Michael Köhle is the former restaurant manager of Hugos and cofounder of Herz & Niere—a sustainable nose-to-tail dining establishment in Berlin's Kreuzberg district—which he opened with chef Christoph Hauser, formerly of 3 Minutes sur Mer and Weinbar Rutz. He is also the coauthor of the restaurant's forthcoming cookbook.
Last year, Christoph and I got 200 kilos of quinces. Out of that, we made 60 liters of juice, 30 liters of vinegar, and almost a hundred loaves of bread. We even made quince liqueur. The peel, the core, the pulp—by the time we were done, absolutely nothing was left. When we say we use every part, we're not just talking about animals.
We didn't call ourselves "Nose to Tail" because we didn't want an English name. The German version is "Kopf bis Schwanz," (which can mean either "head to tail" or "head to penis") ... not exactly an easy sell. So we said that because we had thought so long and hard about our concepts—because they were, as the German saying goes, "auf Herz und Nieren geprüft" ("tried and tested")—we would name ourselves Herz & Niere. It also fits, since it literally translates to "heart and kidney."
People think we only sell offal, which isn't true. Our menu is never fully written out in advance and it's always changing, depending on what we can get. We have a hunter who shoots deer and wild boar, but we also have a vegetarian tasting menu of up to five courses nightly. Interestingly, a number of our regular guests are vegetarians. When we start with a vegetable—whether we roast it, confit it, or braise it—we treat it with the same respect as a piece of meat. It's a very different approach to your stereotypical vegetarian restaurant, where the bratwurst looks like a bratwurst but is actually made out of tofu. You'll never find that kind of stuff with us. Of course, if you do want to eat only offal—as a number of guests do—we can prepare a full eight courses of it.
We cooperate with restaurants and suppliers that slaughter whole animals. A good friend runs a cafeteria and has his own cows. Obviously, he can't work with offal in the cafeteria, but instead of chucking it, he gives it all to us. It says on our menu, "every part of the animal has earned the right to be fully used and consumed." And we stand by that.
There's no Cola, Fanta, or Sprite here—only juices that we press ourselves. We gather scattered fruit when possible and store it in recycled beer bottles. We have rhubarb, plum, and apple from the year's first apples. It has this unbelievably pure flavor. There's no sugar, no artificial anything. It's just apple, pressed and heated quickly to be shelf-stable. The only problem is you get out exactly what you put in. Occasionally a bad apple slips in, in which case the whole batch tastes like bad apple and has to be tossed.
In February, a 16-year-old mother cow was slaughtered. I love when we can get an animal that has lived a long, full life. The taste of the meat is completely different, much more intense. If you go to the supermarket to pick up a piece of beef, it might be from an animal that was a year-and-a-half-old at most. We put a lot of value in that. Her name was Claudi, by the way. And Claudi was with us for a very long time, as we worked through piece by piece.
The offal needed to be used right away. There were about 60 kilos of ribs, which we could keep for three to four weeks. We braised the ribs, portioned and vacuum-sealed them. Larger pieces of meat could be left to dry-age on the bone for three to four months. We got a total of more than 400 kilos of meat off the carcass. We used very traditional preservation methods—salting and so on. We made ham out of Claudi's belly. We made our own salami and bratwurst.
"Organic" certification isn't something we value much. If someone says, "I've got a pig," we'd rather go to the farm and check it out for ourselves. For instance, a month ago, a friend's pig had a foot infection and he gave it antibiotics. On an organic farm, the pig would suffer until it eventually had to be slaughtered, at which point the meat would be all but worthless. We'd rather let the animal receive the treatment it needs to avoid unnecessary pain, then wait three months for all of the antibiotics to exit the body. We prefer open communication with the farmer or the hunter to saying, "You need the paperwork for certification."
Of course, this is all a lot of work. We have our own field, where we grow most of our produce, and three or four hours of weeding and watering goes by fast. It's hard, but on the other hand it's also great to drive there in the morning and see it. We were like kids when the first tiny carrots started poking out of the ground. It's an amazing feeling.
In winter, the only tomatoes you'll find in our restaurant are the ones we've preserved. That's how we get through the colder months, with a little help from kale, cabbages, and other winter vegetables. We pickle lots of our own vegetables, as well as those from suppliers. We have an excellent French supplier who comes once a week with crates of purple carrots and other heirlooms.
A lot of people have asked us how we came to this trend, to which we answer, "This isn't a trend." People have done this for hundreds of years. When farmers in the south of Germany slaughtered a pig, they would sell the prime cuts and use the rest to feed their family. Nothing was ever thrown out. So really, we're doing things as they've been done in the past, it's just that the resulting dishes are more modern. People at our restaurant should know what they're eating, but that doesn't mean it has to be rustic. We're aiming for a more refined taste, since we have a lot more options in the kitchen these days. Like I said, though, we don't see this as a trend. We're conscientious about what we consume. That starts with juice and ends with meat.
As told to Diana Hubbell