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Revolution of taste: Inside Berlin's culinary art scene

A closeup of food on a pink table cloth.

The capital’s growing food industry has seen the blossoming of a new crop of artists and collectives showcasing unique approaches to cooking.

On a drizzly night in late October, members of Berlin’s art community gather around a U-shaped banquet in the center of the Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) theater. They are here to take part in a four-hour-long dinner performance hosted by the interdisciplinary artist platform Creamcake. Tying into the event’s theme of “Eat the Rich”, Brazilian artist and chef Caique Tizzihas prepared a banquet containing blocks of cheese, braided challah bread and sculpted vanilla butter resembling the towering wigs of Marie Antoinette, the lavish Queen consort of France. “I often select one specific ingredient as a ready-made sculpture, tracing back its symbolism and how it affected history,” Tizzi explains. Between musical interludes, dance performances, and literary readings, attendees are encouraged to snack from the lush banquet of edible sculptures. “Art can sometimes feel intimidating, but food is something everybody has a connection [to].”

Across the city, art involving food is on the rise. Berlin’s growing culinary scene, with its lack of conservatism and open-minded patrons, has seen the blossoming of a new crop of artists and collectives experimenting with food. “My kitchen is fun, we listen to music, we dance, we chat, we talk shit. For me, this translates into what we taste and how we live,” says Tizzi. This is a movement propelled by an innovative group of artists and creative cooks – many of them part of the city’s tight-knit international community.

A beautiful display of appetizing food items which are presented on a table, ready to be served.
© Ella Yarnton (pictured: Dinner-Performance creation by Berlin based chef-artist Alexis Convento).

Australian creative producer Ella Yarnton applies her organizing talents and her enthusiasm for bringing people together with her community-led initiative Gather. Since people started socializing again post-lockdown, she witnessed an increased interest in her series of curated gatherings with creative cooks from Berlin and beyond. “People want to connect, they want to meet new people, and there’s more interest in learning about other cultures,” Yarnton says. “Food can act as a great access tool for that.”

One highlight for Yarnton was having Akwasi Brenya-Mensa, a prominent British-Ghanaian cook from London, present his cuisine at a Neukölln wine bar. Here, he showcased his cuisine in a new atmosphere, changing people’s perceptions of West African food. Through Gather, Yarnton hopes to help diversify the food industry overall. “When you’re having an impact in your community or within a tight-knit [group] of people that come together, then hopefully that has a butterfly effect,” she says.

A diverse group of people gathered around the dinner table, engaged in conversation and laughing.
© Ella Yarnton (pictured: Dinner-Performance creation by Berlin based chef-artist Alexis Convento).

In November, Gather hosted a dinner by Filipino-American artist Alexis Convento, whose culinary project Ulam is centered around decolonizing food and unlearning systems of Western dominance. One of her first creations, a five-course dinner using ingredients inspired by the Manila Galleon Trade Route, traced back the connections between the Philippines and Mexico through Spanish colonization. When Convento moved from New York to Berlin in 2019, she began exploring Filipino food in a new context. “Living in Germany, where the flavor profiles are very different than what I’m accustomed to, I felt this longing – I wanted Chicken Adobo, I wanted Lumpia Shanghai, I wanted these things that I can't have easily by simply going to a restaurant. So, of course, you start learning how to make it.” During lockdown, she made it her “soft mission” to find as many Filipino ingredients within the Berlin markets as possible. Now, she knows where to find fresh calamansi and coconut vinegar. Other times, she has learned to make ingredients from scratch, like banana ketchup, a twist on tomato ketchup popularized during World War II, when the Philippines was a US territory.

A narrative of cultural navigation plays out in her culinary creations, too. At her event with Gather, guests indulged in a Kamayan-style dinner, a traditional Filipino feast where guests eat with their hands and without cutlery and plates. “I like the idea of getting rid of the formality of a dinner plate and having the experience feel more playful,” Convento says. This flexibility is one of the key distinctions between a chef and a culinary artist. “To me a chef is very defined and calculated, the dish that comes up every time is exactly how you had it five months ago. I don't think I could do that.” Convento, who trained in dance and performance, says improvisational techniques and intuition play a large role in her creative work. “I allow the flavors to change slightly each time based on what's available, or how I'm feeling that day.” Convento mentions an interest in “queering food”, a practice drawn from queer theory which seeks to challenge binary understandings of the world and ideas of hierarchy, blurring the lines between them.

A woman with an apron, ready to cook.
Portrait Alexis Convento © Amy Ritter.

It’s an approach shared by urban forager and artist Jasmine Parsley, During lockdown, Parsley would pick up edible plants like nasturtium, dandelion, and nettle on her daily excursions in Rehberge Park. Now, she frequently hosts foraging workshops and cooking performances, where participants learn about the local vegetation and craft a collaborative meal, transforming from mere consumers into co-creators of food. “What I'm trying to do is deconstruct these ideologies that are projected onto nature. That's also why it's interesting to me to look at these plants that aren’t given any value,” she says. Exploring edible urban plants can also challenge our preconceived notions of how food should taste, Parsley says. “Sometimes I do have to just be like, ‘This might not taste good. You might have to get used to this flavor.’” However, Parsley prides herself on her craft, having made delicious creations from her foraged vegetation, like an olive oil, lemon and cardamom cake with Japanese knotweed jam, or syrup-candied tree leaf, which can serve as a topping on desserts. Then there’s her salad creations, assembled from edible flowers, field sage and weeds.

Parsley’s work has a political dimension, looking at both environmental and labor issues in the food industry. “If you’re foraging for like ten, twenty people, it’s a lot of work,” she admits. “But with a group, it becomes this feminist idea of sharing the labor and doing it collectively.” It’s also a lot of fun. “I've gained a lot of nerdy plant friends,” she laughs.

One of them, artist and forager Chris Paxton, is the co-founder of Lucky You Studios, a culinary arts collective he runs with friends Ruhi Parmar Amin and Evan Hamilton. In classic Berlin fashion, the three met at a house party in 2018 and have been dreaming up pop-ups, edible installations, and conceptual dinners ever since.

“The participation from guests, and this interactive element, is super important to us,” Paxton says. “It's all about building community and interpersonal relationships.” At “Kartoffelhofer Feld”, a potato salad competition they held at Tempelhofer Feld this summer, attendees were encouraged to submit their most creative twist on a classic German dish, with the lucky winner taking home a voucher for a private dinner cooked by Amin, Paxton, and Hamilton.

A man with an apron ready to cook with focus and coordination.
© Katie Freeney (pictured: Lucky You Studios).

While Berlin may not measure up to the foodie capitals of Europe such as London and Paris in terms of availability of top-notch ingredients, Amin believes that this leaves more room for creative experimentation. “Berlin just has this freedom around it, where it’s like, ‘Do what you want, no one gives a fuck,’” she says. “We didn’t feel pressure to figure it all out right away.” Hamilton adds: “If you're in a place where there's a higher standard of food, people might be less receptive to trying something weird.”

Last winter, Hamilton and Großer Garten e.V. hosted a dinner scenario titled “Yearning is the sweetest sauce” where participants were invited to take part in a day-long fast, to be broken collectively over a silent four-course sunset meal in Brandenburg. Hamilton was moved by the reflections of two women in particular, one of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia and the other from Egypt. The dinner reminded both women of their childhood experiences of fasting during Ramadan, and the beauty and joy they derived from this practice. “This for me felt like a nice artistic side of what we're doing, where it's much more about the concept and the framing, than the transactional act of doing a pop-up at a restaurant,” he says.

A diverse group of people sitting at the dinner table and are engaged in conversation.
© Ella Yarnton.

“Food breaks down the barriers between people,” says Lalo Gomes, a Venezuelan artist, dramaturge, and chef who melds research, storytelling, and improvisation into his culinary practice LaLove’s Kitchen. His durational cooking performances, which can span up to six hours, aim at inspiring individual and collective transformations. Gomes talks about how marginalized and diaspora communities are thought of as providers and caretakers in regard to food. He believes that reclaiming cooking as an artistic practice can shift people's perspective around the value placed on food and who is responsible for providing it. Cooking is a practice that elevates society and should be further recognized. Culinary experiences are as much about joy and pleasure as they are about care. Lalo Gomes believes strongly that food is the best language to speak to bring this message across. “The revolution is coming,” he says. “And let me tell you, the revolution tastes good.”

Caroline Whiteley, is a freelance writer and the Head of Editorial at Fotografiska Berlin.