“Oh, how beautiful is Panama” – this children’s book is a firm favourite in Germany. Written and illustrated by Janosch, it tells the story of two friends – a tiger and a bear – who set out to travel to an exotic land, but at the end of their circuitous route they find happiness exactly where they started from. It’s a story of wanderlust and homeliness, which inspired restaurateur (and father) Ludwig Cramer-Klett when he developed the concept for his restaurant Panama in the heart of Berlin. In Sophia Rudolph he has found the perfect master chef to bring his vision to life. Rudolph is a graduate of the Institut Paul Bocuse, who also learned at a trio of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Q: Sophia, what’s your approach to cooking?
Here at Panama, I focus on German and French cooking, but with an exotic twist. Call it the Janosch experience: what’s on your plate should feel like home, but also new and exciting. When it comes to taste and flavours, I don’t want to be held back by what’s “typical” for a certain kind of regional cuisine. What makes my dishes special is the fusion of many different flavours.
Q: Give us an example.
Germans love to eat venison, and it’s traditionally served with cranberries. So I created a dish of tartare of venison, but I combine it with redcurrant jelly and miso crème instead. This takes all the flavours into a different direction. It’s a German classic, but with an Asian twist.
Q: All your dishes have a dash of “Panama” – an exotic twist: pork rubbed in coffee, buckwheat ravioli, spaghetti squash with tamarind …
That’s because I want to create food that’s all about the flavours. With each dish, I want to create little moments of happiness.
Q: How will your guests know which dish will make them happy?
We offer an a la carte menu, but what I love most is when we can send our guests on a tasting adventure. Just tell your waiter in our restaurant which dish on offer you like the most, and he or she will put together a menu that’s just perfect for you.
Q: You cook using mainly local ingredients…
Yes, absolutely. Our restaurant is very big on sustainability. Not every ingredient has to be local, but we try to source as much of our food as possible from farmers all around Berlin. That doesn’t stop us from offering exotic flavours, but our cooking is rooted here at home.
Q: What’s your view on the high-tech cooking that’s been so fashionable lately?
When a kitchen looks more like a chemistry lab, then that’s mainly for show and less about the taste. Yes, there’s a lot of creativity, and it looks pretty when you serve food as a “foam” of this, that or whatever – but the essential ingredient is missing: great flavour.
Q: But you’re not against technology in the kitchen?
Of course not. There are many new techniques and technologies in the kitchen that make cooking and the logistics of cooking much easier.
Q: And what’s your favourite type of stove?
Personally, I prefer to cook on gas, even though here at the Panama restaurant we use an induction stove – alongside a charcoal grill.
Q: Where do you find inspiration?
I explore, travel and eat a lot. Then there’s the internet, that really helps me to stay up to date. When I create my dishes, I’m inspired by things that I’ve enjoyed, food that I love to eat myself.
Actually, I get plenty of ideas when I visit my parents, who live in France – they are both great hobby cooks.
Q: You yourself trained as a cook in France…
Yes. I grew up in Germany, and I always joined my parents in the kitchen at home when they were cooking. Our family then moved to France, where I went to the international school in Lyon. I found the idea of going to university boring, so I applied to the Institut Paul Bocuse [founded by the famous French chef and godfather of nouvelle cuisine]. That’s where I started to learn cooking like a professional. I continued my training at several restaurants that were accorded Michelin stars.
Q: Was there a moment when you knew ‘I’m a professional cook’?*
That was about eight years ago… I was 23 years old, and I thought to myself ’I really can cook’. But to do this job, you really need passion, you really need to enjoy it, because let’s face it: being a chef is very stressful, without much free time, and it doesn’t even pay well.
Q: After a tough day in the restaurant, how do you relax?
Well, I used to cycle home after work, but since I’ve moved further away that’s not possible – so it’s a taxi ride home for me. Some of my team go to the gym or do some other sport after work.
Q: Is it possible to make a good meal in just 15, 20 minutes?
Well, if you just want to feed yourself, that can be done in just a few minutes. However, if you really want to have fun, then invest some time and love to create great dish.
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