How Two Dutch Chefs Are Reinventing Berlin's Restaurant Scene
Serving an eclectic menu that includes Dutch bitterballen and baba au rhum, Lode & Stijn is the antidote to Berlin restaurants decked out in mismatched vintage furniture.
Photo by Hendrik Haase.
Lode & Stijn, one of Berlin's most anticipated new restaurants of 2016, didn't happen overnight. Despite opening last month to a full calendar of reservations, the concept has been quite a few years in the making.
Lode van Zuylen and Stijn Remi, the young Dutch chefs at the helm, first met at culinary school in 2003. Despite going their separate ways and bucking down at kitchens around the world—in Stockholm, San Francisco, Prague, and Hamburg—the dream was always to work together one day.
Two years ago, they went for it. Berliners got acquainted with Lode & Stijn's laidback yet upmarket style through pop-ups, from holding a decadent brunch at Silo to serving up wild boar at Schlachtfest. Now the chefs have found a permanent space to call home in Kreuzberg, just off the Landwehr Canal.
With a refurbished interior that's bright, minimalistic, and accented with new wood benches and chairs, Lode & Stijn is the antidote to neighborhood restaurants decked out in mismatched vintage furniture and booze bottles acting as candleholders.
But it's not trying to be an outlier. Rather, it's just a sincere reflection of the chefs, much like their menu: no-fuss food that's skillfully made, from traditional Dutch to eclectic dishes like baba au rhum and Pavlova inspired by their travels.
We caught up with the guys to learn more about how they got here.
MUNCHIES: So did you guys hit it off right from the get-go or what? Stijn Remi: We always worked together well, in school but also at the restaurant where we worked for three years together after. But really we got to be friends from going out and drinking a beer together after [work] and then found that our personalities fit really well. That was the "what happens when you find a soul mate" kind of thing.
Lode van Zuylen: [laughs] We just weren't much interested in football, cars, those stereotypical topics that you often find in the kitchen.
That's cute, guys. So moving around all those years after, were you always in touch? Stijn: It was rare that we spoke. It depended on the periods. But that's the nice thing—we went for multiple years without having a lot of contact, and suddenly you see each other one day and it was like before. And also that you meet so many people during your career, but nobody is the same as Lode for me and vice versa.
We easily had 100 colleagues together but nobody was like either of us. That says enough, I guess.
So how did you both end up coming to Berlin? Lode: When Stijn lived in Prague he was with a German girl, and I had a German girlfriend for a long time, and then we talked about it. Me and my girlfriend really wanted to move to Germany, and then, yeah—Berlin was the obvious pick.
Stijn: I was planning to write Lode an email, thinking we should get into contact again and maybe it was time to do something of our own. But he ended up sending me an email first and it was really the same words I would have sent to him. And that's when we really got the strong idea. We thought Berlin would be an especially good city because it gives young people possibilities to develop.
What exactly was the game plan? Lode: We knew we didn't want to take chef jobs, because five days a week, 12 hours a day we wouldn't have time for our own restaurant plans. So I took a job as a baker at Markthalle Neun, then I knew Big Stuff Smoked BBQ was looking for staff and that's how Stijn ended up getting a job there.
Stijn: It was the best decision, because after working one year in Markthalle we got to know so many people and they heard about our plans and that's how people started to support us with places where we could do pop-ups. And all those pop-ups and events helped us to get to know the public and our customers along the way.
How did you decide it was finally time to open your own restaurant? Lode: It was really about finding the right place. We had a lot of frustrated walks around Berlin—like when you're walking for six hours, and you find something and have a look, but you already know at the moment when you call the real estate agent, "This will never be our place," but you just give it a go.
When we visited this space it was actually a tip by someone who has a stand in Markthalle Neun. It wasn't publicly up for taking and we went in, got a tour, and we walked out. And it was like ten seconds of silence and then "yes."
Stijn: In the end it was worth it waiting a bit longer, not saying yes to the first thing we could find and also putting in everything new and all the construction we did here. This place is so perfect. And it feels better every day.
There was a lot of hype when you opened. Did you feel pressure to succeed? Stijn: I didn't worry about it one second because I was overwhelmed myself that the place looked so amazing, I didn't really worry or care about what people think because I felt very comfortable here. But as soon as we started and I saw our customers and I heard they were reserving four weeks beforehand, then I thought, 'They really have expectations' and from that point I started to realize people are really waiting for this. We have to deliver.
Lode: What really worried us, especially during the construction phase, you have this starting amount of money that goes wooop [makes downward motion with hands] and then we're like, 'We need to have a full place, who are those people going to be? And now all of sudden we've done more than 25 guests every day, on average more than 40, and we're doing way better than we ever thought.
Stijn: We ask almost every customer how did they find us, and it is mostly through blogs. And we also see all ages, not just youngsters. That's also the thing—we're young guys but we take this very serious and professional, and I hope older people can put that on a scale and not just think we're a bunch of hipster dudes doing a restaurant and putting it on Instagram.
Lode: That is something that people sometimes see in us. There have been people who walk through this door, and I remember this blog once wrote a week or two after we opened, 'What's that moaning you hear? It's Berlin food bloggers crème fraîche-ing themselves [over Lode & Stijn]." It's a compliment but also embarrassing. I don't want people to enter this space with that mentality.
Stijn: We didn't open a restaurant to crème fraîche ourselves. Well, maybe a bit—otherwise it's no fun. But still we want to create a restaurant for people to come and enjoy the meal without being analytic or critical about it. That's, first, not worth the money; and second, not how you go about going to a restaurant right.
So what are you learning from owning a restaurant that you didn't from pop-ups? Stijn: German customers are the toughest to please. But when you get them to smile, you've made it. That's the only thing we ask from our customers is to be open, and with foreign customers that tends to be easier.
Lode: Often people write about us as these young Dutch guys—"They're so funny and friendly and they do good bitterballen." Then they see the prices and it's like, "Oh, this is serious. I thought it was a happy, easy place." And we are, but there's so much more to it than that. When we come to the table, we're super-enthusiastic but we know you're not paying 60 euros per person to be our friends.
Stijn: People here [in Berlin] are definitely used to restaurants with flohmarkt [flea market] interiors. But there's a price difference at our restaurant because you get the whole package here—a nice interior, free drinking water, there's even a playlist specially sourced for the restaurant.
Lode: We want to show people it's possible to be serious but also enthusiastic at the same time.
Thanks for speaking with me.