The restaurant is an open bar kitchen.
Photo credit: Maidje Meergans
“Fresh cheese from David, our farmer who delivered all dairy products for tonight's dinner. He has a special breed of cows that gives milk with a high fat percentage, and each cow provides about six liters of milk per day. The cheese is served with rennet and wild chervil”.
The first appetizer is presented at the restaurant Ernst in Berlin, and then some radishes, which were pulled out of the soil in the morning, are sprinkled with cherry blossom salt and served with umeboshi pasta. Followed by a rich variety of potatoes, which are grown on an island without electricity.
“There are several reasons why foodies from all over the world travel to Berlin to visit Ernst”
We have seen season- and location-driven restaurants before, as well as those inspired by Japan, but don’t let that stop you from reading. The approach and the team who lead the process are absolutely crucial. The man behind the restaurant is called Dylan Watson-Brawn, and he could easily be on the top of any list over the world's most talented chefs. Ernst was recently named number 62 on the OAD European Top 100+ list and was thus the highest ranked newcomer of the year after having been open only for eight months.
Dylan Watson-Brawn grew up in Vancouver with two parents who always urged him to pursue his interests.
- I remember that we had a “bring your kid to work day” at school, where one would accompany one of their parents to work. My dad was a dentist, and we both agreed that it was a boring job, says Dylan when we meet at Ernst.
It's morning in Berlin, and motor noise from the excavator on the street comes in through the open window. The restaurant is completely unspoiled on the ground floor of a multi-family house in one of the less-favored areas of Berlin.
- Previously the building was a casino. It's close to home, and the size of the room fit perfectly, says Dylan about the choice of location.
The restaurant consists of a large, simply equipped kitchen with a bar counter for twelve guests. The decor is sparse and the atmosphere intimate, just as Dylan wants it. Ernst's origin is a homeplace that he and his friend Spencer started three years ago.
“There was not a single restaurant in Berlin where I wanted to work, so we started our own”
We return to Dylan, his family and his teen days. The reason for the double-name Watson-Brawn is simple: one is his father's, the other his mother's - the two people who are closest to him.
- Mom didn't want to take dad's surname. She has always worked and been independent, says Dylan. My parents are people who tried to live a family life and realized that it didn't make them happy. In the end, they came to the conclusion that it was better to stop caring so much about what others think, and that made them successful. I grew up in a home where we lived by small means, but today my parents are well- off. But they do not support me financially. It is important that I stand on my own feet.
Dylan ended up in a restaurant in Vancouver. A finer Belgian tavern with ambition. There he quickly found his call and started working more hours when he was fourteen. At the age of sixteen he traveled with dad on vacation to Japan. The idea was to find inspiration and then go to a restaurant school in Canada. But fate would be different. During a visit to Nihonruori Ryugin, a three-star kaiseki restaurant led by Seiji Yamamoto, Dylan was taken over. A Japanese friend helped him to apply for an internship, and a few weeks later an e-mail came.
- It said I could start on Monday. I started at the counter, where all the porcelain would be washed by hand. Although I just stood there I learned a lot about cooking. They were the toughest months of my life. Every day I wanted to go home and cry. They were hard and long working days, but I grew into it, and after five months they asked if I wanted to stay.
Due to rules on work permits and a major earthquake in Tokyo, Dylan decided instead to practice at Eleven Madison Park in New York. He later returned to Ryugin in Tokyo and was also in the opening of Ryugin in Hong Kong. After a short internship at Noma, he settled in Berlin — nineteen years old. He wanted to stay near his German friends, but finding a job proved to be difficult.
- I found no restaurant that I liked, and I was really disappointed. I came from Noma, where food has a strong sense of time and place. I do not strive for a Scandinavian perspective with fresh goods from the local area, but I need to know an identity, that there is a deeply rooted thought process. I want the restaurateur to have a vision and stand by it. I love restaurants like Noma, L’Ambroisie and L’Arpège.
For Dylan, not only the food but the entire restaurant experience is important. “Taste is personal, and it doesn't matter what we put on the plate if you don't feel comfortable in the dining room”, he says.
Dylan is stubborn and determined by the way he wants to work. That is why his first real workplace in Berlin was his own restaurant, Jüng, Grün & Blau, a restaurant for six people where he and his friend Spencer could develop. As more and more guests found it, the place became one of the most difficult to book in Berlin.
“Europe is really a small area, and here is such a variety of ingredients”
The phone rings, Dylan responds and Spencer goes off to pick up vegetables. The preparations for tonight's dinner are in full swing. The restaurant's suppliers are carefully selected. During the three years he has been driving in Berlin, he has carefully searched for producers as driven and devoted as himself.
- Branca, one of our largest gardeners, washes all ingredients in water from its well. She cares incredibly much about her vegetables and how they are taken care of, he says. We want to work with the highest form of agriculture, which I believe is biodynamic. If you do well and spend time and care, it will be better. Those who work biodynamically care about the earth and the environment. I usually lean on research, but in biodynamics there is an important relationship between farm, animals, crops and the natural flora and fauna.
During a dinner at Ernst, it is also clear how great the importance of the earth is.
- Yes, indeed. It's like wine. Grapes are grown in different soils, and so the taste varies. The same applies to vegetables; see for example the asparagus. We have chosen a farm that is close to a river where a lot of water flows into the soil. They never need watering and are the only biodynamic growers in Germany. I don’t do this to tell a good story, but because of the quality. The context is important and makes a difference.
The menu at Ernst changes depending on which fresh goods are available, which in itself depends on season and climate, but also on the supplier's schedule. Most food come from the local area, but for example, the charcuteries are taken from a farm in Austria where the farmer Christoph Weisner breeds mangalitza pigs, while the citrus fruits come from Sicily, where Dylan works closely with a smaller producer.
- I am not dogmatic with the country the ingredients come from, he says. For some reason, we have created national borders. I'm from Vancouver, and it takes me five hours to fly to the middle of Canada. I can fly to Sicily in an hour and a half. If I find great people to work with, why not? It is about quality and philosophy.
Dylan also tells about the pig farm in Austria.
- They're amazing. They make the best meat I've ever eaten, so why wouldn't I support them? We can do a lot by ourselves at the restaurant, but I will never be able to make as good chark as Christoph. We want to pay tribute to him and serve his meat to our guests. I learned this from Yamamoto San. We talked about miso. He doesn’t do his own, he buys it from a dedicated family who has done miso for hundreds of years. A product doesn't have to be good just because you do it yourself. With money you can buy caviar and truffles, but it is super boring. For me, it's about what you can't buy. It doesn't matter how much you pay the supplier; if you do not have the same philosophy and ideals, they do not want to deliver to you. It's interesting.