My contact is a young guy in a grey hoodie, inconspicuously loitering next to a Mitte supermarket. I walk up to him, some money changes hands, and he gives me an unmarked paper bag. Safely at home, I open it to reveal the goods: homemade noodles; a plastic tub of unctuous, lemon-tinged chicken broth; a buttery slab of pork belly; a soy-marinated hard-boiled egg; sliced cloud-ear mushrooms and scallions. The perfect bowl of ramen, just an Instagram DM away.
Welcome to the wild Berlin food landscape of 2021, where some of the most talked-about dishes are being made not by restaurants, but by home cooks armed with spare time and social media savvy – many of whom would never have found their calling, were it not for a certain pandemic.
Take Nam, aka @foodie.t.ramen. The Berlin-born food-technology student and restaurant blogger had always been interested in cooking, particularly in “highly technical recipes, where there’s lots of theory involved”. But it wasn’t until the lockdown of spring 2020 that he fell down the ramen rabbit hole. It started with a chicken paitan recipe from the website Serious Eats: two full days of boiling bones, braising pork belly and mixing noodle dough. In the end, “I was like, damn, this is better than some ramen I’ve had in restaurants, even though it’s my first time making it! And from there I got really hooked.”
He discovered ramen Reddit and the guidance of Mike “Ramen Lord” Satinover, a Chicago-based amateur chef who’d emerged as the English-speaking internet’s foremost authority on ramen. He experimented with tapioca and spelt flour, black sesame paste, sardine powder and smoked soy sauce. He also connected with Michael Heiden of The Bird Barbecue, who offered him leftover bones and trimmings – and in October, his first pop-up.
The buzz from that event, as well as his restaurant review account’s 4600 followers on Instagram, guaranteed him a steady flow of customers once lockdown re-intensified. He began selling ramen kits online. Now, about every two weeks, he takes up to 40 pre-orders via Instagram, spends a few days preparing noodles, toppings and several different types of broth in his small Köpenick kitchen, and heads out to Mitte to hand over the goods.
The system isn’t perfect. Having customers prepare the soup at home means less control over the finished product, which for a ramen nerd is “very, very frustrating! Like, lots of people probably aren’t pre-heating their bowl because they’re lazy or they didn’t read my instructions. So when the hot soup goes in, the temperature immediately drops a few degrees, and from then on the experience is totally different.”
Then there’s the pesky matter of legality: Germany prohibits would-be restaurateurs from selling food made in their own homes. Further collaboration with Heiden, who’s about to open a new barbecue joint in Prenzlauer Berg and has already offered Nam the use of his kitchen for future pop-ups, ought to solve both problems at once (hopefully before any Ordnungsamt narcs read this article).
For Oli (@oli_berlin), an Italian who grew up on the Tuscan coast and moved to Berlin in 2016, the path to noodles required no Reddit. “Let’s just say I have pasta in my DNA. Where I’m from, it’s almost like we’re born with the knowledge of cooking.” Before Covid-19, she had worked in the fashion industry. But with her contract expired and her partner’s DJ gigs a thing of the past, she turned to what had always been her “therapy”: rolling out thick, hand-cut pappardelle, stuffing ravioli, simmering organic tomato sauce, baking focaccia. First she cooked for her small family, then friends, then friends of friends… until, in December, she decided to go legit.
This meant registering herself as a business, obtaining a Rote Karte (hygiene certificate) and, most crucially, renting a commercial kitchen near her Friedrichshain home for one day a week. “It’s all a result of the pandemic, everyone adjusting. This guy was using the kitchen for catering big events like weddings and festivals, and you know, everything’s over now, so he started subletting it to people like me.”
Without a built-in army of foodie followers, she needed another way to get noticed online – and she found it with the help of her friend Theresa Hatz, an illustrator who provided her with a playful, Instagram-friendly logo and menu drawings in exchange for free pasta. Other friends pitched in with photos, likes and shares, and before Oli knew it, dozens of strangers were DMing her to put in orders.
I have pasta in my DNA. Where I’m from, it’s almost like we’re born with the knowledge of cooking
She now posts each week’s menu on Monday or Tuesday for pick-up Thursday through Saturday, either in Friedrichshain or at the Neukölln furniture store run by her boyfriend (who’s made his own pandemic pivot into interior design). Pre-orders are capped at 20, allowing her to get personal with customers. “There was one guy, a model, who was vegan and gluten-free. Together, for Christmas, we came up with these spelt and buckwheat ravioli filled with mushroom and potato. And they were really good! You don’t do this when you go to a restaurant – you don’t talk to the kitchen, you just get your meal. So that’s my little revolution.”
Still, she wouldn’t mind scaling up just a little once the coronavirus subsides. “The goal is to find a place that could be my kitchen, my laboratory, with a window where I could sell the pasta of the day. Or who knows, maybe a restaurant with just 10 seats…” The same might be on the cards for Nam as well… eventually. “Other people tell me I could easily open a restaurant, but by my own standards, I don’t think I’m consistent enough yet.” Ramen is, after all, a lifelong journey.