Vadim Otto Ursus

Vadim Otto Ursus

I speak to Vadim Otto Ursus while he’s in a car, cruising around Austria. We have been trying to set a date for our conversation for a few days, and we finally manage to find a time that suits us both while he’s being driven through what I imagine is a dramatically autumnal central European landscape of golden trees, sharp mountains, and misty air (even if, potentially, he is just navigating an unremarkably grey autobahn). It’s just that, when one thinks of Vadim the chef, it is hard to forgo the image of him as someone perennially rooted in nature, in the present time and place. That’s what the menu at Otto, the restaurant in Berlin he opened at the tender age of 25, promises—and delivers: seasonal dishes made with hyperlocal produce of the best quality, foraged, grown, or purchased from a network of small, organic farmers in the German region of Brandenburg. Quality food, quality wine, quality time. It works. So much so that it is one of the most reputable restaurants in the city, and getting a reservation requires patience and perseverance. Think of that success alongside other highlights from Vadim’s career, like working in the kitchens of René Redzepi, Maaemo, or Koks, or opening a second restaurant—Trio—by the time he was 30, and it’s easy to be dazzled by the headlines, to imagine a life of rowdy kitchens and endless shifts bathed in the excesses of fame. Yet it only takes a few minutes on the phone to sense that he is someone as rooted and down to earth as the food he makes, radically far from that recurring cliché of the larger-than-life chef. Vadim lives with his girlfriend and son in a tiny apartment in the same building where he grew up, a place with no frills. It’s a stone’s throw away from his restaurants, right next to both of his parents’ places. He moves between work and home, with occasional excursions to the cabin his mother bought in Brandenburg some years back, which fortuitously became the cradle of Otto. There is beauty in this sense of familiarity, in the elevation of the elemental things that surround us and the respect for the limitations that they inevitably imply.

Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus

You’re on a long road trip, so I hope our conversation serves as a distraction. Do you travel a lot for work, or are you mostly in Berlin and Brandenburg?

Funny question to ask right now. Before I had the restaurant, I travelled for a couple of years, working in different places, seeing different countries and cultures. That changed after I opened Otto. But this year, we started our first pop-ups. Over the summer, I was in Marseille, and now we’re in Austria, in the Alps, where we just gave a fermentation masterclass and dinner. So, travelling is starting again, and that makes me very happy. It’s inspiring to have an exchange with other people, either with our pop-ups or by having guest chefs in Berlin. I think it helps me to continue developing as a chef.

The resources you work with, in terms of produce, are extremely local, so I was wondering how much of your creative process is also rooted in the land, or if you need these inputs from different places or cuisines in order to feel inspired?

Yes, a great deal of the creative process comes down to my travels, the places I’ve worked in, and especially the cooking techniques I’ve learnt. When I’m in Berlin, I see what produce I have available at a good quality, and then I apply these different techniques. At Otto, the style of food and of cooking is quite flexible—there’s no big rule about it. In the past, many of the grand ideas for dishes came from me, but now, more and more, the process comes from within the team. Everybody contributes ideas based on the produce we have available. 

How did the ‘Beetroot with Sloe Berry and Labneh’ come about? It’s the recipe you featured in our Apartamento Cookbook #8: Tuber, or not Tuber?.

It’s quite a nice example, actually. When I worked in the Nordic countries, I learnt a technique that I really liked, which consisted of cooking a vegetable until it’s tender, dehydrating it, and then rehydrating it a bit in juice. You get these strong, intense, packed flavours together with chewy textures, which I think is one of my favourite combinations. While working at Maaemo in Oslo, they had a tiny snack on their menu with beetroot and sloe berries—and like a million other things, of course—but I thought those two together made such a good match. It was the first time I genuinely enjoyed beetroot. And then, right before opening Otto, there was a pop-up at Mrs Robinson’s for which I needed large vegetarian dishes that were very full and flavourful. I thought of that flavour combination and of that technique, and that’s how I came up with the dish. We tasted it the first time we served it. We were amazed by it, and the feedback was great. This was five years ago, and it’s barely changed since. 

Apartamento Cookbook #8: Tuber, or Not Tuber?

It’s become one of the quintessential Otto dishes.

Beetroot is a type of produce that is kind of available all year round; you can either eat it fresh or easily store it. We can also get the sloe juice from our producers in Brandenburg, as well as the rest of the toppings. It’s a nice dish to serve all year long. 

It’s funny you didn’t enjoy beetroot before tasting it at Maaemo. Are there any other ingredients you’ve learnt to love with time?

There are a few ingredients that have become staples, to my surprise; I didn’t realise we would use them in so many different ways throughout the year. This is what happens with unripe fruits: tomatoes, gooseberries, and mirabelle plums, for example. They’re not really edible in that stage, but thanks to a bit of salt and fermentation, they are super versatile. The mirabelles are similar to olives; the gooseberries, to capers; and we use the tomatoes that remain unripe at the end of the year as pickles, or to make green mole, or we reduce the pickling juice and season lots of dishes with it. These underestimated products have become crucial to our cooking.

I guess the relationship with your producers is fundamental?

It’s definitely been a learning curve. We’ve had good relationships with them from the beginning, but they were a lot more reluctant because we were asking for unripe tomatoes or berries, vegetables that were particularly small or large—we were relatively specific in what we needed, and a lot of it was stuff they wouldn’t usually sell. And countryside people can sometimes be sceptical by nature. We had some larger gatherings where we invited the producers to get to know each other, and after a while, they understood us better, and now it works nicely. 

Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus

I’d like to know more about what motivated your return to Germany after all those years travelling and living elsewhere. Were you homesick?

I came back to Germany after roughly three years working in high-end, Michelin-star kitchens, where there was lots of pressure. During that time, I had nothing besides work—travelling was also work. I wanted a break, and the one thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want to go down the path of those high-end restaurants. So, I returned to Berlin without a particular plan. Around the same time, by coincidence, my mother got a tiny piece of land with a small cabin on it, about one hour north of the city.

I was inspired by the restaurants I’d worked at, especially the ones in the Nordic countries, where you go foraging a lot. I started trying out a few different things. It was hit or miss; some dishes came out nicely, and others, not so much. At some point, I had way too much stuff in my basement—too much to eat by myself. I still had no concrete plan, but I started to think that maybe it was time to give some of it to other people to try.

Then another coincidence occurred. I was in touch with some people who had a small lunch restaurant in Wedding in Berlin. They were eager to do something in the evenings, and we started hosting a pop-up series over the course of a year. I had a good feeling about it, although concept-wise, it wasn’t quite specific in the beginning. But the idea continued to develop, and I got more particular in what exactly I wanted to do. And then there was yet another coincidence: A good friend of the family offered me a restaurant, which is now Otto.

Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus

What exactly was the idea that would grow to become Otto?

The first rule is that we want to be as regional and seasonal as possible. That is also how I want to eat when I go somewhere else in the world: I want something from the area, to get to know the culture. Something that’s always been important to me as well is the way we work together as a team, not just within the restaurant but also with our producers. There needs to be sustainability in the entire process, in the way we choose the products we use and the way we treat our relationships with producers. And then there’s the way you eat at the restaurant; I want it to be rather approachable. It’s important that there’s a vibrant atmosphere, and this happens thanks to the space, which is quite small and usually alive with quite a few guests, and also through the process of sharing food, of sharing plates. This is what I personally like the most: coming together to eat and share good food.

Tell me more about the cabin in Brandenburg, which seems to be the restaurant’s backstage.

It’s a dacha. We’ve renovated it slightly. In a way, it works as a sort of pre-kitchen. It’s a space where we can process what we forage. We also have some garden space, so our edible flowers and most of the herbs come from there. We wash and pack them nicely so we can store them properly in the restaurant, where we don’t have that much space. The cabin’s basement also helps to store fermented foods, charcuterie, and things like that. 

Is it a true workspace, or do you also use it like a second residence?

At first, it was mostly a workspace. After a couple of years, it’s changed a bit, and we have some private space now. At the moment, anything is possible there. I would love to spend more time there, but now that we have a kid, a second restaurant—there hasn’t been much time.

Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus
Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus
Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus

Let’s talk about Trio, your newest restaurant, which is more focused on traditional German food.

Growing up, I never really ate traditional German food. Maybe at my grandparents’ or at school, but it wasn’t particularly well done. I’ve always enjoyed classic, hearty food, but in Berlin it’s very difficult to find. If you go further south, there are many more interesting places, and there’s much more culture around the food, as well. So, we’ve opened the place we were missing. We work with the same high-quality products we use at Otto—everything’s organic and mostly from the region. We cook good, everyday food. My feeling is that people crave more traditional food now, after so many different trends or waves. In times of crisis, especially, people want to have something familiar. And being in Berlin, in Germany, it’s a cuisine that makes sense.

To the untrained palate, German cuisine is not one of the best known or the most appreciated. What would be a good gateway dish to German food?

Most people think that Germans only eat sausages, sauerkraut, and potatoes. Those are definitely a very important part of the cuisine, but there’s a lot more going on. A dish that makes a lot of sense with the way we work—and one I really like—is the Königsberger Klopse, consisting of poached veal meatballs in a white caper sauce with mashed potatoes and a beetroot salad on the side. We were able to get the highest quality meat available in the area through a dairy farmer who works next to our Brandenburg cabin. On a dairy farm, male calves aren’t really needed after some time because they never give milk. These animals are usually slaughtered in a very brutal way. We have the possibility to buy that veal and use some of the most expensive parts, like the back or the fillet, in Otto. Everything else, we use for ragus or for the Königsberger Klopse at Trio. It’s a nice way to use a whole animal, and it’s also a very typical dish from Berlin, so it’s close to my heart.   

Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus

What’s your relationship like with Berlin? The areas where you live and work, between Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, are relatively close, and that’s also where you grew up. I read that your parents were squatters back in the day—you must have witnessed the city’s dramatic change.

Yes, 100 percent. I grew up in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, switching between my parents’ houses—Otto is basically in the middle of the route between both homes. I have a very close relationship with the area. It’s where I’ve spent most of my life. My mother still lives in the same apartment I grew up in. Sometimes, when you’re there constantly, you don’t realise how much it’s developing and changing. The other day, my mother and I went for a walk and saw that Fotografiska [a museum that occupies the former art squat, Kunsthaus Tacheles] had just opened. I was pretty shocked to see it. I used to play in the backyard of the Tacheles when I was a kid, 25 years ago, and now the area is this huge sort of shopping mall with fancy apartments.

I think if I hadn’t grown up here, I wouldn’t be a big fan of the neighbourhood, especially of Mitte. Both Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg had a peak of being really not cool at all, a kind of tourist trap. But the development in the past few years has been promising: Near Otto, there’s also Frida and Bar Normal, and Mrs Robinson’s used to be around the corner. There are quite a lot of places that aren’t so old and that, in a gastronomic sense, make the area pretty interesting. It feels like everything that’s new and young and good is not only in Kreuzberg and Neukölln anymore. 

For the first time in a couple of decades, there’s a conservative government in the city, which had already been moving, socially and financially, in a direction akin to bigger—and more expensive—capitals. How do you see the restaurant scene evolving?

In the recent past, some spots have been struggling quite a lot—especially fine dining, Michelin-star restaurants. I think generally, everyone is leaning towards more approachable things. Good quality neighbourhood spots, instead of fancy destination restaurants, would be great for the development of the city. This is part of our responsibility: to keep the city a place where people want to, and can, live. 

Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus
Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus

You live in the same building where you grew up, and your dad lives downstairs. How has your relationship with home evolved through the years?

In the past two years, since I became a father, I’ve spent much more time at home. Before, I never had so much to do with the neighbours except for saying hello, but now I’ve gotten to know them better. I feel much more rooted in the house and the area. Having a kid also meant I started seeing my father on a daily basis, and our relationship became a lot closer. 

Have you been cooking a lot for your kid, involving him in this aspect of your life?

I’ve been cooking a lot more at home. Before that, I was always eating out, working a lot, and always cooking in the restaurant—I wasn’t so keen on doing it in my free time. Now I try to spend more evenings at home, at least three or four times a week. Sometimes we eat out as a family at Trio. I want to share with my kid what going to a restaurant is like, the nicest parts of gastronomy.

Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus

Tell me more about the apartment, which is a pretty classic, no-frills Berlin altbau.

It’s the same apartment I grew up in, but on a different floor, so it feels very familiar. It’s quite small: We have a bedroom–cum–living room, a kid’s room, and a kitchen. This is where all the reunions happen; it was also like that before we had a child. The kitchen has always been the place to hang out.

Do you feel like your home is an extension of the restaurant in any way, either in the decoration or the type of cooking you do?

It’s not so different in terms of look and feel—maybe a bit more wood and a bit less concrete and stainless steel. But what I cook is very different from what I would do at Otto; it’s more classic, food that me and my girlfriend like to eat, as well as something a two year old would eat, which is kind of a challenge. When there was no kid eating with us, I only cooked Chinese. At home, there’s no concept to follow. It’s nice to get very different flavours involved.

Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus
Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus

Do you host often?

I love hosting. I deeply enjoy having people over in my kitchen. I used to do that a lot, way before I knew I wanted to become a chef. I would always cook dinner, sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself, but then also in bigger groups of people at home. And I really, really enjoyed that. This moment of sharing food around the table is something I still love. Now, when it happens at home, it’s mostly one or two friends at a time.

Is that how you discovered you wanted to be a chef, a restaurateur?

Yes. In school I was really keen on hosting these dinners, and I became interested in how to actually do it. I wanted to learn how to feed a large family with a feast, a big group of friends with good food. I didn’t have a goal of opening my own restaurant or anything like that. Somehow, I ended up doing a restaurant apprenticeship. On the first day, it was pretty obvious that I loved it. I tried spoonfuls of so many different things, and they tasted in ways I didn’t even imagine were possible. And that excitement didn’t stop. It still has never stopped.

Apartamento Magazine - Vadim Otto Ursus

Chef Vadim Otto Ursus’s recipe Beetroot with Sloe Berry and Labneh is featured in Apartamento Cookbook #8: Tuber, or Not Tuber? together with 15 other recipes such as Rosie Healey’s A Salad of Jerusalem Artichokes, Parmesan, Walnuts, and Mint, which you can also read here.

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