The legend of Tim Raue

The Berlin chef's eponymous restaurant just placed among the world's top 100, but Raue is as famous for his self-mythologised Kreuzberg gangbanger past as he is for his Michelin-starred cuisine. We took a look under the toque.

Image for The legend of Tim Raue
Illustration by Catherine Franck

The most decorated and recognised chef in Berlin is as famous for his self-mythologised Kreuzberg gangbanger past as he is for his Michelin-starred cuisine. Robert Rigney met the echter Berliner behind the myth.

Sometimes you just have to have some balls to be in the restaurant business in this city. Long time Berliners may remember the story of Maxwell and Auerbach, two “Nobel-Restaurants” that had the audacity to open up in anarchist Kreuzberg in the 1990s, and the campaign of intimidation involving manure, acid and grenade attacks which, in the case of Maxwell, led to the owner throwing in the towel and moving to more sedate Wilmersdorf.

Berlin star chef and Kreuzberg native Tim Raue started working at Auerbach, on Köpenicker Straße at the time, two weeks after a grenade attack by the leftist group Klasse gegen Klasse. Several years later, Raue was working at Rosenbaum in Prenzlauer Berg one night when leftists smashed windows.

“I’m not some cook from Steglitz who lost his way in Prenzlauer Berg,” Raue shouted down assailants. “I’m a 36 Boy from Kreuzberg. Ask your anarchist brothers in Kreuzberg what that means. If you threaten me, you’re a goner.”

Two decades later, at age 40, Raue has cooked for Barack Obama and Angela Merkel and starred in the reality show Germany’s Master Chef. He owns four restaurants, including an eponymous establishment in Kreuzberg (honoured with two Michelin stars, the most any Berlin restaurant has received so far); the Asian-inspired Sra Bua in the Adlon Hotel; and post-industrial “Prussian” eatery La Soupe Populaire in Prenzlauer Berg’s Bötzow Brewery. Latest venture Studio Tim Raue opened in January in Mitte start-up hive The Factory; hewing ever-closer to his working-class roots, it’s a lunchtime “canteen” for Soundcloud and Twitter employees that offers more elaborate themed menus by night.

Through it all, he’s been nothing but vocal about his Kreuzberg upbringing and early years as the sole German in Turkish street gang 36 Boys. In his 2011 autobiography Ich weiß, was Hunger ist (I know what hunger is) he claims that his style of cuisine and way of running a kitchen owes much to the influence of his wild youth.

Yet Raue actually has always had a deep-seated antipathy to the left. This started way back in his football hooligan days in West Germany, when he listened to German skinhead band Böse Onkelz (whom he professes to still like), fighting against the Antifa. It continued through his rapid rise as a star chef, when he declared his affinity for old-school “preußische Tugenden” (Prussian virtues) in the kitchen.

“I was never really a political guy,” Raue confides. “I only knew that I didn’t like the guys coming from the red corner because for me, capitalism was the way forward. Each of us is given a chance, and if you are given a chance you have to go for it. You have to push until you achieve success. And so I don’t agree with burning cars as a legitimate way, especially if the car belongs to Turan Tuncay {a Turkish neighbour of his in Kreuzberg} or whoever.”

“I am a Spießer,” Raue admits. “A square. I can’t tolerate long-haired freaks in my kitchen.”

He now serves refined €200 meals to the elitest of Berlin’s elite, but Raue grew up in a broken home on Wrangelstraße in a working-class Kreuzberg dominated by immigrants, with a father who beat him and a mother who never encouraged him. After a stint further West as a nascent football hooligan, he came back to his old neighbourhood and matriculated in the Hector-Peterson-Oberschule, where he failed miserably as a student.

He had just turned 15 and spent his days aimlessly walking through Wrangelkiez and loitering at the Schlesisches Tor U-Bahn station. There, he saw two guys in bomber jackets with the name “36 Boys” stitched on the back. He had no idea what that meant, but the two had an aura of strength and power that fascinated him. No matter who or what the “36 Boys” were, he wanted to join up – and it wasn’t long before he was ready.

“I didn’t want to be an Opfer”, a victim, Raue explains. At the time, muggings were a common practice in Berlin’s tougher neigh-borhoods. Other kids’ expensive sneakers were a particular object of desire. Raue put it this way: “I came to 36 Boys because at the time, you had two choices. One was to go to school and come home with your sneakers on. And the other was to ‘lose’ your sneakers on the way.”

Raue sought strength in numbers and submitted to the 36 Boys’ brutal initiation rituals in a playground behind Kotti, which he says involved fighting two other boys, and soon was made a member – the only German in a gang full of mostly Turkish immigrants. There was some resistance towards Raue initially, but he quickly convinced his fellow gangbangers that he was a guy they could trust and wouldn’t leave them in the lurch. “At the end of the day I think I survived because I believed in myself. I believed in my strength and I got it – a small, white, fucking German in Kreuzberg.”

Life on the street proved to be more alluring than job prospects. After Raue dropped out of high school in 10th grade, a career adviser told him that, alas, he could be one of three things: house painter, gardener or cook. Raue resignedly chose cook. “I liked to eat.”

Having picked his path, Raue decided to apply the same persistence and dedication he’d used to become a gang member to cooking. Beginning with an apprenticeship at Chalet Suisse in Grunewald at age 17, he rose quickly through the ranks of Berlin’s culinary landscape, becoming chef de cuisine at Rosenbaum, Kaiserstuben and E.T.A. Hoffman in quick succession, then executive chef at the Swissotel on Kurfürstendamm, where, in 2007, he was awarded his first Michelin star. Through his ascent, he read books by star chefs and travelled through Europe and Asia with his girlfriend and current wife, Marie-Anne, visiting high-class restaurants. “Like art students in Florence making the pilgrimage from museum to museum, we went from gourmet temple to gourmet temple. The experiences that we had were our university seminars.”

Many of the most colourful episodes in Raue’s autobiography occur in the kitchen: a stage and a proving ground, site of fistfights, food fights, shouts and imprecations. Never shy of confrontation, Raue loved to talk shit and was a constant source of cracks and blather. The relentless pace of the kitchen became his element. Wherever he went, Raue ruled with an iron hand, more a Prussian drill sergeant than Kreuzberg anarchist, demonstrating “stamina and an iron will”. The kitchen was for Raue “democratic” but also “Darwinian”, and a “parallel society”. It was also an ersatz family. The same deep bonds that he established with his 36 Boys gang, he contrived with his kitchen staff. Above all, what mattered was loyalty.

At the same time, he put more and more of his own personality into his increasingly Asian-inspired cooking – culminating in MA at the Adlon Hotel, where he became head chef in 2008. “My dishes had to be like me, with corners and edges. Nevertheless, I would describe myself as a feminine chef. I don’t like dark brown sauces and heavy meals. I like the smoothness of a puree, but my cuisine has to have something crunchy, crackling. I want to create ‘mouthfeeling’, Mundgefühl.”

In 2010, Raue and his wife opened up Restaurant Tim Raue on Rudi-Dutschke-Straße, in Kreuzberg. His life had now come full circle. After 18 years, he was reunited with his old 36 Boys friends and recalls meeting old buddy Muzaffer “Muci” Tosun, who had gone on to become a world champion kickboxer, over a döner at the corner of Kotti and Adalbertstraße. Despite the various turns their lives had taken, they resumed contact immediately, “like two veterans of the street.”

The 36 Boys was now a fashion line with a shop at Kotti, and a little while later Raue agreed to host a 36 Boys fashion show at his restaurant. Rapper, ex-36 Boy and present jihadist Deso Dogg was there, along with Muci Tosun, rapper and ex-con Killa Hakan (“in my opinion one of the most sensitive and creative guys I have met”) and Neco Celik, now a respected film and theatre director. The old Kreuzbergers didn’t know what to make of the concoctions that would, in the following years, earn Raue two Michelin stars and ever-more international acclaim. Instead, they stared at the sea cucumbers at the end of their forks with apprehension.

“What about a Turkish pizza?” Muci asked.

Still, “I saw the pride in their eyes,” says Raue. “There was none of the kind of thing where they were looking at me and thinking, ‘Oh, look at how he’s fucking looking.’ It was just love and pride and I gave the same back to them. I was so happy that I had tears in my eyes. And this is the kind of family I search for in the kitchen as well.”

Originally published in issue #135, February 2015.