‘Writing is like preparing a sauce – just more final’

Max Strohe is a Michelin-starred chef, author and recipient of Germany’s Federal Order of Merit. In an interview with MPULSE, he discusses his book, how he deals with criticism – and the last time he shopped and cooked on less than 5 euros.

Max Strohe

MPULSE: Max, you run a Michelin-starred restaurant, cook there yourself and also appear on TV shows. Why a book now too? 

Max Strohe: Well, I guess I’ll have to start by taking a detour. For one thing, I always wanted to be a rock star. I only ended up training as a cook because, when I was 15, my mother gave me a choice: cooking school or boarding school. But the boarding school smelled so strange, I decided I’d rather learn to cook. (Chuckles.) I’ve never completely identified with it. When anyone asked me what I did for a living, I usually avoided giving them a straight answer. Being an author is actually a better fit. And second, people would always say to me: Max, if you write the way you tell stories after you’ve had a few drinks – then you should write a book. 

Consequently, your book isn’t a cookbook, but rather talks about your early years in the restaurant business.

Right, and I think that disappointed some of my readers – because they had different expectations. At least people who only knew me from television. We actually got complaints that there aren’t any pictures or recipes in the book. 

How does that kind of criticism affect you?

The big difference to cooking is that in a restaurant you get direct feedback – if you want it – and can readjust things. If ten out of 30 guests say the sauce is too salty, then you try taking the salt out. Once a book is out, you can’t change anything. It’s final. And the book is very personal. When a reader says, ‘It’s disgusting the way he talks about sex,’ that hits me harder than when someone says, ‘You oversalted the soup.’ 

Instead of recipes, you write about your – quite excessive – years as an apprentice, and about what led you from the Rhineland, via stations in an old-age home and in Crete, finally to a career in upscale gastronomy in Berlin. What do you experience when writing, as opposed to cooking? 

 Writing is therapeutic to a certain extent. You process impressions, kind of like in cooking. But the book is a way for me to process my past – while cooking is directed towards the future. I use both as a means of communication. For me, both of them happen very intuitively and very emotionally. 

In what way? 

I wrote the book the way I cook: on a gut level, following my mood. With a lot of love, but at times with anger or frustration, too. In the same way that you bring all the feelings of your everyday life into the kitchen with you. For example, I know by now that I can’t cook a good sauce when I’m stressed. That’s something that takes time – when I’m feeling tense, I can’t put the necessary love into it. The cuisine that we offer here has a lot to do with intuition and emotion. A good sauce needs love and time. You combine the ingredients, stir it gently ... sometimes even for a few days. It was similar when I was writing the book. Sometimes it would just pour out of me – 40,000, 50,000 keystrokes at a time. But as soon as a deadline was set, there was suddenly pressure. That kills the fun. 

Is it like that at the restaurant too? 

Yeah, at first we planned to completely change the menu every three months. Then you have pressure and stress because on the day before the change, you’ve got 25 lobsters on hand, still waiting to be cooked. So we don’t do that anymore. We set our own pace. We change courses, but never the full menu. 

Max Strohe

Cooking is a competitive sport for me – and at the same time, absolute peace, absolute calm.

Max Strohe

What else is done differently at Tulus Lotrek than at other restaurants? 

For me, it’s important to be in an environment where I can be myself. And where the people are doing what they do best. Which doesn’t mean you can’t keep learning and changing. But I would never throw anyone in at the deep end. Our restaurant is like a family. When people start working with us, sometimes they’re confused by how much say the guests and the service staff have when it comes to the menu. For example, we don’t serve foie gras because our waiting staff doesn’t want to have to justify it to the guests. 

How important is it to you to work in the kitchen yourself? 

It’s essential. If I go, say, ten days without cooking, I notice how much I miss that rhythm. And the physical work. Cooking is a competitive sport for me – and at the same time, absolute peace, absolute calm. In the kitchen, I forget the time. 

When was the last time you shopped and cooked for less than 5 euros? 

Just recently, when I was worn out and had a cough. A few soup greens, a jar of ready-cooked kale and two or three knackwursts. I was really craving a stew. 

And generally, if you only had 5 euros to spend on it – what would be your dish of choice? 

Aglio e olio. A little, hot bird’s-eye chilli, so that you don’t need much – 20 cents. A small piece of Parmesan – 3 euros. Cheap spaghetti – 80 cents. A bit of parsley, a fat garlic clove and then the oil ... it would be close, but you could probably do it for under 5 euros. 

For your initiative ‘Cooking for Heroes’ during the Covid pandemic, you and Ilona Scholl, your partner in running Tulus Lotrek, were awarded Germany’s Federal Order of Merit. Was that the greatest experience of your career so far? 

The best moment was the call from the Tagesspiegel, when they told me: Bernd Matthies [the Berlin newspaper’s restaurant critic] reviewed your restaurant and he’s recommending it. He doesn’t do that often ... that was the greatest thing, because if he hadn’t accorded us the recommendation, we probably would have closed. The second-greatest was the Michelin star. And then the Order of Merit. 

You’re now going to be a regular presence in MPULSE magazine with your own column. What connects you with METRO? 

We have a long history together, in fact, because when I was just a kid, my mother regularly took me with her when she went to METRO for her café. That was always like a family outing – my mum’s work was very compatible with my childhood love of two-kilo tubs of crisps! Today, the connection is stronger than ever, and I’m grateful for METRO’s flexibility, resolve and support during the coronavirus lockdown. That’s why we work together: whatever may be going on, METRO responds to all our wishes fast, flexibly and with a wealth of ideas. 

Max Strohe´s column:

Messy dinner table with bottles and plates

Classy, rough and messy

Michelin-starred chef Max Strohe reveals stories behind his Instagram snaps. Today: an evening with cooking wine.

Finished plate of food with fork

Devouring one’s failures

Michelin-starred chef Max Strohe reveals stories behind his Instagram snaps. Today: overachiever dishes.

About ... Max Strohe

Max Strohe

Max Strohe: haute cuisine’s rule-breaker

Out of necessity, Max Strohe discovered his passion for cooking – now, he’s creating a stir in high-end gastronomy.

About ... Max Strohe

Maximilian ‘Max’ Strohe was born in 1982 in Bonn. Since 2015, he has operated Tulus Lotrek in Berlin jointly with Ilona Scholl. The restaurant received a Michelin star in 2017. Strohe and Scholl launched ‘Cooking for Heroes’ during the Covid lockdown to provide meals to nurses, staff in emergency services and other ‘systemically relevant’ workers. In 2021, they were awarded the Medal of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Strohe’s first book, ‘Kochen am offenen Herzen’ (Klett, ISBN: 9783608501735), was published in 2022.

About the restaurant: tuluslotrek.de 
Max Strohe on Instagram: www.instagram.com/maxstrohe

Further articles