Distracted by dry ice barrelling out the bamboo basket before me, I’d barely become aware of his presence when I heard a ‘Yoohoo!’ and turned to my left to see chef Tim Raue. Rocking on his sneakers, a porcelain teapot poised, he was waiting to pour 10-year-old Kamebishi soy onto my plate. It pooled around the steamed fish, melding with straw-gold clarified butter. ‘A bit of German,’ says Raue, tilting the spout.
Tim Raue is one of Berlin’s most celebrated chefs. He once ran with Kreuzberg’s notorious 36 Boys gang, but is now decorated instead with Michelin stars (two to be exact). In 2015 his eponymous restaurant made the flying leap from number 78 to number 52 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and he’s opened a fourth: Studio Tim Raue. This is a man to watch. ‘I’m a native of Berlin,’ says Raue, ‘or the region Prussia, but culinary-wise I’m totally Asian.’ This isn’t out of place.
Most of the restaurants recommended to me by Berliners are Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean or Chinese-esque – Long March Canteen, Prince, Kuchi, Kimchi Princess – so Raue’s style is perfectly poised as the high-end of this Asian wave. His Damascene moment happened in Singapore at the Fullerton Hotel. ‘I had this Chinese-Thai dish,’ he says, ‘fried cod topped with som tam – a Thai salad of green mango and papaya with chillies. So it was these crisp vegetables, the crispy fish, and a clear stock of the prik nam pla (Thai fish sauce), which was really spicy, with some lime.
‘It was everything you expect from food: crispy, creamy, juicy, acidity, spiciness… It was like a roller-coaster trip on the palate and in the mouth. I ordered that dish another three times… to really breathe it in, take it in every gene I have…’ Som tam is what I ate sitting cross-legged on the grass at Berlin’s ‘Thai Park’ – an informal gathering of Thai women who cook on a greenbelt in Wilmersdorf. The intensity didn’t come close to lunch at Restaurant Tim Raue, which had hot-sour-sweet-salty bouncing around my mouth like a rocket, pushing out my cheeks cartoon-style.
Hours later my tongue was still zinging – as if showered with popping candy – and when I described his flavours as ‘punchy’ Raue shot me an approving look. ‘Nice wording,’ he said. You have to meet him to get a sense of his no-BS attitude. In his cooking he strips away carbs and cream (‘they muffle flavour’) and in interviews, the small talk. ‘Start asking questions,’ he said, ‘and you get answers.’ Photographs don’t convey Raue’s fighting spirit, only the baby-face, the perfectionist.
His dining room reflects a similar dichotomy: serenity and provocation. Harald Hermann’s oil painting of garbage bags at the Venice Biennale challenges patrons with the back-end they never see. And Olivia Steele’s The End in neon-lit cursive curls across an atomic mushroom cloud.China comes through loud and clear too, in artist Yue Minjun’s laughing faces downstairs – and in Raue’s pièce de résistance, ‘Peking Duck interpretation TR’, a three-part ritual of silky duck liver pâté with glacé-like cucumber and a deep mahogany broth with star anise overtones. If you’re a sucker for the Willoughby’s ‘4×4’, there’s deep-fried langoustine cloaked in wasabi mayo and pale-green petals of puffed rice.
Restaurant Tim Raue isn’t far from Checkpoint Charlie – both, in a sense, gateways to freedom. ‘Berlin is as vibrant as it is because there are people from around the world coming here,’ explains Raue, ‘because they can feel free in every way: art, sexuality… You can go through the streets as a drag queen and no one cares. And you can cook whatever you want. A tiny, fat German can be an Asian chef.’
Published in Private Edition in 2015.