As I donned my apron on the morning of October 7, 1989, and joined my fellow apprentices in the kitchen of the Ratshaus—the Mayor’s Office and Town Hall in Plauen, East Germany—I knew that I would be prepping for the most elaborate meal of my young career: the feast commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR). What I never dreamed is that this was the day on which I would, at age sixteen, get my first taste of freedom. That morning, as on several others during my two years of apprenticeship in the Ratshaus’s four Ratskeller restaurants, I was summoned to accompany the executive chef to the specialty dry storage room to gather the day’s ingredients.
Our executive chef (secretly called “Honey Bear,” less for his imposing, six-foot, two-inch and three-hundred-pound frame than for his reputation of being sweet as honey one moment and ferocious as a bear the next) was the sole keeper of the massive tangle of keys to the food storage rooms. Though we were trusted to use Honey Bear’s keys to open the vegetable and dry-storage rooms, fish tanks, freezers, coolers, and liquor storage, it was only in the presence of Honey Bear with his master checklist that we were permitted entry into the specialty storage room.
The bounty locked behind the wooden door at the end of the Ratskeller’s hallway never failed to impress me. “Exotic” products long absent from East German pantries crowded the shelves: canned pineapples and figs, raisins, Coveture, ripe bananas and oranges, olives, dried morels, fine cognacs and whiskeys, specialty spices such as saffron and cumin, reserve Rhein wines. When I held the shiny, robust oranges that would be turned into parfait or orange crème, I remembered the shriveled, pulpy, seed-packed Cuban “14-Day Fruits” that were handed out as a special treat in elementary school at Advent, exactly two weeks before Christmas. When I chose the rich, sweet chocolate that would become mousse, I was reminded of the bitter East German chocolate rumored to contain steer blood to make up for its scant cocoa.
By the time I returned to my station, the day’s excitement had been fed by word that the Kampfgruppen, the East German National Guard, had entered the building. Honey Bear was stern and silent as he galumphed through the kitchen, keys jostling at his thigh. Chefs whispered in his wake that it was the first time ever that the Kampfgruppen had been deployed to Plauen’s Ratshaus, and we all speculated why.
The other apprentices and I assembled to cook the standard East German dinner fare for the regular restaurant guests and the Kampfgruppen: cold cheese, salami, and egg-salad sandwiches. Meanwhile, in the front of the kitchen, the chefs prepared for the evening’s expected gathering of four hundred Plauen DDR officials. Only the most highly decorated master chefs were assigned to create the savory offerings, which included Trout with Dill Sauce and Salmon Caviar; Smoked Beef Tongue with White Asparagus Heads; Consommé of Turkey with Pistachio Dumplings and Tomato Royale; Baked Hen; Corn Purée; Filet Ensemble Trianon of Veal, Beef, and Chicken Medallions; and Dessert Surprise of Eclairs and Biscuits with Marzipan and Ice Cream. Ironically, as chefs and apprentices alike worked diligently in the belief that the DDR gala would be the climax of the day, just outside our kitchen’s windowless stone walls East Germany’s first mass anti-DDR demonstration had begun.
By five P.M., the first of the canapés for the evening’s white-glove cocktail and hors d’oeuvre reception were taken upstairs, and my ten-hour shift was over. Though I had been warned to stay within the safety of the Ratshaus by servers who were watching the escalating protest from the second-story windows, I pushed through the front door, past the Kampfgruppen soldiers, and walked into what was to become a pivotal event in my country’s history.
Protesters—later said to number over twenty thousand, Plaueners of every socioeconomic background and age—stood in the rain holding anti-DDR signs, filling the Ratshaus grounds, the streets, and the Lutheran church lawn and lining the Straßenbahn tracks as far as I could see. The chop of helicopters hovering just above the rooftops joined the protesters’ chant—“Frieden! Frieden!” (“Freedom! Freedom!”)—as Stasi agents delivered blows and made arrests.
As water cannons fired around me, my parents’ sentiments about the inequality between the masses and those who controlled them struck me. I thought of the undeniable link between food and power, of how effortlessly precious foods were attained by the people for whom we had just prepared the feast, while common citizens could acquire them only through connections. My mother worked as the administrator for the man responsible for the distribution of food rations to the restaurants and grocery stores that were taken over by the DDR when Germany was divided. This connection allowed us to obtain gifts of mandarin oranges and bananas from business owners with ties to the West. Perhaps these subtle bribes were meant to persuade my mother to influence her boss to give the businesses a higher rank on Plauen’s food chain, and therefore a better selection of foods. My father’s connections enabled him to purchase grapes and watermelons for his restaurant on the black market and to acquire tomatoes and peppers directly from trains passing through Plauen from Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia.
I hurried to join my fellow citizens, so many of them less fortunate than I, in their courageous demand to end oppression. Risking injury and arrest by the Polizei, Stasi, and Kampfgruppen, we dared hope that our actions would one day yield freedom.
Only fifty of the four hundred invited guests braved the crowds to attend the DDR feast, the last ever held in Plauen. Four weeks and two days later, the way was paved for German reunification when the Berlin Wall crumbled. As the wall collapsed, East German protesters who had for so long been without fresh fruit chanted, “Nim unsere Hand, führe uns ins Bananenland!” (“Take our hand, lead us into Bananaland”).1 When East Germans drove across the border for the first time in twenty-eight years, bananas and Coca-Cola were ceremoniously placed on the hoods of their cars by West German well-wishers.
In January 1990 I took the one hundred Deutsch marks given to me by my new government as a reunification gift and rode 167 kilometers on the overcrowded Eisenbahn, standing up, to Nürnberg, where I bought a Walkman, three Bosc pears, a fresh pineapple, four kiwis, some Milka chocolate bars, and a smoked eel as a gift for my grandmother.
By late fall of that year, the golden arches were already shining over the first McDonald’s in the former East Germany, erected in Plauen’s center just one block from the Ratshaus, where the famous Kaffeehaus Trömmel had stood until it was bombed in 1945. While I finished my schooling and apprenticeship at the Ratshaus, several of the chefs above me left their posts to work at McDonald’s, with its state-of-the-art equipment and all-American image. For better or worse, the Americanization of Germany’s cuisine had begun.
Following reunification, it was revealed that between 1980 and 1989, while common citizens waited in block-long lines to purchase overripe bananas on the rare occasions when they were available, Erich Honeker, the former East German President, along with nearly two dozen of his family members, ministers, and their families, spent the equivalent of approximately thirty-three million U.S. dollars on food and incidentals while in residence with their 650 bodyguards at Wandlitz, the presidential compound referred to by the people as the “Island of Nightmares.”2 Taking advantage of their newfound freedom to purchase foods that were previously unavailable and that symbolized the capitalist West, many former East German families, like mine, purchased tomatoes, flavored yogurts, convenience foods, and frozen ready-made meals. Gradually, American-style foodservice outlets with names like “California,” “Florida,” and “Texicana” conjuring up images of wide-open country, sunshine, and freedom cropped up next to newly opened Italian restaurants and French bistros. High labor costs associated with preparing time-intensive traditional German cuisine forced many restaurateurs into faster service menus, and increasingly, Schnitzel was replaced on Speisekarten with “Burgers with the works.” By the time I became a Master Chef in 1998, America had a 71.3 percent share of Germany’s 1.9 billion-dollar franchised-food industry. Today, traditional German restaurants account for only one-third of the country’s foodservice businesses.3
Though the initial craving for Western and American products has stabilized and consumers in eastern Germany are increasingly returning to local food products, there is no disputing that German cuisine has changed forever.4 Social factors, including the increase in single-parent households and women entering the workforce, have contributed to the still-growing demand for American convenience foods. With the increasing popularity in frozen ready-made meals, vegetarian entrees, and pizzas, Germany’s frozen-food market has seen substantial growth, realizing double-digit market increases from 1992 to 1996.5 The American fast-food industry continues to thrive, and today Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, kfc, and Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits coexist with ancient churches and centuries-old landmarks on cobblestone streets throughout Germany. With 1,091 McDonald’s locations in the country, I find it easier to locate a Big Mac than a bratwurst when visiting my homeland.6
I have lived in two different worlds, one of deprivation and oppression, the other of abundance and choice. In moving from the former to the latter, I have come to fully comprehend the value of freedom.
Today, much like the cuisine of Germany, my culinary style is a mélange of European tradition, Old World technique, and American business savvy. My East German roots left an indelible mark on my career, for it was in the challenges of creating unique dishes with limited products and equipment that my creativity was born. It was in working with only the produce we could grow ourselves that I developed an appreciation for seasonal cooking. And it was in experiencing food as a precious commodity that I learned to respect and conserve it, and why today, nearly twelve years after reunification, I still find great pleasure in experimenting with a wealth of exotic ingredients.
When I don my apron today, I understand what Honey Bear hoped to instill in me: that the ability to work with food is a privilege never to be taken for granted. It is with great pride that I carry on his legacy and our country’s fading culinary traditions.
Coveture: brand of delicate French chocolate couverture, a confectionary covering used for glazing and coating
Straßenbahn: electric tram that travels within the city
Stasi: short for Staatssicherheitsdienst, the DDR’s state security agency
Polizei: German police
Eisenbahn: long-distance train
Speisekarten: menu cards
1. The Banana Group Web site (http://www.bananas.uk.net/htmldocs/fascinatingfacts.html), 13 March 2002.
3. Dagmar Winkler-Helmdach, summary of Franchise Fast Food (Munich: Germany Industry Sector Analysis, 1 June 1999). See also Rupert Spies and Gretel Weiss, “Is Germany’s Traditional Restaurant a Dying Breed?” Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly 39, no. 3 (1998): 83.
5. British Frozen Food Federation Web site (http://www.bfff.co.uk.html/marfacts/eurocons.html), 25 March 2002.
6. McDonald’s Germany Web site (http://www.mcdonalds.de), 13 March 2002.