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Embarking on his career as the Berlin Wall came down was an interesting start for German Gymnasium's executive chef. When not in London, he'sback exploring the best of his homeland, or tending to chickens in Ethiopia
Interview by Alex Mead
A chef having a stake in a farm is nothing new. Who doesn’t want to present a picture of the man or woman behind the stove lovingly tending to their chickens, cattle or pigs and ensuring they’re well-fed and looked after as if they were their own offspring? But while Alex Thiel naturally cares about the produce he serves in German Gymnasium, sourcing from his Ethiopian chicken farm isn’t part of his plan.
‘I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa,’ the German-born chef tells us. ‘I fell in love with
Ethiopia and wanted to help one of the guys who’d supported me, but I didn’t want to give money. So we decided to start a chicken farm in Lalibela, a town famous for its rock churches – a bit like the ones in Petra, Jordan.’
Civil war decimated the town in 2020, and Alex helped with the rebuilding in Bahir Dar. ‘The first farm was destroyed but now we have 1,000 chickens and that looks after five families.’
Ethiopia is perhaps an unusual place to start an article about Germany, but that’s Alex
for you. He’s led a varied life that’s taken him from former East Germany, through the era
of the Berlin Wall, across the Alps to London and the States, zig-zagging this way. ‘I’m from Thuringia,’ he says, taking us to the start. ‘It’s in the east and a bit like the Black Forest.
‘Every day and night, it’s all about coffee and cake,’ he laughs. ‘That’s the reason I’m
late for this interview – I’ve been interviewing a head pastry chef and that side of things is so important.
‘It was very rural,’ he says of the central German state,‘and we lived in a very little hamlet.
My first memories are of running through the woods with friends and coming back when it was getting dark. We’d forage whatever we could – mushrooms, berries – and then look for little tadpoles and bring everything home alive in little jars.
‘It was probably not too dissimilar to everywhere in Germany at the time. East and West were no different – classic German food, very meaty,’ explains Alex. ‘I remember
every Saturday a neighbour would be having a barbecue with bratwurst. We had
sausage all the time, almost every day. Then it was goulash at weekends, and meatloaf and everything in between. Cakes every weekend too. Mum would always make two cakes
or a tray bake. Things like poppy seed and quark (creamy cheese) cake.
‘For most Germans it was all about pork then – beef was almost for posh people. Although,’ he adds, ‘the best sausage I’ve had is actually veal from Switzerland. I had one in Zurich airport last summer – it was crazy expensive though, £22 for a sausage, bit of
ketchup and a bread roll, but I had to have it.’
The family moved to East Berlin, where a lack of options led him to the kitchen. ‘In
late-Eighties East Germany, there were no jobs, it was very dire. It was either mechanic or
teacher, and I had no intention of doing any of that.
‘At 16, I was unemployed and Mum said I needed to find a job, so I just said to her, “I know, I’ll be a chef.” My grandfather was a hobby chef and he cooked for the family, so I thought it’d make him happy, and shut my mum up – I had no idea what I was doing.’
The timing was good. ‘My apprenticeship started in the summer and in the November
the wall came down. Over the next three years everything in Berlin changed.
‘We’d been cut off from everything and these chefs started coming to work from all
parts of Germany to try their luck, so many different ones. As an apprentice, I was protected and couldn’t be fired – unless I stole something – so I saw them all. We were in Mitte, which today is a very cool place where everything happens. Even back then it was very posh, for the elite. One salmon used to come in every day and it would be very expensive, so nobody was allowed to fillet it except for the head chef. We were only allowed to look.
When the wall came down the whole menu changed’, he remembers. ‘There was so
much variety – bananas, kiwis, so our fruit salads would be fresh instead of from the tin.’
While Alex found himself in the centre of Berlin at the best of times (‘techno had started, underground clubs were opening, so I was out each night, with no money,
but still the high life’), it was challenging too. ‘My parents were scared because every
second job was lost,’ he says. ‘The security and structure were all gone,’ he says. ‘Before,
places were overstaffed to ensure people had jobs, but in the real world that didn’t work.’
He met a girl, moved to Hamburg and found himself in a Michelin-starred restaurant. ‘I didn’t even know what Michelin was,’ he admits.
But as much as he loved Hamburg, there was a problem. ‘The army were looking for me – there was conscription then,’ says Alex. ‘That wasn’t really for me, so I had to get out of
the country, and I managed to get a job in Fort William in the Scottish Highlands.’ Stints in London, Switzerland and the US followed, where he served A-listers at Washington
DC’s Restaurant Lespinasse. ‘I told Michael Jordan basketball wasn’t a big game in Germany, and was punished with two weeks washing pots,’ he recalls.
Working with a brigade of chefs, many from Europe, taught the young chef discipline, and he’d return to Berlin, eventually running his own restaurant, before heading back to London and finding his way to Barrafina.
When he decided his time there had come to an end, he went travelling again. ‘I’d
often cycled past German Gymnasium, thinking maybe one day I’d get my hands on it,’ he admits. ‘And then I got a call when I was in Turkey to say they needed an executive chef, and sent my CV straightaway.’
Now at the helm, Alex is working hard to change ideas about German cuisine. ‘The perception sometimes is that everything is pork knuckle and lederhosen, but that’s just one of the 16 states,’ he says. ‘I want to be more seasonal, and have some German classics on the menu: duck, whole trout, white asparagus, brown shrimps – just to show it’s not all sausage and schnitzel.’
While he takes diners on a culinary tour of Germany, he’s doing the same himself. ‘I’ve
travelled so much around the world that I never really appreciated Germany,’ he says. ‘My English partner wanted to know about Germany, so we go back for walking holidays. Sächsische Schweiz [in Saxony, near the Czech border] is great for hiking. It’s close to
Dresden, where there’s great food and you get the best bienenstich (almond cake). ‘Every little town and hamlet along Lake Bodensee [Constance] has beautiful
restaurants serving local foods like felchen, a fish a bit like tout you only find there. And there’s good wine: müller-thurgau, spätburgunder (pinot noir), sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and dornfelder.
‘Then there’s Deutsches Eck, where the Mosel and the Rhine meet. You can cycle or boat
along the Rhine – there are so many quality vineyards.’
His list goes on to include the coastline near Hamburg, Heidelberg and the wine route Saale-Unstrut...
‘There are unbelievably nice things to see, even in the east!’ he concludes succinctly.
‘Once it was all beer and no wine in East Germany, but now they’re winning awards, and it’s all so good.’
BOUTIQUE HOTEL PFAUEN, SCHORNDORF
This small hotel to the east of Stuttgart in Baden- Württemberg has a Michelin starred restaurant. It’s run by an ex-apprentice of mine and does regional cuisine with a French touch. pfauen-schorndorf.de
HOTEL SEEHOF, LAKE BODENSEE
On the shores of the lake, this privately owned hotel has a huge summer terrace – there’s an incredible view and excellent menu with great wines. I went there again last summer and it’s still amazing. The owner still works FOH and BOH. meersburg-seehof.de
RESTAURANT BRICOLE, BERLIN
This German cuisine restaurant received a Michelin star in 2022. I’ve been following this
little place since opening and it gets better and better. Highly recommend. bricole.de
OH PANAMA, BERLIN
A trendy, vibrant restaurant that’s set over two floors. It’s near Potsdamer Platz in the centre of Berlin and they serve modern German cuisine – a sort of play on traditional family dinners but with plenty of sophisticated touches. oh-panama.com
A traditional fine-dining restaurant in a historic, vaulted cellar in a very old mill in the heart of Munich. I visited again this February and it was very good: excellent service, great wine. pfistermuehle.de
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