My name is Itay Novik. I have lived in Berlin for 5 years, after living in Milan for 6 years. In Milan I studied industrial design in Politecnico (the technical university). I moved to Berlin exactly one year after my first visit here. I knew I wanted to move already on my second day here. So what do I do? I work in Berlin as a food designer, mainly as a stylist for food photography productions. I also cook the food if needed and form recipes.
In addition I advise restaurants and am working on a pilot to a series I’m writing which documents Israeli immigrants in Berlin through domestic food. The cooking style, the domestic tastes missing here, where they get their products and documenting the immigration experience of each one of them. In the end we cook together from a mutual recipe by the will of the host. What else? I guide tours about the culinary history of Berlin and Brandenburg. In these tours I talk about the evolution of food in the area, its characters and the influence of immigrants kitchens. We also visit markets and famous culinary institutes and family businesses.
Food as a bridge
The first picture was taken at Kanaan restaurant. Kanaan is an Arab-Israeli restaurant which opened a few months ago in Berlin. It is a project which is very dear to me. It’s a connection between two partners. One of them, Jalil, is the owner of Samir restaurant in Ramle. I wish there would be more projects like that, as food always connects people and bridges over gaps.
When I went to study in Italy 11 years ago, I didn’t have an immigration plan. I thought I would leave to study 3-4 years, go back to Israel, and start working in the industry. Meanwhile it didn’t happen apparently. Living in a foreign culture changes you a bit and life in a foreign language changes you a lot. I think and talk different when speaking Italian. Besides that, after the first transition the fear of change is gone. Today I have no fear of changing places; on the contrary, I enjoy the feeling of a clean start.
One of the reasons I was attracted to Italy was the food culture, of course. In Italy there’s a high level of standardization when it comes to food, for good and bad. For example, Parmigiano will be always produced in Emilia Romagna, in specific areas, with a minimum aging period and a strict diet for the cows that produce the milk. Beyond that, there’s a vast richness of ingredient and micro-specialties which changes from village to village.
Seafood pasta just to irritate
On one of my visits to Rome, we drove out of the city to one of the villages in the region that specializes in a very particular type of raspberry tart. Every vitrine in every bakery in the village presented this tart in different sizes. There’s beauty in it, in this strictness. It can also oppress in some cases. In Italy, for example, seafood pasta will never be served with Parmigiano—it is strictly forbidden. When I wanted to irritate a waiter in a restaurant I would order seafood pasta and ask for Parmigiano, just to see the look on his face.
Respectively, also the field of food design, packaging design and food photography is very developed and elaborate in Italy. Food photography in Italy is a few steps ahead of Germany and is much more sensual. In Germany the level of food controls is very high, but that strictness of food standardisation that you see in Italy (Gorgonzola, Parma prosciutto, balsamico di Modena and so on) just doesn’t exist here. The relation to food is much less sentimental than in Italy, and there are almost no products which are unique to Germany, not to mention regional specialties.
If there’s one thing that Germans have developed a sentimental feeling toward in the food section, it’s beer. Unlike most products, here there is Standardisation. Beer can be manufactured from three ingredients only (plus water): malt, hops and yeast. Any other ingredient and it wouldn’t be named beer anymore. The beer in the picture for instance, BIER, is the only beer in Germany that has another ingredient in the list: love. Three weeks after printing the labels, the guys received a letter from the regulators informing them that they couldn’t add love to the beer, as it’s not on the list of authorized ingredients (Lebensmittelkennzeichnungsverordnung in German). The press of course had a field day with this and the bureaucracy had to stand down for the time being. But it’s not by chance that it’s a Berlin-based company, or that one of its partners is American.
Logic is a very German thing. I prefer to go with things I like instead of things which are right to do. Berlin gives you a mental freedom which Italy doesn’t have. In Italy every process starts with “Let’s see what we did in the last 100 years and try to do the same.” Berlin from that point is much more similar to Israel, in that there is a basic lack of respect for tradition. On that matter I was a kind of unicorn at the university in Milan, where they always saw me as someone exotic with a fresh point of view, because I didn’t think and express myself in the Italian formal forms.
I like very much the challenge that life here poses for one who’s active in the culinary field. I told a colleague a few days ago that in Italy, had I needed to hold a culinary tour in any city, in any street, I would have managed easily. Here, on the other hand, you have think about the narrative, to carve your path. There’s beauty in it, once you succeed of course.
I’m having a hard time with German—physically, not mentally. I understand, but I get tongue-twisted when talking. That’s one of the reasons I’m working as a freelancer. I understood that every high school graduate here has a built-in advantage over me as a native speaker who graduated from the German education system with all the proper certificates.
Part of the work arrives through the photographer I’m working with, Kfir Harbi. He gets a project and I join him. Another way is through friends. I know quite a lot of people here and people know what I do, so sometimes I get contacts to people who need help in the food sector. Other than that, I mostly push. If I see something that interests me, I introduce myself and ask to meet and talk, seeing how can I help.
Immigrant among immigrants
I live in Neukölln. It’s my first apartment and I like it very much. The neighborhood keeps changing all the time. I still remember in my first year here there was no decent coffee shop in the area that served coffee by the Italian standard. Today you already have choices. They say in Berlin that you can spot gentrification by the first organic supermarket that opens in the street, and here there are already a few. On the other hand, Neukölln was always an immigrant neighborhood, so only the immigrants have changed.
In March I decided to open the Facebook group “Moms Cook in Berlin” (the name is a play on the name of a similar, much bigger Israeli group). The group took off quite fast within the first weeks. It has already formed quite an impressive cadre of cooks and people who like to talk about food. Today we have almost 800 members and I believe we’ll cross the 1000 mark before our first birthday.
The original article was published in Hebrew in Berlin today