'I want to give the chefs their craft back. That can make a lot happen'

Patrick Wodni is an idealist. To him, cooking is inextricably tied to the growing and origin of food. His work proves that you can make fresh meals and eat fantastically well on a daily rate of less than €5 a day. In our interview, he told us what it takes to change canteen food for the better.

Fresh food are on the table

A portrait of Patrick Wodni
Patrick Wodni

Can you taste respect?

I can’t answer that question. What you can certainly taste, however, is product quality. You can taste if something grew in dead or living soil. And the craftsmanship that has gone into preparing a product – you can taste that, too.

During a past interview, you said that tasting can be learned as well as forgotten. Is that why you chose a canteen kitchen as your domain? To remind as many people as possible how to taste their food?

That, too. At some point, I simply needed more meaning in my work as a chef. I had already decided to do an apprenticeship in sustainable farming at a Demeter estate. To pass the time until the start of the course, I worked for an organic catering company that serves children’s day-care centres. That is where I realised that cooking can be meaningful. I also knew that I had plenty of technical skills left to learn, and I had to go back to the restaurant industry to learn them.

But you knew that you would not stay there for good?

I might well have started enjoying the work again. But yes: I was quite certain that I wanted to do something other than cook for an exclusive audience.

Speaking of exclusive audiences: what do you think about companies that operate an executive restaurant in addition to their works canteen?

If they think that’s necessary, let them. I am always happy to see executives dine next to warehouse pickers at my canteen. A good canteen should be a cross-section of society.

Which canteen left the greatest impression on you?

Without a doubt, the canteen at the Berlin atelier of Olafur Eliasson, the Icelandic artist. Nearly all their products come from community-supported agriculture; they only source a small number of dried goods from elsewhere. The means are simple but creative and prepared extremely well. Aesthetics is very important there.

You don’t often hear the words ‘canteen’ and ‘creativity’ in the same sentence. How do you motivate veteran canteen workers to let their creative juices flow?

I don’t want anyone to do something just because I told them to. I don’t want to convince anyone. Change must come from within. Unfortunately, many canteen kitchens no longer need or appreciate culinary craftsmanship for cost reasons. Even their onions come pre-chopped and frozen. I want to give the chefs their craft back. That alone can make a lot happen.

Unfortunately, many canteen kitchens no longer need or appreciate culinary craftsmanship for cost reasons.

Patrick Wodni

What can canteen kitchens learn from gourmet restaurants?

Gourmet restaurants can certainly teach canteen kitchens precision. Take pasta with tomato sauce: a pleasant dish, all in all. But if you overcook the pasta, half of the food will taste bad. Precision is very important for turning simple ingredients into tasty food.

… and what can gourmet restaurants learn from the canteens?

That you can make spectacular food with simple ingredients. Many restaurants are able to offer good and expensive food because they use exclusive ingredients. But it doesn’t always have to be turbot. Canteen workers know this.

Your first move at the Havelhöhe hospital was to decentralise purchasing. How could you convince more canteen kitchens to pay greater attention to regional products and the growing and production condition of the food they use – even if they do not end up turning their entire purchasing system upside down?

Decentralising purchasing is hard work. I like doing it, because the personal connection with the suppliers, the producers, is very important to me. That’s just different to having some random driver come along every time. You get to hang around for a while, have a chat. But I understand that not everyone has the time to organise their purchasing system in that way. There is no software or app to do it for you. A lot of it is done over the phone. It would be great if there were a platform that could help producers, restaurant owners and canteen managers to network. You’d just go there and buy goods from a wide range of sources. It would make things easier for both sides. Many farmers and producers are not exactly marketing experts. With a platform like that, they could leave it to those who know what they are doing.

A kind of digital producers’ association?

That’s it! That sums it up pretty well. Of course, it wouldn’t work on a national level. What we need are regional platforms that connect regional businesses and restaurants.

How can the wholesale industry help to change canteens for the better?

Both sides must work towards that change. For a wholesaler to increase their organic range from 2 to 10% is a big step in the right direction, but they need buyers, too. If canteen kitchens were to use more organic produce and wholesalers were to supply them – that’d be perfect. At the moment, though, one party does not supply them because there is no demand, and the other party does not use them because there is no supply. Canteens could demand more organic food, and the retail industry would have to react quickly. Alternatively, retailers could be brave and offer more organic goods and just say: “Here you are. Do something with it! Change something! We’re on board.”

Empty dining tables in a canteen

Further articles