Over the last year, two-Michelin-starred chef Tim Raue has opened up two new restaurants in his native Berlin. Unlike his fine dining flagship Restaurant Tim Raue, newcomers La Soupe Populaire and Sra Bua are Raue's more casual (and incredibly buzzworthy) entrants into Berlin's gastronomic scene. At La Soupe Populaire, he serves the home-style German dishes — stews, meatballs, and more — that his grandmother might have made. Meanwhile, Sra Bua at the Hotel Adlon Kempinski offers a more approachable price point for the same type of European-style dishes with Asian flavors that are found at Restaurant Tim Raue.
In the following interview, Raue explains how he developed a cooking style that sets him apart from other chefs in Berlin and beyond. He also talks about the dining explosion in Berlin that has seen a rise in Michelin stars and other international plaudits. And, finally, Raue shares his wishlist for international expansion, which includes pretty much everywhere in Asia as well as a potential new spot in New York. Here's the interview:
For those who don't know, how did you get into cooking?
I finished school after the 10th grade and [I had] no home anymore. My dream was to become an interior designer or an architect. But to get a job like that, first you have to study and there was no time for studying. So I asked around what could be a really creative job. And people told me a chef is one of them because you have to work hard, which I like, and it's really creative. So I thought it was the truth, [but] it was a bloody lie. As a chef in the first year, there is nothing creative. It's only the pain in your back and the pain in your hat and the pain in your hand. It's really, really hard. The creative side came about seven or eight years later.
But you stuck with it all those years. Why?
As a young chef, you have no idea about flavors.
I think the problem is that as a young chef you have no understanding about the product. You have no idea about flavors. You have to learn that. If you have the basics, then you can start creating dishes and that means being creative. At first, you need a base and that needs time.
Why was it important for you to stick with it to get to that? I feel like some young chefs might get frustrated with that lack of creativity early on.
I was working in very good restaurants and the problem with working in very good restaurants is that you have guys with you who have done the job longer than you and have experience. If you start in the easier restaurants, you have a lot of creativity. You're working with guys who are on a lower level, [and] they will give you the space to create dishes, like a side dish. On the level I started, it needed a bit of time. But I love it. I learned in that time all the basics I really need for the future. That was the most important thing to me.
Restaurant Tim Raue, Berlin. [Photo: Wolfgang Stahr]
When did it start to switch over to be more of a creative thing for you?
It came with the right position. That means if you're the chef de partie, you are the head of a department. In my case, the first department was the cold starters. They gave me the space to create all dishes. I went to the chef, I presented [dishes] to him, and he saw that my taste was good. I think that was the first thing [that gave me] self-confidence. It was not really in creating complex dishes. It was more that I had a special taste. My taste was different from the others. If I flavored dishes, they had a lot of acidity, they had a natural sweetness with that. This is how, over the years, I really created my own style of flavoring. There are a lot of guys who can cut and steam the fish the same way I do, but the difference is which kind of flavors I give to the steamed fish. This is what makes dishes unique. This is what makes chefs really great or just middle-class.
Where did you pick up those influences that have made your cooking so different?
Mainly, in the first years [of cooking], I really spent my money not to go to clubs. No drugs, no alcohol. I tried to go out once a week in a restaurant. Not Michelin-star places, but very nice places. I tried to go to the best Indian restaurant. I got the best Greek food or Turkish food. So I got a wide range of flavors and a deeper understanding of different ways of cooking.
My first visit to Asia was like being in paradise.
Then, at the age of 28, I went to Asia for the first time. My first visit there was like being in paradise. I went to Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, the great four places to go. I got in touch with all these four different Asian types of cuisine, and I fell absolutely in love. For me, who had grown up with stiff French cuisine and the stiff idea of a French restaurant, that was totally mind-breaking. It was full of flavors, it was relaxed, it was food you can pick with your fingers. The restaurants had no attitude, you just go there if you're hungry. That, for me, was absolutely great.
You have never worked in Asia, right?
I was the global chef for Swissotel, and I was traveling there to do development and be an adviser for new restaurant concepts. I went out in the evening with the guys I worked the whole day with and we went to restaurants. Then I ate the food and I got ideas. I never worked there for a long period. I worked in the kitchen sometimes to see how they work, but I have my own ideas. And this is what makes me so unique. I have an individual style. I mix the European technique of cooking or plating with Asian flavors.
La Soupe Populaire, Berlin. [Photo: Boetzow Berlin]
How did you develop that style? Was that a conscious effort to mix the two or did it come naturally to you?
Really naturally. I was raised with the European technique, and on the other hand I travel to Asia and I get in touch with the different flavors [there]. This is what we're doing right now. So I mix the Japanese focused cuisine — which means the plating is very simple and focused on just the main item — with the flavors of Thai [cuisine]. The Thai...have in their kitchen a sweetness from the natural sweet of fruit, acidity, and spiciness. The overall philosophy [of my restaurants] is to eat like the Chinese, which means that everything is easy to handle. In China, you sit down and you just have fun. There is no attitude like in the stiff French or European fine dining restaurants.
Let's talk about Berlin. The dining scene has really been exploding there over the years — Michelin stars, two New York Times critics filing raves about your restaurant. What has that evolution been like from your standpoint as a Berlin native?
I think the reason is that Berlin was growing over the last years was tourism, people coming here doing business. The [fine dining] restaurants you have here, are not the scene for the natives or the locals. It's more for the people who come in here from the outside to do business. But, on the other hand, what is really positive as well is that the middle-class restaurants, which have a great price value, are growing at the moment. They have a wide range of great food.
Are you saying the restaurants for the middle class are more for locals?
In Germany, we don't have the culture to spend money on food.
Yeah. We have wealthy people in Berlin, but it has nothing to do with the wealthiness you can find in London or Paris. Berlin is more a place where you have a lot of creatives, like Barcelona. In Germany, we don't have the culture to spend that much money on good food. In our culture, we spend on houses or cars or traveling the world. But honestly if we're home, we go for discounter, which means really cheap supermarkets. So we have a different idea of what we spend for food. It's not like being in New York, where people have such small flats that they go out because they cannot meet at home with their friends.
And last year you branched out with two more casual restaurants. Why was it the right time for that?
It was the places. I get offered four or five places per month worldwide, hotels or independent places. I thought both [of these] places would be great. One was in the Adlon, and [the other] was the idea to create a restaurant which is the trend in gastronomy in the last two years, to downgrade. That means that I offer great food for a fantastic value, and I do the dishes of my grandmother. The other restaurant [in the Hotel Adlon] was a more casual Asian place. Both were [opened with] the idea to pick up a wider range of guests. Both concepts are running really well, so I think I don't have to [open] my two-star place a second time in Berlin. It could be that we go I-don't-know-where in the world to do that. But, here in Berlin, I wanted to open up a range of places.
Sra Bua by Tim Raue, Berlin. [Photo: Hotel Adlon Kempinski]
Are you still considering expansion to Hong Kong or elsewhere internationally like you told Food Arts last year?
We're looking at opening in the New York market.
I would like to open one in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Shanghai, New York, Paris, Tokyo. No, at that time we were in really good talks with an investor in Hong Kong. But honestly, if you do a partnership, you really have to trust your partner and that didn't happen. Now we're looking at the New York market because we have a friend there who will open a restaurant and is interested to partner with us. But one day I would like to have a restaurant in Asia because that gives me the reason to travel there monthly. It's really inspiration to go there. I need it.
How often do you go there now?
Three to four times per year.
Finally, I want to ask about the second Michelin star. Once you got that, how does it change the restaurant in terms of demand and interest?
You step out in a new world. It has nothing to do with what you were doing before. You have an increase of guests. But also you have an increase in revenue because guests have much better knowledge, are drinking much better wines. If you're doing a great job, you don't have to care that people have higher expectations. Because I think I have the highest expectation from that restaurant.
Of course, PR-wise, people from the press are from the international, national side. People are much more interested. Because we can tell a story, we are not worried about that. We have enough to do.