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Sternekoch Max Strohe Lichtblicke bright spot
Image: Tulus Lotrek/Jeremias Stüer

Gourmet chef cooks for heroes in the corona crisis

Nadine Wojcik db
March 27, 2020

Restaurants in Germany are closed. But Michelin-starred Max Strohe and his team carry on, preparing meals for doctors and nurses. Food donations determine what's on the menu.

https://p.dw.com/p/3a8g0

Guests dining at the stylish Tulus Lotrek restaurant in Berlin easily pay upwards of €120 ($130) for a three course meal. Max Strohe is one of Germany's most sought-after chefs, and has had to work hard to receive a Michelin star in 2017.

Strohe knows what he is capable of and he knows what he wants — and is the kind of person who will go after it too — something he proved during the current coronavirus crisis.

Within a matter of days of the coronavirus outbreak reaching Germany, Max Strohe launched an initiative he calls "Cooking for heroes" (Kochen für Helden).

DW: "Tulus Lotrek" is closed, but you are still working in the kitchen, cooking food. Why?

Max Strohe: Staring at my mobile every 15 minutes to check out the latest corona news is not my thing. I need to do something, so it makes sense for me to do what I do best, and that is to cook. That is really all I can do. Doctors' offices and nursing services in our neighborhood told me they barely have time to get a meal.

So I asked our suppliers for a donation, and got a large shipment of very good meat. Normally, that would have landed on people's plates as filet steak, but we used it to make goulash soup because that way, we get more out of it.

Max Strohe standing in the kitchen looking at a large soup pot (Foto: Tulus Lotrek/Jeremias Strüer)
Soups are the perfect comfort food, says Max Strohe, who prepares 800 helpings with his team every dayImage: Tulus Lotrek/Jeremias Stüer

Goulash soup and stews can't be much of a challenge for a gourmet chef, can they?

But they are! The idea is that these meals are warming and they are healthy. We can make large amounts and heat them up for as long as it takes to kill potential germs. It also reminds me of how my grandma looked after me when I was sick; I spent a lot of time with her when I was a child, and grandma always made the best soups and stews.

In difficult times, that kind of food is comfort food. A soup made with love and gratitude is soul-warming too, and this is what people need who have just finished these mad shifts at work — all the while taking a huge risk.

That also warms the cook's soul, by the way.

What is on today's menu for heroes?

Pallet with crates of vegetables (Foto: Tulus Lotrek/Jeremias Strüer)
When restaurants close suppliers are stuck with perishables they might as well donate to charityImage: Tulus Lotrek/Jeremias Stüer

It always depends on the donations. We just now received a lot of mushrooms, so we made mushroom soup. We also have bean stew, creamed veal goulash, cream of vegetable soup, potato soup and split pea soup. We usually don't get enough of one ingredient for all our helpings, so we make various different dishes. At the moment we hand out 800 portions daily, and that is the best we can do.

Unlike many other people, you are currently not staying at home, feeling bored and wondering how to best keep busy.

I actually work more than I did before — up to 15 hours a day. Admittedly, my wife, who manages the restaurant, and I are doing it as a kind of self-therapy too. To a degree, we are selfish, meaning that we are keeping busy so we won't have to deal with a potential disaster. I don't have a clue how I would deal with sitting around at home for weeks on end.

Within just a few days, you moved from making the first batch of goulash soup to the initiative "Cooking for heroes." What is that all about?

The response to our appeal on social media to feed people in the helping professions was overwhelming. Meanwhile, more than 30 restaurants across the nation have joined us.

In Berlin, 12 restaurants are participating in our initiative. My wife and I coordinate the requests from hospital departments and nursing services with the other gourmet restaurants. A driver distributes the meals — without having any close contact with anyone as far as possible. We've also launched a crowd-funding campaign so we can continue to cook once we've used up the surplus foods and donations start to dwindle.

More than 30 gourmet restaurants have joined Strohe's projectImage: Tulus Lotrek

How do you ensure no one in your team gets infected?

We constantly clean and disinfect the plastic containers we use to deliver the food. We wrote delivery notes, in which we recommend that people reheat the food for ten minutes at a minimum of 80 degrees Celsius. We wear gloves when cooking and wash our hands really often — soon we will all really need some good hand lotion.

In the kitchen, it's always the same team of two cooks working together; we don't let anyone else in. The cooks who started this project with us will have to stick it out with us (laughs). We don't have a roster or shift changes — we keep going as long as we have the energy.

"Cooking for heroes" is a volunteer project. Aren't you worried about your restaurant business?

Of course we think about it, but we try to blank out those thoughts as best we can. I believe there are more important things now than thinking about a possibly impending downfall. First, we have to contain the virus. As long as we have working electricity and gas, we're fine.

Thanks to our commitment, our landlord has also suspended our rent for the next three months. Our ten employees meanwhile are doing shorter work weeks. In addition, we have been pretty economical and have quite some savings. We actually wanted to take a four-week break for the first time this summer, but that cushion has, of course, already been used up by now.

Interview: Nadine Wojcik

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