Something’s going on in the long neglected restaurant scene of Prenzlauer Berg. At the same spot where David Macé recently tried but failed to get Berliners to like his Pink Flamingo Pizza that worked so well with the Parisians, the French Julien Ponthieu and the Belgian Olivier Lapeyre opened a new French bistro-restaurant and called it Les Valseuses. Olivier is known for being one of three founders of one of Mitte’s most glorified restaurants, Themroc on Torstraße, where Julien worked as well. The success followed them and their chef Mathias Gondol from Mitte to Prenzlauer Berg, just five months after opening the tables at Eberswalder Straße are filled every night and they’ve had articles in all major Berlin publications. Except the one you’re currently reading, so I made my way up north to meet them in their open kitchen to talk about smoked aubergines, why shopping every day is not an option and Inaki Aizpitarte.
Sorry, but why this location?
Julien: Because I am living upstairs and I am lazy. Olivier and I have been hanging out in this area a lot anyway, I lived here for a long time. I thought it would be a good idea to do a restaurant here, because there’s nothing, really.
Exactly, in Prenzlauer Berg are not many special restaurants, the district feels a little lost, at least in terms of food.
Not many people open new restaurants here…
Julien: No, the classics are staying, but opening small spots seems to not be working very well.
So what was your idea?
Julien: To do exactly what we were missing in this area. Something easy, not too expensive, but still good food, nice meat and fish. A weekly menu with some fine wine. For the area we’re quite cheap. People tell us, that for what we do and offer we’re quite cheap. But okay, people won’t complain about that..
You were both working with Themroc in Mitte before, why did you leave?
Julien: Olivier is one of the three founders of Themroc, but quit for going to Laos with his girlfriend in 2010. I started working at Themroc as a chef very early and then took his place, but when Olivier was coming back in the winter of 2011 we thought about doing something together. This took some time, we needed to find a place and do the renovations. We didn’t want to do a daily menu, because at Themroc we learned how time consuming it is to do daily shopping and a huge amount of mise-en-place. We still have the weekly menu though, which we create every Monday.
As in Themroc, you chose an open kitchen within the restaurant.
Julien: I don’t want to cook somewhere in the back, somewhere hidden. I think the movement that’s going on in the kitchen is nice for the ambience of a restaurants, and the guests will know that we’re doing everything fresh with good ingredients.
Olivier: This is the main feature of the restaurant and what we really wanted to have. In terms of style we wanted to have proper chairs and tables, but of course the rock’n’roll is what we wanted to keep.
What’s with the name?
Julien: I’ve always wanted to call a restaurant Les Valseuses. “Valseuses” is a really old french word for a man’s balls. But it also means the female Waltz dancer and of course the movie by Blier with Depardieu from 1974. There was one restaurant in Paris called Les Valseuses once, but it’s closed now.
Olivier: We were not sure if the name was a little too much of a joke. What made us use it is that the title of the restaurant that was in here before, Pink Flamingo, is the title of a French film from 1972, and Themroc is the name of a French film from 73, so it’s a continuity.
Julien: So if we’d open a bar, we’d have to chose a film title from 1975… La Cage Aux Folles perhaps? (Note: Sadly, the Poiret film is from 1973.)
But we’re quite surprised it’s working so well so fast. It’s not easy getting the people from Mitte to come here, even though we have all the reputation behind us. Then to catch all the neighbors, who have been going to the same place, the place they know and are secure about. And the fact that we don’t have the German stuff you can find everywhere, like Bionade or Sekt Apérol.
Julien: I didn’t want it. And Olivier agreed that we wanted to keep our identity. If people want to have Sekt Aperol, they can have it everywhere. But not here, here they can have Picon bière (Note: a French bitter with fresh, mild beer), they can have a Diabolo, which is sparkling water with a syrup, a classic in France. Instead of heaving three, four Bionades and Fritz Limo etc, we just decided to have Coca Cola and Fanta and Syrup.
What are you cooking, what’s your food?
Julien: Every three months we try to change the menu, it’s a seasonal thing. So end of August, beginning of September we will change into something more autumn. And then the classic French dishes like Cassoulet will be coming back. We try to have at least three vegetarian options on the menu and to create dishes you can quickly change into vegetarian. Like the melon soup with Speck croutons.
Mathias: We try to follow the season since the produce is generally of a higher quality in season. If you want to cook fresh, you have to go for what’s on the market. Vegetables have their seasons as well as meat and fish. We want to be as fresh as possible. It’s really important for me.
Julien: We found an Algerian butcher in Wedding who’s ordering our meat from France to have a constant quality and get things, you normally don’t find with a German butcher. For the terrine though we like the German butcher’s pork or the meat from Metro.
Why are you shopping at Metro?
Julien: It’s very convenient for us to buy the basics twice a week.
Olivier: And the fish is quite good there and always very fresh.
Julien: It’s also a question of pricing, we could go to Frischeparadies, but then we could not offer the prices we’re currently having.
What about local markets and farmers?
Julien: This takes a lot of time and a lot of driving around to get everything. We don’t want to go shopping everyday but focus on the mise-en-place for the night.
So how do you create the weekly menu?
Julien: It’s a combination, Mathias has an idea and from there we develop the courses.
Mathias: It depends on what is on the market. Like this morning I found this wonderful daurades, really amazingly fresh. So of course I want to do something with this. I decided to do a starter, daurade with cucumber, Serrano, paprika tartar and aubergine caviar. I will put the fish in the pan completely natural with a really nice, salted butter from the Normandy.
Julien: We are influenced by the classic French cooking, by the books by Régis and Jacques Marcon or like the Larousse Gastronomique and so on.
Mathias: I like to stay updated and see what other chefs are doing. I really follow the work of Thierry Marx, who has several restaurants and works for hotels in Paris. It’s always nice to check what Alain Ducasse and Francois Robichon are doing. I also like some Japanese chefs, I think they’re the best in the world.
What kind of produce are you interested in right now?
Mathias: I really like smoked aubergine, I learned it from Inaki Aizpitarte, the chef I worked for at Le Chateaubriand and Le Dauphin in Paris. We flame the natural aubergine, since the skin is so hard, the flame is not burning the inside but only smokes the skin which then gives the flavor to the inside. I learned the basics in my education and then worked with different chefs and Inaki’s way of cooking is one of my biggest influences. Our kitchen is totally French and traditional but you’ll experience some new tastes. We will serve the smoked aubergine with a venison tartar made with toasted sesame oil. The tenderness of the venison will go really well with the toasted oil which then is combined with the smoked flavor of the aubergine. To make it crunchy we’ll add Parmigiano crumble. It is not a fancy way to cook, but different from a lot of things you find in Berlin.
Cooking here in the open will make you see the reaction immediately. Doesn’t that put pressure on you?
Mathias: I don’t really have time for this, but sometimes guests are coming to me and tell me if they liked it. When I started working in an open kitchen at Themroc it was hard for me. But I got used to it and now I even prefer working like that, since you’re in the action.
Some people say the kitchen has to work like the military with really strong hierarchies and a strict and harsh tone. You can’t do that here though.
Mathias: I think this is not something to hold on to, our work can be efficient without shouting and screaming. The hierarchy is coming from the French way of organizing a kitchen, and so I am really used to work in harsh conditions and being treated like shit. But I am for a new development since this is not how I want to work. Of course I want to have everything to be perfect, but I can still be friends with the team.