René Frank is a self-declared control-freak. He likes rules and measurements and he loves challenges. Combining both results in CODA Berlin – the very first dessert restaurant awarded with two Michelin stars. Instead of brownies and tiramisu, the chef and his team serve yellow tomato with chickpea and Verna lemon or grilled fig with hazelnut and anchovy. CODA’s kitchen is patisserie-based, and, thus, offers ‘desserts’. While keeping the technical definition of the traditionally last course, the Berlin team simultaneously deconstructs the concomitant expectations. Instead of interpretation and improvisation at the stove, René Frank bets on exact recipes, the establishment of a system and dishes without refined sugar. CODA as a modular system – a system that even makes it possible for the first-day intern to cook like a starred chef and uses fully qualified kitchen-staff as barkeepers.
We met with Frank in the Neukölln-based restaurant, he explained the differences between patisserie and classical kitchen, we talked about natural sweetness and how the “best” is always a matter of interpretation.
Nele Tüch: CODA is a dessert restaurant but you don’t serve the classic idea of a dessert – fat, sugar and chocolate – but a new definition of the last course. Is this a completely new concept?
René Frank: Basically it is not necessarily new and I did not invent it, but the way we do it is certainly new and unique – especially because we are taking it to the extreme. There have always been chefs who created classic desserts served as a menu for special occasions, but that was over 30 or more years ago. The first well-known dessert-only concept was probably „espaisucre“ in Barcelona (by Jordi Butron and Xano Saguer) or “room for dessert“ in New York (by Will Goldfarb) around 20 years ago.
But for a few years now, there are a lot of restaurants that have broken the classic menu sequence. In the past, they always served a cold starter, a warm soup, then a warm starter, a main course and a cheese course, a small dessert, another big dessert and afterwards chocolates. This is the classic menu sequence. Even in many gourmet restaurants, so restaurants with one, two or three stars, this classic menu sequence no longer exists.
“We don’t call it tapas or courses, we call it dessert – just to give it a name, and us a direction.”
NT: But CODA is not comparable to these kinds of restaurants, is ist?
René Frank: Our restaurant is not too different from those restaurants that simply have a new interpretation of their cuisine. The difference is that we use a system based on the techniques of patisserie. But in the end, we don’t do much different than other restaurants. We just don’t call it tapas or courses, we call it dessert – just to give it a name, and us a direction.
If you have an open concept of food and just make ‘dishes’ – when nothing is a starter, nothing is a main course – you are lost. One’s opportunities are very open, too open. Everything is possible. We decided on the desserts to have a direction to go. It makes it a bit more exciting, but of course, it is also a challenge and I like challenges.
NT: And why did you decide on the direction of the desserts and not starters for example?
René Frank: Patisserie is my pet issue even though I’m a trained chef and not a pastry chef, which means I don’t make classic patisserie, but a kitchen-technical patisserie.
NT: You come from the classical kitchen, you worked a lot in patisserie, and when you opened CODA, you managed the bar completely by yourself, even went to bar school in Munich. What is the difference between bar, patisserie and the kitchen on the level of craftsmanship?
René Frank: I am a bit of a control freak. When you’re in the kitchen, you have to have a feeling – a feeling for products. How many millilitres must I add to something, how much does a piece of meat weigh, is it 200 or 300 grams? I don’t want to say that I didn’t have that feeling, but it always involves a certain amount of uncertainty. What I liked about patisserie is a certain security that comes from weighing and precise recipes. Flour, sugar, dairy products and eggs from commercial farming are always very similar, so working with them can be very accurate. But because we work with natural products, this is not always the case: At CODA, we take a carrot juice, boil it down and use it to make a sponge cake that behaves differently every time. We then have to measure the sugar content in the carrot juice. This is the difference between patisserie and cooking.
It’s the same at the bar. If you tell a bartender that you weighed something, he or she will shake their heads, just like when you tell a cook to measure 20 grams of oil. Many bartenders say they can pour exactly two centilitres. But, I think, hardly anyone or even nobody can do that exactly. It is not possible. But they all say it. If you make a Gin Tonic or a Bacardi Cola, it’s not that tragic if five millilitres more or less are in it. But when you make complex drinks, at the same high level as food, it’s important. That’s why everything is measured or even weighed out very precisely in our bar. There is hardly any difference between our bar and the patisserie kitchen, actually, both are very much connected. We also have a chef behind the bar, not a bartender. To bring a certain consistency, there have to be certain rules.
NT: I can imagine, that if you’re a control freak like you are, it’s extremely important to have everything in your own hands from the first moment on. At CODA, you try to process the natural ingredients so that you get the highest possible sugar content from the natural product. You’re thinking of new solutions for a product that is traditionally used in hearty dishes to become sweet.
René Frank: There are products, such as root vegetables or peppers, that have a lot of inherent sweetness. But in others, we have to add something else, like honey. For a dish with pumpkin, we would use boiled carrot juice. The advantage of natural sweetness is that it always has its own flavour. Honey, or a completely unrefined sugar or maple syrup, also has its own flavour. You reach a point where it’s too much. With salt, for example, you quickly notice the point where it’s enough – but not with sugar. This white sugar tastes so clear that you can use it purely. This does not work with natural sweeteners. With honey, there is a point where it tastes good and then you stop sweetening very quickly.
“Everywhere I’ve worked so far, even in three-star restaurants, it was said that the best products were processed. But that is a matter of interpretation.”
NT: The trend is towards a certain naturalness: there are a lot of people who are concerned not only with the consequences of nutrition on their own bodies but also with the impact on the environment. That’s why the demands on restaurants are changing: they are supposed to be seasonal, local and organic.
René Frank: Fortunately, we are not a restaurant that processes foie gras or fish flown-in from Japan. We are extremely concerned about all the ingredients we use. We try to make everything possible ourselves and above all we don’t use any industrial products or products from corporations or large companies. Everything that we can get around the corner, such as dairy products, root vegetables or nuts, is of course sourced locally, from small producers. Everything we use is organic and bio-dynamic, but we do not communicate that. As a chef, I take this for granted. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Everywhere I’ve worked so far, even in three-star restaurants, it was said that the best products were processed. But that is a matter of interpretation: What is the best product? Is it the best product you get here, which is very, very good, or does it necessarily have to be the product flown in, which is produced somewhere under the worst conditions?
A good example is chocolate: We have decided to make our own chocolate, but even a two- or three-star restaurant usually uses industrial chocolate. Chocolate is for us, what fish and meat are for others. It is very important.
NT: But there is no cocoa from Brandenburg…
René Frank: Since we don’t use any other granulated sugar, we don’t want to buy chocolate that has granulated sugar in it. So we take a completely unrefined black whole cane sugar and the beans from Ecuador and make our chocolate from scratch.
NT: So your chocolate is not as sweet as the one we’re used to?
René Frank: When you start to sell only desserts, you soon realize that you would rather sell several courses than just one. If you put three, four or five desserts in front of someone, they will probably have a sugar shock. That’s why we decided that the desserts should be less sweet, including those with chocolate. At some point, someone said: “They don’t work with sugar”, so we simply stopped using sugar and with it that pure, washed-out, crystallized sweetness.
NT: But in the beginning you sold individual desserts?
René Frank: Exactly, if someone goes somewhere else to eat and then comes to us, that person has already drunk a bottle of wine somewhere else and spent money. So we had to become a dinner concept. Hence, after the first year, we changed from a dessert bar to a dessert restaurant. But who understands that? A dessert restaurant? It’s not a restaurant concept that you open by hiring a chef, and it works. It involves an enormous amount of work, especially in developing the courses and communicating with the guests.
It wasn’t until we got the Michelin star that people understood that we are a real seven or eight course-dinner restaurant. So when you come to our first seating at 7 p.m., the menu is so well balanced that you are full, don’t have a sugar shock, and won’t have the craving for fish and meat.
“This may sound a bit arrogant, but I’ve always worked within the star gastronomy and having a star is not such a big pressure for me.”
NT: In March, you got your second Michelin star. Do you feel a certain pressure to hold on to the two stars?
René Frank: This may sound a bit arrogant, but I’ve always worked within the star gastronomy and having a star is not such a big pressure for me. I know how to get there and what we have to do to make sure that it stays. The second star just came along – quite naturally. But the second star puts a bit more pressure on me. Our ambience is very casual: With a broken corner at the table, I naturally think I have to do something about it so that nobody doubts these two stars.
NT: And then you’re also situated in Neukölln – surely not the predestined location for a traditional two-star restaurant?
René Frank: Neukölln is a district that is developing, so it fits our concept. We never stand still. Every year it will be different with us. Additionally, if we were now somewhere in Mitte, we would not have survived the rent over the last few months, the Corona time.
NT: The expectations of a star restaurant now are very different from the ones only ten years ago. Besides, the audience changes. The 25-year-old Berlin hipster no longer comes here with just his parents, he might come with friends – has star cuisine become more democratic?
René Frank: Star gastronomy in general has become more accessible. Twenty years ago you would never have gotten a star without tablecloths. The other day in the restaurant, a Frenchman said that he would never have given us two stars with this toilet. That used to be much more important. Nowadays it’s mainly about the food. Putting on a tie and sitting there with a tablecloth, that’s something you can hardly find anymore. The tablecloth, but also the staff that reads your every wish from your lips, these are all things that cost money. And that’s why star gastronomy has perhaps become a little less expensive.
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