For rising-star Executive Chef Nicholas Hahn, who was recently named Berlin’s top up-and-coming chef at the prestigious Berliner Meisterköche Awards (Berlin Master Chef Awards), success lies in the integrity of his ingredients and paying meticulous attention to incorporating techniques culled from a range of cuisines.
Hahn’s dedication to the motto “passion and perfection” has certainly paid off. He’s deftly managed to lure locals as well as travelers to Restaurant am Steinplatz, his culinary wonderland in the Hotel am Steinplatz, Autograph Collection — no small feat in Berlin’s highly competitive dining scene.
Under his supervision, the restaurant also recently received a whopping 16 points in the highly coveted and well-respected Gault & Millau guide.
Marriott TRAVELER caught up with Hahn at the celebrated Charlottenburg locale, where we talked Southern German comfort food, cooking with Elvis, hole-in-the-wall soul food, and the prospect of a French pate and terrine renaissance.
So, first off, where did you earn your culinary chops?
Early on I worked mostly in southern Germany. My first real gigs were in Stuttgart, Bonn and Munich, where I cooked in what I’d call extremely traditional kitchens with French bents.
After that I headed to Portugal, where things really took off for me. I spent two glorious years working in Sao Gabriel, where I cooked cuisine that was heavily influenced by the innovative work of Nobu. We did all sorts of things, combining elements taken from Portuguese, American and German cuisine.
It was there that I really fell in love with creating seafood dishes because Portugal, of course, has excellent, really fresh seafood available. After my tenure there I wound up in another very traditional kitchen with a French bent in Greenwich, Connecticut, after which I returned to Germany.
What was the eureka moment when you decided that you wanted to be a chef?
I’ve gotta say that I came to my profession due to a simple twist of fate. I’d always been interested in food and cooking, but it was really out of necessity that I started cooking professionally.
I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do with my life after I finished school, and my family kind of started to tap their feet and finally nudged me to just pick something and try it out. Turns out my first choice was the best.
What did you eat and cook growing up?
My mom was formally trained as a nutritionist, so we always had fresh fruits and veggies around. The integrity of the ingredients always preceded whatever dish we ate at home, and this is certainly something I’ve carried over into my professional kitchen.
If you could cook for one night with anyone, who would it be, and why?
Well, if it could really be anyone, I’d say I’d like to cook some down-home, SoCo soul food with Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Notorious B.I.G. We’d just chill while smoking some BBQ.
As far as Berlin goes: What are your thoughts on the onslaught of American influence on the food scene in this city?
Well, there’s definitely been a huge American influence here, especially in the eastern part of the city since the fall of the [Berlin] Wall. That moment really opened up room for new and exotic cuisines to be experienced and experimented with in this corner of the world. I think in the western part of Berlin you really don’t see it as much.
I mean, you can still get your avocado toast and hyper-local ingredient places, but you can still find more traditional, authentic German cuisine in the west. Incidentally, I’d say one of the single most overrated trends in Berlin right now is an obsessive attention to hyper-local foods.
I don’t want to step on any toes or anything, but I’m not going to go without high-quality imports, such as Italian olive oil or exotic spices from the Far East. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I definitely source as much locally as possible, but I think you can take it a little overboard.
So, when you go out, what’s your go-to spot to eat when not at work?
Hands down it’s Shaniu’s House of Noodles here in Berlin; there I’m definitely what we Germans call a “Stammgast,” a real regular. My girlfriend is always giving me grief because it’s the only spot where I ever really wanna go out to eat, but, I mean, it’s just absolutely delicious.
You can’t really go wrong with anything on the menu and can try all of these small plates that are shared with the entire table. I really get inspiration from the unique combinations of flavors and textures there, and it’s just a really laid-back, comfy environment.
There’s also this totally unpretentious, kind of hole-in-the-wall Taiwanese place on Kantstraße around the corner from the hotel here called Lon Men’s Noodle House that always has me coming back for more.
What are your thoughts on traditional German dishes, and how do you see the food scene in Germany evolving?
Germany has a long culinary tradition that has really only recently begun to innovate in interesting directions. My thought is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If you’ve got a solid dish with simple ingredients, leave it alone unless you can truly improve upon it.
For me it’s more about taking traditional German cooking techniques and incorporating the techniques themselves into the creation of dynamic new dishes. I think this is particularly important for restaurants housed in hotels here in Germany …
What we’re striving for at Hotel am Steinplatz is to create unique menus in a stellar atmosphere that draws in locals as well as guests. So far, we seem to be doing something right because we have more and more repeat local customers coming in.
What are some older dishes that you think are worth bringing back to the table?
Well, I’d really like to see things like traditional pates and terrines brought back on the plate. I’d be thrilled if things like whole stuffed quails and pigeons took off again, cooked using traditional French cooking techniques, like stuffing whole birds with delicious concoctions, that kind of totally decadent thing.
I think people would go wild for such things; it’s just that they’re off of their radar. Stick these older dishes — with new twists, of course — back on the menu, and I’m sure they’d be a hit. People have to at least have the choice to try something new or which they haven’t seen on a menu in a long while.
That’s what we here at Restaurant am Steinplatz are trying to do: give people the opportunity to take their tastebuds where they haven’t been before. The proof is in the pudding, after all.