Just when it looked like Berlin might be overrun by food stalls and trucks selling everything from Jamaican jerk chicken to Russian dumplings, some of the most successful vendors have started bucking the trend and settling into more permanent digs. The Future Breakfast took its Instagram-ready avocado toasts to a vintage shop; Chicha now serves ceviche in Neukölln; Chai Wallahs dishes up Indian chaat in Kreuzberg; and Fräulein Kimchi satisfies Korean-fusion cravings.
One of the best of the bunch, Hirsch & Eber (German for "deer and boar") set up shop on a leafy boulevard in Prenzlauer Berg last November. Like many of its wheeled competitors, this haute fast food outpost started as a side project before morphing into a fully fledged venture. While locally sourced ingredients elevate this Imbiss (or fast food) fare, what really sets it apart is that it remains an old-fashioned family business at its core.
Brothers Matthias, Jasper, and Sebastian Ahrens grew up in rural Germany in a family of avid hunters. Roast venison was more likely to grace the Christmas table than goose, and picking up a wild duck from the neighbors for 2 euros for dinner was the norm. The three went their separate ways, but never got over the fact that the game they took for granted as kids had such an elitist reputation in the big city. Fast-forward through a series of market pop-ups, a roving truck, and a few dozen metric tons of wild meat, and the trio now do a brisk business selling boar burgers and venison-boar currywurst.
I recently met up with Jasper to chat about sibling bonding, making the leap from television to sous vide cookery, and how exactly one procures a roomful of wild boar.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Jasper. You've said that your dad was an avid hunter. Jasper Ahrens: Still is. If he can't sleep at night, he'll either watch a film or he'll go outside and put on his hunting clothes—maybe 2, 3, 4 o'clock in the morning. He'll take a book and he'll sit somewhere. Some of the animals start moving right before the sun comes up, and that's one of the best times to shoot them.
So at 5 AM, do you think, Now would be a great time to go hunting? No, and one of the reasons my brothers and I don't hunt is that there are so many other things you could do at 5 o'clock in the morning. I think it's also sort of a generation thing. My dad's generation were hunters. And the generation after that changed. When my brothers and I grew up, we wouldn't tell people that we came from a hunting background, because we would be mocked or ridiculed. It was a class thing. There were also animal rights issues. And that perception has changed dramatically. The people who would go at you years ago are now the ones who are in favor of hunting, because it seems like the more humane alternative to animals being killed in a factory setting.
Is that why you decided to sell wild game? We've eaten venison all our lives, not because it was a fancy food, but because it was just an option that was always in the freezer. My little brother finally came up with the idea and said, "Why don't we do fast food?" The concept was to do something with venison, to make it an accessible and a sustainable Imbiss option. We thought, Can't we do the same things as with beef or pork, but use meat that you don't have to think twice about?
It's interesting that sustainability is such a focus, even though you don't really market yourselves that way. If you've got bio [organic] this and bio that and bio fries, it gets to be a bit much. We don't write it up on the menu, but basically everything we buy is bio, down to the ketchup, mayonnaise, and butter.
You mentioned venison, but it's not the only game meat you're selling. Our burgers are made solely from wild boar, and the "pulled pork" we do is pulled boar. The reason for that [is] that venison does not have enough body fat. We wanted to exclude domestic pig completely, so we needed the fat from the wild boar. I think that differentiates us from most other places in Berlin serving "venison burgers." If you look at them closely, almost all of them will have roughly 20 percent venison and the rest will be normal beef.
Why don't you think more restaurants are going all-in? Venison's never been a commercially successful meat. The numbers for wild game just don't make it viable for a big business thing. Just to give an example, there are about 70,000 wild boars shot every year in Brandenburg, whereas the big slaughterhouses for domestic pigs go through about 20,000 a night. Obviously that limits us—maybe in a good way. We're not going to become a McDonald's. We can't.
You may not be McDonald's, but you still do a decent turnover. How do you make sure you have enough of everything? What we're doing now requires a complicated structure in order to keep the resources flowing. We order in November, when the hunting season starts, for the whole year. I think this year we ordered five or six [metric] tons. If you want to visualize it, a normal-size cow weighs a ton, so imagine five or six of those sitting in various storage units. When we run out, we can't just go to Metro and get more.
Where do you source all that meat from? Friends of ours have a very a large hunt on the border between Brandenburg and lower Saxony. They hunt it, and the stuff they don't kill themselves they source from neighboring farmers. So we can tell them, "Make sure it's not old animals or really big animals" because they taste a bit gamey.
Like a number of Berlin restaurants, you launched a food truck before opening this place. It's funny. We never really had the romantic food truck goal, but we've slipped into the whole street food scene. The food truck wasn't even an option at first. When we started the company, we had little stalls that we would put up at food markets. Then we got booked by Jägermeister to do two big gigs for them. One was the start of a tour for a band and they needed someone to make 700 burgers in four hours.
That's a lot of logistics to sort out. It's amazing, because all of you were doing completely different things before this. I still am, actually. I'm a filmmaker, I write, I work for television. But at the moment I'm also writing a film script. I used to work for MTV a lot.
So how do you go from writing for programs like Maria, ihm schmeckt's nicht! and Mein Neuer Freund to the restaurant business? Basically, we're not professional cooks. We just love cooking and have done it all our lives. We're sort of learning as we go along. We're always trying new stuff. Once we've got it, we move onto the next thing. It usually takes about two weeks—the first batch rarely comes out the way you want it to.
What are you working on at the moment? We've got boar ribs slow-cooking tonight and we'll try them tomorrow. We've also been doing steak and fries. You have this venison cooked sous vide, and then we'll take that out and throw that on the griddle to caramelize it a little bit. We serve it on a pile of truffle-parmesan fries. Steaks are really difficult with venison because if it's not just right, it'll get dry and be really boring. When we tried the whole sous vide thing, we were silent for a moment and we just looked at one another, then my little brother went, "We got it. That's it!"
Would you say you're creeping away from Imbiss-type food and more toward fine dining? It's less fine dining and more a sort of rustic way of dealing with fine meat. We like to keep it simple, but we like to treat the meat really well. That's our focus. That's what we live off [of]. People will need to like our meat to come back.
What does your dad think of all this? He loves the fact that we're all together. We built almost everything here ourselves, with very little help from construction workers. When we were working on the restaurant, he would come up and live here for two or three days a week. At lunchtime, my father would cook. Sometimes our wives and children would come and we'd be ten, 12 people sitting at the table. I know he really enjoyed that.
Thanks for speaking with me.