By: Amanda Sandström Beijer
Restaurants are closed for a month and we’re here to remind you of how good life is with them being open together with Per Meurling. Let him take you down the food Straße of Berlin.
"There was something that came to me during the lockdown, to put up some recipes with local ingredients. That particular dish comes from a cookbook written by Nadine Redzepi, the wife of René Redzepi who started Noma. It's a damn good recipe indeed.”
Maybe Per has plans to create a cookbook himself, but he’s not going to promise too much.
”I’m really restless, which leads to that I’m starting new projects over and over, which I, in turn, may not finish. That's in my nature, says Per humbly.
But given that he’s Berlin's most renowned food reviewer, I am not really willing, as an outsider, to agree with him. His Instagram is constantly updated as if it was run by an entire team. But no, Per is alone in the project.
”I have my brother-in-law who is a photographer and helps me with some pictures sometimes, and a freelancer who helps with a some admin stuff, but I mostly do it myself.”
There has always been an interest in food. Although he doesn’t come from an especially food loving family. Growing up on the Swedish west coast, he had an interest in fishing and enjoyed reading cookbooks.
”It started to get more serious when I moved to southern Sweden to study. Then I started working in a kitchen at Campus. There I helped with everything from lunches to Sunday dinners and seating in restaurants. I did this for several years and that’s also where I met my wife, who shares the food interest with me.”
It wasn't until 2009 that he came to Berlin, a city that has always been something of a focal point.
”I have always been drawn to Berlin and the liberal mindset here. It's like there’s less of the bad things about Germany. Less of the rural and conservative.”
Back then Per worked full-time in the tech start-up scene, something that was in line with his studies in finances. At the same time his food interest grew into an obsession and became a major focus.
”I didn't consider working in the food industry back then. Although I was of course hoping that there might someday be an opportunity.”
Even though Berlin Food Stories was started in 2012, it wasn't until 2016 he could go all in on the project.
”When the company I worked for lost an investment round and was forced to kick half the company, the timing was good. Things had already started going well for me and Berlin Food Stories then.”
What had started as a pure interest project, where he had mostly created lists of different restaurants, had now evolved into a place where people went to get restaurant tips.
“I've always had the entrepreneurial spirit, like many of my friends, and this platform became my way to reach an audience. Then the forum grew attracting more followers and a wider audience through Social Media and all that. I got a start-up capital when a company I had been involved with and built up got sold. So I thought, fuck it, I'll take a year and see what could happen if I work wholeheartedly on Berlin Food Stories.”
And so, he stayed on. "After starting to work on something that you are completely passionate about, it's hard to let go and do something else."
Per launched a website and realized that he must be a good photographer to reach his audience. So he took a photo course together with his brother-in-law.
”He got completely hooked, and still works as a photographer today. Even though I sometimes feel that I may not have sufficient ambitions for professional photography, I enjoy to constantly evolve my photography and my aesthetics.”
Per says that he has grown together with Berlin, and that he’s happy to do what he does in this city and not somewhere else.
“When I came here in 2006 to live for three months, the food culture was completely different from what it is today. Back then the first tourist boom began to hit Berlin and the restaurant scene was nothing like it is today"
“If you wanted to eat something fancy, there were only hotel restaurants to chose from – and that’s not too nice. They are damn traditional, boring and inanimate, like, a lack of soul. And then there were casual eateries. But nothing in between. Like this place for example.” he says, throwing a glance at the restaurant we are sitting at.
"There were simple Turkish, Chinese and Thai places and there was a lot to discover there. But Berlin has become a bit like New York or London, in the way that there is such an extreme variety today. You can eat, from low to high, anything, and find at least one good restaurant in any original kitchen. It’s very special."
“Something that doesn’t exist in the Nordic countries for example. You won’t find, a North Chinese place or extremely good grilled kebab, but here there’s plenty. They can certainly cook better Michelin food in Copenhagen or Stockholm, but when it comes to the simple and more casual, Berlin is very good nowadays.”
Per says that Berlin has been less good at finding its own dishes, and has instead followed trends from other food cultures, but done that very well.
“It has happened a lot within the Asian cuisine, restaurants that you see everywhere in Berlin. Just by sitting here we can see maybe ten, or even twenty places.”
“There’s Ramen over there, simpler Vietnamese, a more modern Vietnamese there, dumplings there, and a really cool sushi place with dry ice that smokes and all that stuff, over there and so on. It is the Vietnamese who have built them and own them. And they are never bad. Especially if you visit Berlin, you will be very pleasantly surprised."
Per is currently updating his pizza list. This makes us change the subject to how the pizzas have evolved here over the past years.
“In Berlin the development has been exemplary. Only ten years ago there was only really bad pizza in this city, but today there are maybe ten world-class pizzerias. It has evolved so much.”
If you have followed Per for a while then you know that Pizzeria Standard is one of his favourites – just for their toppings. On Danziger strasse there has also opened the Malafemmena that he mentions.
“They are even part of the Neapolitan bakers' association, and they also make world-class pizzas. I would like to argue that Berlin is the city in Europe that offers the best pizza. There’s also Estelle, close to here, where they create thinner, sourdough pizzas. Really fun, not at all Italian, but their completely own creations. "
“I also have to highlight the Syrian cuisine that has come here in the last five years. It has opened up absolutely incredible restaurants where they have changed the game completely for shawarma. Syrians are like the Middle East’s Frenchman when it comes to cuisine. This is where all the food culture comes from. They have a completely different quality mindset than many others."
“A very well-known chef named Malakeh, a woman who owns a restaurant in Schöneberg with the same name, prepares Syrian home cooking which is incredibly tasty. Such restaurants are so easy to find in Berlin compared to other places in Europe, there’s so many that I have not even closely enough time to cover them all. Although it’s not uncommon for me to go out and eat at three or four places in one evening to be effective. "
It’s obvious that Per feels grateful for being able to work with what he loves, although the restaurant industry hustle a lot. Per himself works a lot with Patreon but has an ambition to be able to create a safer source of income where he can continue to increase value in the restaurant world.
"Yes well, I’m not 25 anymore. But Patreon is a new way of working and it gives a lot to those who are interested in food. They can subscribe for a few euros a month and thereby get access to a more exclusive content. Since I don’t post everything I eat and my thoughts about it on Instagram, but I save a lot for this forum. We have a group, which is like a news feed, where we post all the openings, all the rumors, all the events and such.”
”Maybe the coolest thing that we offer on Patreon is the access to our secret forum. There we gossip a lot and have open discussions. Both positive and negative angles. We are about 60-70 really serious foodies who are active there and nerd out completely about food. It's so fucking fun. Many of them do not even have kitchens at home but are just eating out all the time, so it’s updated on an incredible level. But there we also have food quizzes and other creative stuff.”
In the food world, one can imagine that a platform like this makes restaurants hold the door for you wherever you go. At the same time, it needs to be nuanced to be credible, and Per himself has a strong principle about always paying for the food he eats and reserves tables under false names.
“The influencer career, is not really something that I have worked hard for, it doesn’t work within food the same way it does with fashion where you work with companies that have a lot of money. Restaurants have no money, not even Michelin restaurants. And it also would become completely contradictory to take money from the restaurants. Then I would be bought, and being bought in the food world is a completely different thing than in the fashion industry. Well, you can, but there will be no project that you can scale in the way I want, to be able to work with food.”
In 2015-2016 he barely had his own name on the blog. But the more he became a trademark the more Per realized that he needed to use his name.
“Even though my face doesn't have to be there all the time, the brand is built around me. And today, the stuff I write about can have a huge effect on the restaurants.”
“People have begun to understand what I’m doing and see the quality of what I create, which can only come from being nuanced and not bought. I can't be invited, that’s the way I work. The principles I work on are based on the 8-9 years that I’ve been working on this. It’s not only to increases credibility, but the reason that I book a table under a different name is also that it changes the whole experience. If they know who I am, the dining experience will tend to be more stiff and boring. The food is almost always worse, and you don't get the same vibe. The worst thing is restaurant openings. The food at restaurant openings is terrible. So I tell people not to invite me to openings. Then I just get a ghastly impression of the place."
“A general rule is, take pizzas for example, I wait for three months or so to go there, because they need more time to get set than other restaurants. All good pizzerias I know, were useless the first few months. It's like they need to get to know the oven and the dough and everything, and after three months you can get a more nuanced picture of what they serve. "
But what everyone wants to know is what it takes to get mentioned on the blog.
“In addition to booking tables in the wrong name and paying myself, I will have to come there on several occasions. My first experience needs to be really good for me to post on Instagram, but to end up on the blog it has to be really fucking good and entice me to come back. It must be pure and eternal love for me to go there. Then I will interview the people behind the kitchen, shoot photos and put it on my blog.”
”And if there's anyone I want to impress with all of this, it’s the chefs.”