IN THE KREUZBERGER HIMMEL, MUSLIM, HINDU, CHRISTIAN AND JEWISH FAITHS COOK UNDER ONE ROOF
In Berlin-Kreuzberg, in house number 89 you can find a culinary heaven on earth. Here, Andreas Tölke opened the “Kreuzberger Himmel” in 2015, an integration restaurant that is comprised of six nations, six languages and three religions. In this interview, the former journalist and current owner talks about his jump into the cold waters of gastronomie, the restaurant as a meeting place beyond offices and how menu plans are created here.
It began with refugees in private apartment and led to the Kreuzberger Himmel? What was the initial spark for the decision to open a restaurant?
Creating encounters! There are approximately 1.8 million refugees in Germany and the chances of a German getting to know one is about 0.6 percent. Everyone talks about them, but nobody knows any of them. We wish to create a great meeting point without prejudices that exist on both sides. One side is damning the refugees, pitchforks in hand, and the other side is a jubilant choir for any person that comes here. We would like respectful interaction with each other. In the restaurant, guests experience how those who have come here are just normal people trying to build a future for themselves. Think about the waiter who is a bit rough with their German, if they’re French we think it’s charming, and with almost every American, even after two years in Germany, we are still more than willing to speak English. What is the difference with refugees? Honestly: Our view of them. For the team that means: Number one, a totally normal experience with Germans, so no active helpers and no moody officials. In general, refugees have had dealings with only these to groups. Number two, to gain self-confidence. To earn their money for their work and feel valuable in the society. Aside from that, so many people from the arabic world are wonderful hosts, it is a part of their culture. Included with that is the Arabian cuisine, which is fantastic. A restaurant that is an all-in one package for the guests and the team.
From journalist to restaurateur: How does one accomplish that step?
I’m still not sure if I have accomplished that huge step… It was a leap into cold water, into the nerve-wracking world of gastronomy, and I guessed… opening a restaurant with a group of people serving 100 seats, from six nations, where at the start barely anyone spoke German or had worked in Germany at all, it would be awesome. Also, when you are a journalist, you work a bit as a lone wolf, so my teamwork skills were not grandiose at the start. We operate with a flat hierarchy, so I also clean toilets, which is still incomprehensible to the team even up to today. The countries that our workers come from are for the most part very structured with a solid hierarchy. That is also a part of our integrations concept: To show that other ways are possible and then exemplify that.
What was your driving force, and were there setbacks at the start?
With the arrival of so many people in 2015, I was not able to continue my main job- Be an Angel e.V., as a member of the board as it was consuming everything I had. Every single person that gets their life back over here without external support, they motivate me in unbelievable ways. As an association, we have placed over 90 people in jobs and over 60 in training programs, that is my drive! Of course there were setbacks. Not everyone that comes here is a wonderful person. I refer to the 10 percent a**hole odds. It applies to motorists, kindergarteners and also with refugees. There are so many different nationalities that have never worked together before. The Afghani is a bit like the Japanese, somewhat introverted with a traditional way of working, whereas a Syrian is similar to an Italian. You have to keep in mind what could happen when the two meet each other. A part insanely funny, a part very irritating.
Six nations, six languages, three religions. Why does that work out so well over there?
I am absolutely convinced that in every person is a very wonderful being. You just need to help in bringing it out. With almost every person, when you meet eye-to.eye, and really listen for five minutes, looking for the potential that is there, then it works. Integration is a Tibetan prayer wheel, it doesn’t happen overnight, but rather over established friendships. Germany and Germans can be a bit exhausting, not exactly overly heart-warming or roaringly funny or charming. You have to make that clear, and make sure it’s understood. The rules of operation apply to everyone on the team. In the Arab realm respect is a huge factor. Sometimes the vocabulary is missing but the meaning is there. How respect should be, that is the Tibetan prayer wheel again. The way the project is going, shows that it is functioning well. Everybody shouldn’t have to understand everything right at the start.
What is the most enriching aspect of working with people from such diverse cultural and culinary backgrounds?
Laughing together. A lot of times, employees will start and then suddenly they just aren’t there. Tired of the bureaucracy, the constant fear of deportation, trauma from what they experienced in their home countries. I’ve heard so many horrible stories… When someone can make a joke about themselves it is a sure sign: Success. An example: A woman asks the bartender: “Do you have a toilet?” The answer: We don’t have anything, we’re refugees. The lady, unphased, then askes: Then where do you go when you have to use the toilet? The barman answers: Outside, make a right after the gate, there is some bushes. The penny then dropped for the lady, and we were all dying with laughter at the counter.
What is the process in developing your menu plans?
Like anywhere else – I think. There is Othman and Layalee, those are the two professionals in the kitchen. He come from Syria, and she is originally from Iraq. Othman developed the menu for our opening and we paid close attention to what went over well with the guests and made any necessary adjustments. Layalee has been with us just about a year and brings to the menu dishes from her homeland. We are always checking what is selling well, improving things or cutting things out while looking at the seasons. Aside from that, every week we test out three specials and depending on how good they work out they sooner or later can wander their way onto the menu.
Since we originated as a culinary job portal, it’s very interesting to know: What do you value when looking for employees?
We have quite a peculiar mission: The most important to us is giving people a long-term perspective. We have a lot of people on the team that were never in gastronomy before, and that doesn’t make it easy, so the view of the job should shy away from “service” or “performance” and more towards joy, and creating a beautiful evening for people. The great thing about gastronomy is you can love the “stage lights” and live in the service, or work behind-the-scenes in the kitchen. We can always find something that fits. From the original team there are only two of us. Always having new team members is naturally a challenge for us but if someone gives themselves and us the chance to make something great of the situation, then it works out for the most part. At the end of the day, you can learn anything.
Could you share with us an exciting, touching or funny anecdote with us if you’re up to it?
I think the funniest I mentioned earlier. The most touching was, as a sign against anti-semitism, the employees including some from Palastine, wore a kippah one evening in the restaurant. They decided to do that on their own. Conclusion: There is so much more possible than what we believe.
Four nations, six languages, three religions. In the Kreuzberger Himmel careers are started – from refugees to business owners, from apprentice to hotel manager at the Sheraton.