The American Outlander in Brandenburg
The outlander in Brandenburg with zero german language skills enters the east german style kitchen.
Check out the last First Impressions blog to read the story in succession.
It was time for me to join the controlled chaos of the kitchen. Everyone was of the same culture all speaking the German language that I could not. As I walked with Markus through the terrace area, it was clear from the faces of the staff that my Outlander presence was expected and noticed. No-one besides Markus spoke or understood English and my German clearly needed help. Later that afternoon, I was prepared to meet with the head chef and attempt to have a conversation, fortunately, Markus informed me that both he and I would be speaking with the chef of the hotel. Apparently, the word, ‘Chef’ in German refers to an owner or boss and not a cook exclusively in the kitchen. “When referring to a chef in the kitchen a distinction must be made. Everyone in the kitchen is a cook. In this kitchen, a combo of the classic French and general European system of hierarchy titles is followed. Here the structure consisted of one ‘Kuchen Chef’ (head chef / Chef de Cuisine), one Sous Chef (the chef’s primary assistant / second in command), one Chef de Partie (station chef), and two Apprentice Kochs (apprentice line cooks still in school). All cooks wanting to work professionally must go through an apprentice style system regardless of age. First, they must land a job as an apprentice in the food service industry. Then they work for two weeks and attend school for one week following the three-week alternating pattern for 3 years. At the end of the final year, the apprentice must pass the rigorous practical and written exams before graduating to becoming a certified cook up to German standards. Does all that make sense?” Markus said in hopes that his explanation was clear.
“Yes Chef!” I exclaimed feeling witty in my response as we laughed and walked up to the door of the kitchen.
The time had come to jump in the cold water and meet the rest of the team. The Sous Chef came over exclaiming a greeting of “Guten Morgen (Good Morning)!” on his way over. He extended his hand to mine introducing himself as Herr (Mr.) Felix. As we shook hands, I couldn’t help but notice his tattoos desperately wanting to show face as they peeked out just over the crook of his elbow from under the rolled-up sleeves of his chef’s coat. His face revealed a Rockstar look with a rather pointed beard and mustache ends. His high energy was hard to miss as he quickly placed some equipment in the dish pit and signaled that I should follow him. Markus headed out and Herr Felix immediately started to show me around the small kitchen while speaking loudly to me in German as if it would help me understand him better. From corner to corner, we toured around until each nook and cranny had been seen.
The door swung open and the nervous energy of a person arriving late to the workplace entered the room ready to begin his shift. He quickly came over and extended his hand to mine introducing himself as Igor the Chef de Partie before heading straight to the hand washing sink. An uneasy air of stress and uncertainty seemed to follow him as the Sous Chef darted a look that could penetrate the conscious of a guilty man in Igor’s direction. I assumed that he mentioned to Igor that we were going to continue our tour and that he was in charge in the kitchen until we got back, but the word for word was certainly not understood.
Down the steps and out across the table-filled terrace, the tour carried on to the Lagerraum (storeroom). A heavy dark green colored door was unlocked revealing a dry food storage area. As we walked through the first room and a doorway with no door, a large plate and platter storage area along with a walk-in refrigerator and freezer came into view. In the refrigerator, the shelves along the sides held all the products efficiently in the spots where they belonged. I could visualize myself spending quite a bit of time in the storeroom trying to quickly straighten out all the German vocabulary words swirling in my head. Each vocabulary word was now staring straight at me in the form of physical stuff and things complete with German labels for observational review.
In the walk-in refrigerator, two cooks were reading off their lists and gathering products in baskets. As we walked in, they stopped immediately to greet us and each of them spouted out a greeting of “Guten Morgen!” together in unison before carrying on with their work. They looked a bit different from the rest. Both were wearing white flat fitted chef hats and their white chef coats had small round white buttons. Herr Felix and Igor, however, had no hats with free heads of freshly washed short hairs and white chef coats with small black round buttons. The buttons seemed to symbolize rank with the white buttons indicating apprenticeship and the black buttons indicating a certified cook. I had never seen this obvious display of kitchen rank before, yet I appreciated the sentiment.
Back in the kitchen it was time to make final preparations since a large party was showing up that evening. “Die Kartoffeln sind fast alle, Zum anfang, Du kannst die Kartoffeln schälen mit diese Schäler hier ins Waschbecken. Ok Evelyn?” I understood, Kartoffeln (potatoes), Schäler (peeler), and Waschbecken (sink) and that was all I needed to know to understand the sentence. I responded to Herr Felix with an emphatic “Jawohl (Yes sir)!” He was taken aback by my enthusiasm and with a proud smile on his mouth he said “Haha, Genau so muss das sein, richtig Igor?! (Exactly, that’s how it has to be, right Igor?!)” Igor paused and turned with a small smile on his face also answering with a loud militaristic sounding “Jawohl!” before carrying on with preparations. I had a 50-kilo bag of potatoes to peel my way through. Luckily, I was in the perfect spot to be able to stay busy yet also observe what was going on in the rest of the kitchen.
Everyone had a responsibility, and a sense of urgency was felt. As we prepped for that evening, there were also al-a-carte orders coming in causing moments of variation and the necessity to
constantly start and stop. The kuchen chef that I met a few days earlier known as Herr (Mr.) Dieter came sauntering in through the back door with his black buttoned white chef’s coat. He took a straight line in my direction with his hand extended to complete the customary handshake greeting. “Hallo Evelyn, es ist schön dich endlich in die Küche zu sehen. Hier kannst du die gute alte Ost-deutsche Küche mit ein paar Twists kennenlernen! Hast du das Menu schon gesehen?“ The words Küche (kitchen), Ost-deutsche (east german), kennenlernen (to get to know), and Menu stood out to me, but it was taking me longer to piece everything together. He continued on with his one-way conversation carried out in his rough and direct sound as if at any minute I would suddenly understand everything that he was saying. He handed me the menu and asked, “You know Quark?”. I searched my brain but came up with nothing “Nein”. He went over and pulled out a 5 kg container of Quark and pushed a spoon into my hand. “Probieren sie der Quark (try this Quark).” I took a spoonful in my mouth and was surprised by this very different texture. Thicker than yogurt yet not a creamed cheese and slightly curdy. It was rather plain by itself, yet oddly enjoyable. I could see it tasting good in or on something or even as a dip. He brought me over to a bowl of batter and pointed to indicate that the quark was in the batter. I gave him a thumbs up and he did the same right back. “Alles klar, wir müssen weiter. Wie sieht alles aus Herr Felix?! (All right, we must carry on. How does everything look for tonight Mr. Felix?!)” I turned my gaze back to the menu and attempted to read and understand what we were making tonight. I had never seen nor heard of any of it before.
The stress and responsibility that Herr Dieter felt for the dinner this evening was expressed through his quick to-the-point questions and comments that shot around the room. His loud intensity also demanded the respect of each person that he commanded with a figurative whip. This intensity brought about a fearful stress in each cook. It was hard to tell whether all the yelling around was really necessary or not, but in his mind, it was the only way.
We plated the Soljanka (a tomato-based meat soup) with a fancy-looking lemon slice holding a touch of sour cream and caviar. The pork steak “au four” course referred to a pork steak topped with a fair amount of chicken ragout and covered with gratinated cheese served with a salad bouquet and salted potatoes. The meal ended with a silver dollar-sized quark pancake covered with some nice-looking fresh fruit and vanilla sauce on the side to be poured over table-side. Everything looked delicious and rustic done well.
This was certainly not what I imagined I would be cooking or eating in Germany. I was so used to only associating big pretzels, schnitzel, bratwurst, sauerkraut, and spaetzle to German cuisine. I honestly never thought any dish would lack one of these seemingly traditional components. I was now an American outlander in Brandenburg living in East Germany where there is more variety to German cuisine than previously thought.
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Photo by Max Nayman on Unsplash