaurant workers is being realized for what it is.
As an easy but revealing final question, I ask Tyler and Lea about the best pasta they ever had. Lea ponders for a moment, before deciding on a pasta dish that Tyler once cooked for them at home; “Penne alla Vodka: a velvety tomato sauce with a splash of vodka, covering these round, hollow pasta noodles. It just made me very happy”.
Tyler names one of his proudest creations; Agnolotti filled with braised rabbit in a carrot broth. “Usually you eat them (Agnolotti) with some butter and sage, but I wanted to put them in a broth, so I cooked carrots in water and strained it and added rabbit jus to season. The broth is slightly sweet, and the rabbit braised in wine, so it’s a little bit acidic, and it just comes together”.
Lea says, “If I think of the food you cook, it’s just really comforting and that’s something that I really admire because it never pushes you to an edge where you think, this is too much. It’s like a hug, it’s really comforting”. Tyler responds, “That’s how it should make you feel”. I couldn’t imagine a sweeter ending.