Like many chefs, Dylan Watson-Brawn is a firm believer in terroir, the unique character imparted to a product by its origins. For the produce at his restaurant Ernst, he explains: “We’ll do things like give the same seeds to three different farmers, to see whose soil or whose environmental conditions make them most delicious.” The Vancouverite’s own personal terroir derives at least partly from the neighbourhood of Wedding, where he’s lived, worked and cooked for the past eight years. When he moved here, he was a child prodigy known for having dropped out of high school to stage in the hallowed kitchens of RyuGin, Noma and Eleven Madison Park.
If you’ve never eaten here, you have no idea what we’re doing
Today, he’s at the vanguard of a new wave of minimalist, product-focused cuisine that’s introduced Berlin to the culinary bounty of its own backyard. Hidden behind a nondescript grey façade, Ernst is a Berlin restaurant unlike any other: one single counter where just a handful of diners per night savour regional ingredients at their absolute seasonal peak, enhanced using Japanese techniques and served in a whirlwind of over 30 bite-sized courses. Since last summer, its “little brother” Julius has applied a similar focus to coffee, pastries and more casual set dinners.
Together, the eateries have won admirers from across the globe – including the critics at Gault-Millau, who this year named Watson-Brawn the top chef in Germany – and have transformed quiet Nettelbeckplatz into a locavore mecca. We spent a Tuesday morning on the chef’s home turf – first attempting to chat at Julius, where we were interrupted by construction work on the former Eckkneipe next door (his crew’s latest project, Watson-Brawn confided), then sitting down at Ernst itself, where the kitchen team was already busy preparing for dinner service.
Has your clientele changed since the Gault-Millau award?
We get different people now. Ernst has always been on the fringes, better known outside of Germany than inside it – the Germans weren’t so sure about what we were doing. But Gault-Millau was like Germany giving us a stamp of approval. So yeah, it’s a mix, which I think is wonderful. Your location in a less-than-glamorous part of town could be part of that. Many of your guests wouldn’t set foot in Wedding if it weren’t for Ernst or Julius… It’s a mixed bag when it comes to their perceptions. A lot of people, especially the ones who come from Berlin, are like, ‘Oh, wow, it’s really nice!’. Other people will ask me, ‘Why Wedding?’, in this slightly negative undertone. ‘Uh, because I live here, and I like it here, and it’s nice !’
What drew you to Wedding in the first place?
I wanted space. I went to see quite a few apartments in Berlin and there were like seven billion people at the viewings. Up here in Wedding, it was just me, and a 100sqm flat was €650 at the time. I didn’t know what I was gonna do, but I wanted to have the potential to open a restaurant or a pop-up in my apartment…
Which you did. Was that also why you opened Ernst up here – the affordability?
We were looking at places all over the city. With this one, it wasn’t just the rent – it was that the building owners let us do whatever we wanted. But yes, it’s nice to have a part of Berlin where independent businesses can actually afford to do nice things, without being part of a restaurant group or having big-money investors. At a typical restaurant, maybe 10 percent of income goes towards rent – in New York, it’s more like 20 – and here it’s around five. But we compensate by having 35-40 percent food costs, which is comparatively very, very high.
How do you respond to people who accuse you of helping gentrify the neighbourhood?
My goal is to offer food, an experience, that you can only have here.
That’s a complex question. Not to say that Wedding is rich, but it’s more mixed than you’d think. The people who talk about gentrification – it’s almost as if they’d rather the neighbourhood be horrible. You don’t get those sentiments when you actually speak to the business owners here. They’re very happy about us, because they want more people who have pride in what they do. I mean, there’s Julius, but there’s also the new burger restaurant opened by the son of the guy who owns the Späti, Burger65. You could say that’s gentrification as well.
So the locals aren’t the ones complaining?
We’ve never had issues with people in the community. Well, at one point the Antifa threw a fire extinguisher through Julius’ window, as a residual thing after an attack on the downtown apartments next door. But on the other hand, the Antifa squad are a bunch of white Germans who’re claiming to represent the neighbourhood. I don’t know. I just think it’s nice to have a lot of options, to have people actually wanting to come here.
Do any of your guests live in Wedding?
For sure. We don’t have a ton of people coming from anywhere in particular, just because it’s so small and the demographics are so mixed. But it happens more often than you’d think that I ask someone where they’re from and they’re like, “500 meters away.” It’s cool. We get more locals at Julius – it’s niche, but the price point isn’t that high. You could have a glass of wine and some cheese or bar snacks and spend €30.
Some might still call that expensive – to say nothing of Ernst’s €225 per person price tag.
I always feel like there’s this pressure: you can’t gentrify, everything needs to be cheap and accessible – but also, everything needs to be really good quality and the staff needs to get paid a lot. It’s totally unrealistic. To be honest, I don’t care too much about accessibility. What we do here is really special, and it’s worth every euro. Some people tell me it’s too expensive, but they spend €150 on coke every weekend. (laughs)
It all depends on where your priorities lie.
The people who talk about gentrification- it’s almost as if they’d rather the neighbourhood be horrible
Yeah, €225 is a lot, but if you really want to come to the restaurant, it’s not €450, you know? We have people who come from really modest means and save for a whole year to come and eat here, and they have such a great time. During every service, I’m so grateful that people have chosen to come here and spend the money they do, to make the commitment they do. I’ll never stop appreciating that.
You seem to have a polarising reputation among Berlin eaters. There are the ones who call Ernst “church”, and then there was a food writer from Berliner Zeitung, who piled a bunch of vitriol on you despite never having eaten here.
I usually don’t read the positive stuff, and I don’t read the negative stuff. I have understood there are some polarised opinions about us out there but that is not so important to us – the most important thing is to focus on our guests and make them happy. Day after day.
You and Billy Wagner often get put in the same box, as the guys who kicked off the current wave of minimalist, produce-focused cooking in Berlin.
What we do is really different. The people who compare us have never been here before, and if you’ve never eaten here, you have no idea what we’re doing. It’s like… can you explain how being on a roller coaster feels? I could talk you through it, but I can’t give you the feeling. You should try it for yourself! (laughs)
Is there any restaurant you would compare Ernst to? Say, Noma?
We’re not similar to Noma at all. At all. There are a few places in Japan that are stylistically similar – Ogata in Kyoto, maybe. But at the same time, my goal is to offer food, and an experience, that you can only have here. I don’t think there’s anything analogous to us in the world.
So what comes next for you? You’re expanding Julius, from the looks of it…
That sounds really brutal, “expansion”. No – we have this space, and we know a few people who have ideas for interesting projects. A woman from Kyoto who wants to run a simple Japanese pickle shop, where she also teaches people about fermentation, and two guys – one German, one a fifth-generation rice farmer from Venice – who want to do a sake brewery. There’s nothing in it for us financially. It’s more to give other people an opportunity.
Apropos of that: there’ve been a lot of discussions, especially after everyone watched The Bear this summer, about the mythos of the hotheaded, ‘genius’ chef and the culture of abuse in fine dining restaurants. Are Ernst, Julius and co. attempting to break that cycle?
In the industry, the people I’ve heard talking the loudest about these issues are typically the biggest offenders. There’s almost a plausible deniability aspect to it. Very few are presenting realistic solutions that actually work in the current situation, and that’s what I’d like to do instead of talking about it. I just want to run a restaurant where everyone’s respected and compensated well. That’s why the team’s so small here, so we can make sure everyone makes a good salary.
I’d imagine it’s also harder to berate your staff in an open kitchen.
I just don’t want to yell, or be in a bad mood, or feel shitty. And I want these guys to see that you can treat people with dignity and run a good restaurant. If everyone who comes through Ernst learns that you can do things that way, and then goes off to open their own restaurant – that, more than anything, can lead to meaningful change.
BIO: Dylan Watson-Brawn was born in Vancouver, Canada in 1993. He started cooking in his teens, staging at triple- Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo, Copenhagen and New York before landing in Berlin in After hosting private supper clubs in Moabit and Wedding, he and fellow Canadian Spence Christenson went on to open Ernst in 2017; the restaurant has been awarded a Michelin star every year since Julius, their coffee and wine bar, followed in 2021. In June 2022, Watson-Brawn won the Gault-Millau title of “chef of the year” in Germany.