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Lucky Leek: About authenticity and heirloom vegetables

The December air is still a little chilly as we make our way to Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin to visit Lucky Leek and Sebastian, the manager of the restaurant. It’s also a special occasion for us, as Lucky Leek is the first vegan restaurant that we’re visiting for #restaurantstories.

Sebastian, I have to ask, but are you a vegan yourself?

(laughs) Yes, indeed I am, and have been for quite a while now. When I came to Berlin eight years ago, I was actually quite clueless about what that meant. I then got to know my current business partner Josita when I was working at Mano Verde, and from the very first day, she showed me that even as a vegan, you eat pretty “normal” things. She made French fries with ketchup and vegan mayo for me, and I thought: “Oh yeah, I’ve had this before.” Subsequently, I informed myself more and more about the topic each day, and now everything I eat is vegan. That’s why I also know that vegan cooking really isn’t easy at all. Someone who has had traditional training as a chef will usually find it difficult to switch over to vegan cooking. As yet, there is still no school for vegan cooking.

Even though veganism is a rather huge trend. Today, you find products everywhere that are made especially for vegans. Vegan sausages, tofu schnitzel…

We don’t make stuff like that at all, and personally I find it a little strange. The only meat substitute we use here is seitan. And even then, we don’t use it to make seitan steak. We also don’t make any schnitzel substitutes out of tofu that look and taste like a real schnitzel. When we deep-fried heirloom carrots a while ago, they looked a little like bacon, but that wasn’t our intention.

Heirloom carrots sound really good!

Yeah, we use lots of traditional foods here. For one, there are these carrots, but our supplier also has a lot of other heirloom varieties for us. We love working with him, as he only works with local farmers. Basically what you can do is rent a field and decide for yourself what is to be planted there. Today, we received a batch of parsnips, corn salad, and kale — lots of vitamin C for the cold season. We emphasize using “real” food here. Many kitchens use a wide range of convenience products, i.e. frozen herbs, spices, and vegetables. We don’t use any of those, and our customers love that. I’m really happy that everything turned out so well. It’s really great seeing how much people like our concept.

Could you tell us again how you came to open the Lucky Leek?

I did my apprenticeship as a chef in an Italian restaurant, and then worked for a while in various restaurants. That was all in the Düsseldorf region. At some point in time, I thought that it would be a great idea to get re-trained in a different field. Subsequently, I worked in the TV business, in the audiovisual sector, but I quickly realized that I didn’t really get along with the people in the industry. I missed working in F&B, with people who were genuine, which is why I gave up my job in the media and returned to F&B. I then came to Berlin, and while working at Mano Verde, got to know Josita Hartanto, who was a chef there. We got along really well and after a while, decided to start our own business.

In 2011, we drafted a business concept and visited numerous start-up seminars for restauranteurs in order to get funding. Neither of us have had their own business before, so it really wasn’t easy.

For one, as a restaurant start-up, you get almost no help with funding, and a great many people advised us against taking this step. But we then somehow managed to do it all on our own. Although the place was small, it was very successful from the very beginning.

And you guys have been here for three years now.

That’s right. We simply moved a few blocks over, and now have space for 54 customers. In addition to Josita, two other full-time chefs, one temp, and a dishwasher work in the kitchen. I am the restaurant manager at Lucky Leek. We divided up the duties prudently. Everyone in the team comes from the hotel and F&B industries, and that’s something we pay great attention to. We have a heavy emphasis on good service here, and students working part-time just don’t cut it. We try to become a little better each day.

And how’s it working out?

Oh, really well, actually. There are a lot of things you can influence on your own. We are in the restaurant from noon each day, making preparations, setting the tables. Before that, I’m usually already up and about procuring supplies. I find it really great catering to customers and offering them something really special.

For me, the greatest compliment is when customers are satisfied after their meal, and tell everyone about it. Sometimes we even find a short note of praise on the paper napkins when customers have left.

We really love that! Similarly, there are of course also customers who create problems for us. The worst is actually when tables are reserved and nobody shows up. That’s money that’s missing from our wages later on. We rely on people coming to eat here. One particularly annoying thing is when you’ve prepared to cater to special requests, purchased and prepared certain food items, and in the end nobody shows up. That’s really frustrating.

But all in all, you love working in a restaurant, right?

Of course! I think it’s great having my own place. Every day is different, sometimes it’s easier, sometimes it’s more difficult. But ultimately… yes, I love it!