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Fancy some Italian? How about Sushi? Burger? Shall we go for pasta? What about a curry? French food perhaps? Six questions you could ask and quickly reply to without issue in most major cities in the world, but ‘why don’t we go for German tonight?’ - unless you’re standing in the main square of Munich or on a bustling street in Berlin - is a question that would raise a quizzical look from even the most hardened food adventurer.
German food just doesn’t seem to travel well, there’s actually more chance of dining in a funky Peruvian Ceviche bar in most big cities of Europe than there is of chowing down on an exiting bite of bavarian. And while French cuisine, Italian, Spanish and more recently Japanese has spread to every corner of the globe, the Germans have, in the most part, seemed happy to cook within their own diverse region. A strange thing when you think of the massive amount of Michelin stars and the wonderful restaurants that inhabit what is a vast country.
This is why it was such a shock to touch down in Bangkok, Thailand, and within three hours have three different locals tell me that one of the most exciting new restaurants to open recently was actually serving German food - German food cooked by two identical twins who had spent the past 20 years honing their skills with some of Europe’s best chefs, I was sold.
The first thing to note about Mathias and Thomas Sühring is that they are indistinguishable from each other, their own front of house staff can’t even tell them apart, which is the reason they wear different coloured jackets - one white, one black. And the similarities don’t stop with their looks, they're both on a shared mission to help change the perception of German cuisine in the eyes of international diners and their recently opened Sühring restaurant is the base of this mission.
“People expect German food to be sauerkraut, sausages and very heavy cuisine but we want to go back to our roots and showcase what we've learned in our 20 years in the kitchen," explain the duo.
Their passion for food dates back to summer holidays spent on their grandma’s farm, around 200km from Berlin, close to the Polish border. They say that growing up in East Berlin, “when there was still a wall”, gave them food influences from “Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary” and after learning in local hotels and culinary schools as teens, the duo decided to set off and try to enter the world of fine dining, something that was harder than they first expected. “We decided to make a trip together in our small car, a smart car actually, very small, just a two seater. We travelled all around Germany to knock on the doors of the big chefs - we went to Munich, Bavaria, Cologne - we just had this passion but we couldn’t add any value for these three-star chefs and we couldn’t find any work. Then, on the way back to Berlin Sven Elverfeld called us and said: ‘I hear you’re looking for some work’. He was looking for new people to join his team, he was one Michelin star at the time. We immedietly said yes and in three or four years we were there while his restaurant gained the second and third star.”
After this they separated and took positions in Italy and Holland, Mathias with Jonnie Boer in Holland and Thomas with Heinz Beck in Italy, it wasn’t until Thomas was poached for a position inside a hotel restaurant in Bangkok that the pair were reunited in the kitchen. “I didn’t feel totally ready”, he explains, “so I called my Brother and we both came to Bangkok to work together”.
We want to go back to our heritage and represent where we come from…what we remember from when we were small.
“Two germans, in Bangkok, cooking italian - people would look at us strangely”, but speaking with them you realise that it's not quite as weird for the locals as two Germans, in Bangkok, cooking German food. “People are scared to go to a German restaurant, especially the Thais”, the twins explain reluctantly, they know the mission they're undertaking isn’t easy and they know they will have to change perceptions for both local and international guests.
“It feels amazing to bring German cuisine to Thailand but it’s a challenge to cook German food internationally, we feel very connected to our childhood memories and where we come from and it’s easy for us to bring that to the plate but people don’t know what to expect of Germany… We want to offer people an update on German cuisine because the perception of people is wrong at the moment. We do lots of pickling, preserving, baking our own breads with a sourdough that we started one year ago and many, many rye breads…Bread is a very big thing in Germany - we have a tradition called ‘evening bread’ and we’re trying to bring that here to Thailand.
“We have this selection of refined German snacks to start with. Tomato bread is one of these, because when we were smaller our parents would always give us tomato salad with pepper and herbs, we have a caesar salad that we serve on crispy chicken skin - we grew up with this. We’re doing a bread dish with cold cuts and pickled veg and we’re doing this great pasta dish from the south of Germany called Spazle - a soft egg noodle that we make by hand and cut straight into the water. Very traditional flavours and very traditional food - dishes that both of us haven’t eaten for a long time and when we taste we’re like, wow.”
It’s modern in technique, big in flavour and bold in colour and it’s anchored in the heritage and traditions they fell in love with while confusing grandma like only identical twins can as children. Perhaps the best example of this modern take on German cuisine comes in the form of a dish called Heaven and Earth. “That dish represents two of Germany’s main ingredients which are apple and potato, heaven reflects the apple and earth reflects the potato. We decided to do this as a snack so we serve this crispy potato, spiced apple puree and blood sausage. It reflects this very traditional 18th Century style recipe of the sausage but presented in a modern way. We want to do this a lot - to bring these classical recipes and styles and show them to people - these are the things that Germans have done, it’s not just heavy currywurst and sauerkraut. We're looking to change the perception of people and show them that German food is not what they think, to show them this modern take on our traditions."
They agree that German food hasn’t hit international dominance and having both spent time cooking Italian, they see the glaring difference in how their cuisine is perceived in comparison to the wonderfully received dishes of Italy. They also have their own idea on why this might be.“The German high-end chefs are doing lots of great work to update German cuisine but it’s not really coming out internationally or being recognised. A little bit of the problem is that we haven’t had the support of our Government, the Spanish, the Italians and the French have this support.”
I ask if Grandma has tried their food yet? They look at each other as only twins can, each knowing the answer they should give and each allowing the other to fill in any gaps in response, it's at this point they answer simultaneously, “she’s afraid of flying". "We tried to bring her here, she’s very proud of us but she’s never flown before in her life", continues Mathias, “She was a cook, she had the farm and her passion is food. She is really happy we have followed this passion… Our ideas and techniques link straight back to her kitchen but the food has evolved a lot now, she would recognise the flavours but I’m not sure she would recognise it from the way the dishes are presented. Thomas stops his brother with a smile, “she actually sent us all her hand written cooking books and we present them to guests with their bill inside.” Does Grandma know this? They both look worried, “no” they say in a hushed tone, as if she might somehow hear them from her small farm back in Germany, “she would kill us", they smile, "they're not for sharing.”