A Berlin café called Culinary Misfits makes the most of local food by cooking with cast-off produce.
A carrot that stands on two crooked legs. A tomato with a pointy knob growing out of its head. A radish with a nose: Odd, misshapen vegetables are almost always discarded by supermarkets looking to sell the myth of perfection, but they also are charming and somehow human.
It was with this assurance that the Berlin duo Culinary Misfits got its start. A wooden plaque just inside the entrance of its shop and café conveys its ethos in German. "Misfits are culinary eccentrics," the plaque reads, and it ends with a call to action: Esst die ganze Ernte! or "Eat the entire harvest!"
In some ways, this has become the motto of the endeavor, typical of Berlin in its unforced quirkiness and resistance to easy classification, and typical of Germany's larger waste-not culture.
Culinary Misfits was founded by Lea Brumsack and Tanja Krakowski, two women concerned about what they saw as the food industry's unnecessary wastefulness. According to them, around one-third of every German harvest is typically thrown out because it does not conform to the produce world's high standards of perfection. Some might call these vegetables ugly, but to Brumsack and Krakowski, they were the seeds of an idea.
"Our project was born out of a sense of activism," explains Krakowski. "As designers, we naturally had an eye for beauty in imperfection, and that's how we stumbled across this dilemma: Accepted beauty standards even influence supermarkets."
"Lea focused more on sustainability and the growing distances between us and our food. My thesis was a kind of food initiative: I sold carrots with crooked legs from a small bicycle trailer," Krakowski says. "Once the two of us got together, there were more activities like this. Then came the catering requests."
If ever there were a city for a such project, it is Berlin, the capital of a country that has long been leading the world in clean energy, recycling, and yes, organic and seasonal food.
With its reputation for turbine-dotted landscapes and fervent protests against nuclear power and GMOs, the country has a legacy to uphold, and it very often does so with local initiatives like this, started by Germans who are convinced they personally can make a difference.
Last year saw the opening of Original Unverpackt, a supermarket in Kreuzberg that sells its products entirely without packaging. The online portal Foodsharing.de allows people with extra food to connect with those who have too little. Artist and activist Anja Fiedler addresses food waste by taking children out to the fields of Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin, to pick apples no one else is picking.
Of course, Culinary Misfits also owes quite a bit of its success to good timing. A few years ago, after decades languishing on the sidelines of major European capitals, Berlin finally stepped up its gastronomic game.
At the center of its growing food movement, which consistently evokes comparisons to Brooklyn, are supper clubs, farm-to-table restaurants, and street food events. The most popular among these take place in Markthalle Neun, a 125-year-old brick market hall in Kreuzberg snatched out of the hands of a supermarket chain by three local entrepreneurs, and remade into the city's top food destination.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this was also where Krakowski first set up shop with her crooked carrots more than two years ago.
Krakowski recalls how difficult, and then not difficult at all, it was to convince farmers that she and Brumsack meant well. "Some were skeptical at the beginning, but when they saw we were serious, most farmers went for it immediately. They normally can't make any money with these vegetables. They're thrown away, or plowed under, or used as animal feed."
Instead, they're now destined for Culinary Misfits' new café, which opened last July in northern Kreuzberg, sandwiched between modern housing projects occupied mostly by the area's Turkish population and a smattering of new luxury apartments. The café pairs the elegant floor tiles found in many pre-war Berlin buildings with paintings of anthropomorphized vegetables by local artist Mateo Dineen, framed on the walls like family portraits.
It offers vegetarian breakfast and lunch items including muesli, soups and stews, salads and open-faced sandwiches. The broad, glass-topped wooden counter has slide-out shelves of oils and juices, old-fashioned cookbooks, and obsolete kitchen tools—culinary misfits of a bygone era.
Brumsack and Krakowski also channel their enthusiasm into workshops, hands-on cooking events, and lectures, including a recent appearance at the International Green Week, Berlin's 90-year-old food and agriculture trade fair. Mostly, though, they like to concentrate their efforts on those whom they can influence more easily. "We work with young people quite often, as they can still change their habits, whereas adults are already set in their ways."