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Asian fusion

Duc Ngo on food influencers, his favourite Berlin restaurants and getting bored of Mitte

From ramen to sushi, chef and restauranteur The Duc Ngo has brought Asian fusion to another level in Berlin. We spoke about 20 years of cooking in the capital.

The Duc Ngo stands behind a bowl of his signature pho. Photo: Iinaroosa Viitanen

Let’s flash back to 2002. What were you up to then?

I’d just opened Kuchi II in Mitte. This one here, in Charlottenburg, was the first restaurant I opened, in 1999, and then the second Kuchi was in 2001 on Gipsstraße, this very beautiful Hof in between the art galleries. It was an exciting time. We moved from west to east, because the East was where everybody wanted to be. All the creative people were there, young travellers from all around the world.

The perfect audience for your cooking, in other words.

Right, I didn’t have to convince them. Here in the West, I had to teach people how to eat Asian fusion, but in the East, they already knew about it. A lot of people were coming from the States, which was like 10 years ahead of Berlin food-wise. They appreciated the food, but also the atmosphere. It wasn’t fine dining, it was more casual, and that was what they were looking for.

I just came back from the south of France, where they have grilled fish with olive oil. It’s good, but after a while you start wanting to eat proper Asian, Turkish or German food

You’re right about that time gap – when I moved here 10 years ago, it felt like Berlin was just discovering burgers and craft beer. But the scene’s catching up, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s totally different now. It’s changed with the internet, with Instagram and Facebook.

But back then, was that how you predicted what type of restaurant to open next, by looking to the US? Or how did you figure out what kind of food Berlin was ready for?

I didn’t care if Berlin was ready or not. It was always about myself, what I experienced, what I ate somewhere. Like, when I was travelling in Japan, I was eating ramen every day. They have so many tastes and flavours, and you always need to try the next one, because it’s so good. And so I thought, why doesn’t Berlin have a good ramen shop?

So you opened Cocolo in 2007, back when “ramen” in Germany meant dried noodle packets.

Right. But all these young, international people who were already schooled about Japanese cuisine, they thought: “Oh, well, finally we have proper ramen here.” So when we opened the bigger Cocolo in Kreuzberg, it was an instant success.

And now there’s ramen everywhere.

Yeah. One of the biggest changes between 20 years ago and now is that now Berlin has everything. Almost everything. Maybe it’s missing good Korean barbecue. But more and more talented young chefs have been coming here, opening their own restaurants and trying their best, in Neukölln or Kreuzberg or even here in Charlottenburg.

The fact that Kantstraße is this exciting foodie destination now… that definitely wouldn’t have happened without you.

In 2016, when we opened Madame Ngo, it was like a start for the West again. I was living in Mitte for 13 years, and I thought the West is so boring, so old-school. And now it’s different. People are driving here from the East just to hang out on Kantstraße – that’s a huge thing. For me now, it’s Mitte that’s a little bit boring.

I mean, if you were going to ask me what the centre of the food scene was these days, I wouldn’t say Charlottenburg or Mitte, but somewhere like Neukölln, where all these hyped-up openings are.

Yeah, there are all these exciting, small restaurants, it’s cool, but… everything’s always the same. The same kind of restaurants, the same kind of bars. It’s getting boring.

A lot of locavore small plates.

All these local restaurants, yeah – the food’s very well-cooked, but they’re limited to the same products. You can’t use coconut oil, you can’t use this or that ingredient from South America… so one day it’ll happen that they all taste the same. You’ll just go to whichever one is in your area, like Neapolitan pizza.

On the other hand, this local, product-focused cooking is part of a larger trend towards sustainability in food – haven’t you felt any pressure to go along with that?

I do sometimes feel like I’m not politically correct. I’m using things from Asia or from America, fish from Australia… I’ve been thinking about it over the past few months, but I decided I’ve got to keep going in my own direction. Of course I try to get my vegetables from here, unless it’s herbs I can only get from Southeast Asia. But in the end, I have to stay true to what I know.

I personally hope German cuisine comes back – the traditional dishes that they served 100 years ago, but in a contemporary way

Despite doing your own thing, you seem to have a lot of connections.

I think I’ve earned my position in the food scene. People somehow look up to me and want to connect with me. Before corona it was more like everybody for themselves, and now there’s more of a community. When there’s a chef who’s doing a really good job – like Dylan Watson from Ernst, which I love – I try to push them and cheer them on. Collabing and sharing with the younger generation is something I’m really into right now.

What about your own generation? Which chefs – besides you – would you say have had the most impact on Berlin?

I think Tim Raue did a great job after he found his thing with Asian food. He was cooking French for 10, 15 years, and then said: “Cut the crap, I want to cook Asian.” He opened his restaurant on Kochstraße, and he did great. Those flavours became a signature, for him and for the scene.

Of course, now there’s a conversation around whether white men like him should be making a profit off Asian cuisine. Let’s put it this way: you were cooking Asian fusion for a decade before Tim Raue came along, and then the moment he does it he starts getting Michelin stars…

That’s something I’m a little bit schmunzelnd [amused] about, that suddenly all the chefs started using miso, dashi, fermented stuff, which I’ve been doing for years. But it’s also been great for me because it’s made my kind of food even more popular. Because he’s famous, Tim Raue has helped make Japanese, Vietnamese or Chinese cuisine part of the conversation in Germany. I think he’s done a good job for our Asian heritage. Whether I like his food or not is a different question.

Do you like it?

It’s sometimes interesting. (laughs) But he cooks in a totally different way. Once you get to two Michelin stars, it becomes like an Olympic discipline, a challenge to create the best possible Gaumenexplosion [palate explosion]. It’s not natural.

Photo: Iinaroosa Viitanen

You’ve got a fine dining project in the pipeline yourself [Le Duc, opening later this year]. Is that what you’re aiming for?

I won’t cook like Michelin-starred chefs, because I can’t. They’ve been in kitchens like this for the past 20 years, they know about this type of food. I don’t. All I can do is try to make the best possible dishes with my best chefs, and that’s what I’ll be doing with my next project.

Has it become harder to open a new restaurant in Berlin now than when you started out?

I don’t know if it’s harder or not – even 20 years ago, there were always restaurants opening and closing. But the challenge now is to be better, because people know more about food. You can’t bullshit them. You have to be ambitious, and you have to know what you’re doing.

They want better food, but at the same time they don’t always want to pay more for it.

Yes, it’s a German mentality. Like that commercial they did in the ‘90s, “Geiz ist geil” [stinginess is awesome].

You could say that stinginess led to the restaurant industry’s infamous ‘black money’ system – for a long time, many places were paying their employees in cash under the table to avoid payroll taxes.

Yes, if you do that, it’s easy to sell your food for cheap. But about five years ago, everyone had to start using computerised cash registers. Since then, it’s been very different. We’re just starting to see the impact now, and we’ll continue to see it over the next few years.

And then there are the rising commercial rents and ingredient prices… it seems like Berlin’s reputation as a mecca for cheap food is becoming a thing of the past.

It hasn’t been so much of a problem in my scene. My guests are wealthy anyway, so they’re willing to pay higher prices. But for other places, it’s more difficult. I was talking to a friend of mine from Pamfilya in Wedding – it’s the best döner shop in Berlin, if you ask me – and he was saying that the cost of a döner should be €7 or €8, especially when you’re using very good meat like he is. The only reason most of these Turkish Imbissbuden can afford to sell it for €4 is because they cover their rent and employee costs with slot machines.

Which contributes to the Berlin-wide assumption that Turkish food “should” be cheap. There’s a similar perception of Vietnamese food, for that matter…

Yes, and Chinese food. Everyone’s so cheap about it – it’s shit. When I first opened Madame Ngo and started charging €13 for pho, I got a lot of posts on Instagram or Facebook asking why it was so expensive. Nobody cared that I was using organic chicken or that I had more employees working in the restaurant.

Berliners have always been willing to pay more for Japanese food – and lately, Korean and Thai. What would it take for Vietnamese cuisine to be appreciated on that level?

Europe still doesn’t have a famous Vietnamese chef. I’m trying to do my part by serving a good pho, but I’d like to see more people making really ambitious Vietnamese cuisine, in the same way that, say, young chefs – even ones from the US or Europe – are making ambitious Thai food. They’re going through the roof thanks to Per [of Berlin Food Stories] and other influencers, and rightly so.

Influencers… that’s something that definitely didn’t exist 20 years ago. Do you think they’ve had a positive or negative impact on the food scene?

It can be good for places when everyone starts wanting to eat there, but somehow I think it’s only a bubble. Like in the stock market – you’ve got the same startups pushing things up, and then they can’t keep up the pace and the quality, and they’re fucked. But social media is a thing of our generation, and we have to deal with it. Luckily, I’ve always had good lighting in my restaurants. (laughs)

What do you think is going to be the next big food trend?

People always ask me that, but I have no idea! I personally hope German cuisine comes back – the traditional dishes that they served 100 years ago, but in a contemporary way, not too heavy. When
I first came here as a little kid, I thought the food was disgusting. We were used to fresh vegetables, grilled fish, whatever, and Eintopf looked like something for pigs. But now I love it. I’m always on the lookout for that kind of restaurant, but nobody serves those stews and soups anymore. Maybe that’s my next concept.

I won’t cook like Michelin-starred chefs, because I can’t… All I can do is try to make the best possible dishes with my best chefs.

A quick last round of questions: What’s your favourite thing about Berlin?

It’s really that you can get everything here. In so many other places in the world, you get bored with the food. I just came back from the south of France, where all they have is grilled fish with olive oil. It’s good, but after a while you start wanting to eat proper Asian, Turkish or German food…

A secret Berlin tip?

One of my favourite spots that the food people don’t talk about so much is Piazza Bra [on Kurfürstendamm], from the owners of I Due Forne and Il Casolare. Ninety percent of the people there get pizza, but I go for the daily specials – they always have three starters, three pastas and three main dishes, and it’s all totally authentic Italian cuisine. I’m always happy there.

If you could say anything to yourself 20 years ago, what would it be?

Do the same thing. (laughs) Keep going. If I had done things differently, I wouldn’t have learned from my failures. Actually, I only had two of those: the vegan place, Toki the White Rabbit – if I had done that in
the East instead of Charlottenburg, maybe it would’ve worked – and Shiro i Shiro. That was this huge restaurant I opened on Rosenthaler Platz in 2005. It had 140 seats, we were cooking on a gourmet level and it was so exhausting. I was a little too young for something that ambitious.

But you feel like you could open a place like that now?

Yeah, of course.

BIO: Born in Hanoi in 1974, DUC NGO (full name: The Duc Ngo) has been a Berliner since age six, when his family fled Vietnam to escape persecution of the country’s Chinese minority. He first grew up in Spandau, then Wilmersdorf and trained as a sushi chef before striking out on his own with fusion sushi bar Kuchi in 1999. He’s since branched out into ramen, pho and French-Vietnamese dishes, flashy Nikkei cuisine, upscale Chinese, seafood and Korean. He spends most of his time at the intersection of Kantstraße and Schlüterstraße in Charlottenburg, home to five of his restaurants. His newest project, Le Duc, is slated to open in late 2022.