This was only going to take an hour. Sixty minutes should be enough to conduct an interview about a restaurant and perhaps even snag a little food sample. I met Ludwig Cramer-Klett in his apartment on Oranienburger Straße in Mitte, after which we made our way over to Bergstraße to visit his recently opened restaurant Katz Orange. We’d talk about appetizers, analyse wine; I’d admire the interior design, and, of course, throw in some questions about Berlin. Or so I thought.
Fast forward five hours: After three hours of discussing free will in front of a stripped, stone wall in his living room–lit by candles despite the broad daylight–and two more hours of the same conversation over at Katz Orange, I learned that, to Ludwig, there is no such thing as coincidence. Or free will, for that matter. Whatever he does, he seems to be following a cosmic plan; god’s will, so to speak. Although Ludwig obviously loves his work, he didn’t open Katz Orange simply on a whim or because he thought he needed to be a food lover. The restaurant is part of a larger vision Ludwig had every intention of continuing.
I sure had a different interview in mind, back when I thought we’d be discussing the ins and outs of gastronomy for an hour. In any case, the meaning of life, god’s will versus free will, or the all-encompassing universe had not been on my list of questions. Then again, despite the occasional difference in opinion, I would not have stuck around for five hours had the conversation not been so fascinating. Ludwigs vision bore a restaurant that combines high-end cuisine with a homely atmosphere and aesthetic that makes feeling at home very easy–perhaps because it basically looks like Ludwig’s living room. Between Kilim pillows and old wood, industrial lighting and antique silver wear, it seems just as impossible to make an exit here as it is while talking to Ludwig.
You’re originally from Bavaria. How did you end up in Berlin?
That was 11 years ago. I started working for an American investment company that had opened a branch in Berlin. Later, I started my own real estate business. In between, I got my M.A. in Switzerland and briefly worked in Zurich. But I was soon drawn back to Berlin to work on my own projects.
You must have observed many changes then. How in your opinion, has Berlin changed over the last 11 years?
When I arrived, Berlin was still in a state of oblivion. Then the international investment run started. It’s been interesting to observe how alluring Berlin is, despite the fact that it’s difficult to find work here. Not for nothing has Berlin become the start-up hub of Europe. People just find a way to survive in the places they are drawn to. Counter to conventional materialistic expectations, it’s remarkable that young people aren’t drawn to Berlin’s economic conditions. After years of living in London, Zurich, Frankfurt, and Munich, this is a revelation. Maybe whatever is happening here is the next level of human evolution. In any case, Berlin is evolving into an international metropolis and despite what some people have prophesized the trash-culture hasn’t died. On the other hand, it has asserted itself on a worldwide level. The Jeunesse Doreé that once paraded around St. Tropez with their champagne bottles, now feel like going to Berghain.
What about people’s state of mind? Does it change too?
Yes, particularly in Berlin but everywhere else too. In general, I find people to be more concerned with the important things in life.
They go inwards to find happiness. Usually, you try to do it the other way around, by changing and arranging your external circumstances, but that’s just like “Don Quixote tilted at windmills’. Once I go inwards, I’m on the right path. Whether I’m bartending, building cars, or painting pictures, it’s all about the love and commitment I put in to what I do.
Is that why you opened Katz Orange? To do something you love?
Creating this space was like an epiphany. I followed a voice inside and completely surrendered to trusting it. I’d discovered meditation many years ago, but due to my working situation my practice was always an afterthought. Then, for a couple of years, I led a near monkish lifestyle. I retreated completely, went inward, and explored different levels of consciousness and the interconnectedness of body, mind, and soul. During this time, I also got interested in nutrition and started cooking. On a subconscious level, the idea to open a restaurant did in a way, already exist. I had a very deep experience on a trip to South America, which was the moment the vision to create a space for people to meet and experience a connection materialized–to create a space that proves you don’t have to be a monk living in a cave to be a spiritual person, but that’s all about your level of awareness. It’s pretty simple and it’s not about vows and teachings–you can be a spiritual person working behind the bar even. The seed was planted back then and now, two years later, it is bearing fruit in shape of the restaurant.
How exactly did you want to turn this vision into reality?
Nutrition is an important topic, not only to me personally, but also more generally for the times we live in. For one, it’s one of the most important examples of the interconnectedness of the body, mind and spirit and the resulting wellbeing. Nutrition also plays an important role in creating the interaction between humans and other life forms around them. But Katz Orange should also be a space for general exchange. At the moment we’re working on creating an inspiring program, which includes readings, various event series, and a blog, which we are in the process of developing.
So you came back from South America with a vision. What happened next?
After the trip I asked myself if I really wanted it. I actually felt pretty good with my calm, meditative life and I wasn’t in a rush to become a gastronomer as I knew it would turn my life upside down. But my vision was clear, so I first told an acquaintance involved in Berlin real estate that I was looking for a location but in no way official or pressing. I just told him to keep his eyes peeled. A few days later, he came to see me and asked, “How do you feel about Maxwell”; the current location on Bergstrasse.
Do you have any criteria to selecting your team? Do your employees have to share your vision?
If they’re in, they’re in, even if their views don’t coincide with mine. Primarily, I just listen to my gut. Of course, I talk about my ideas and visions, but nobody has to agree with me.
Aren’t you afraid of failure or disappointment?
Naturally, fear scratches at my door once in a while, but this project is exactly about not letting fear in. The opposite of fear is trust. I’d rather focus my energy on strengthening trust and the ability to be grateful and content with what I have and the things that still lie ahead. And voila, all of a sudden, everything flows together and all is well.
Where does the furniture in your apartment and Katz Orange come from?
I’ve been a collector and hunter ever since I was little. I hunted the trophies myself, other objects I found on many trips abroad, alone or with my family. Most things have a meaning but of course there is also an esthetic element. It’s a collection of memories and associations. These can be my sibling’s childhood drawings, artists work or only a branch or a stone. Things went similar in the restaurant, only in a more compressed period of time. For the last two years, I collected objects and furniture from different parts of the world. Additionally also other people made contributions, above all the artist and architect Yoon Lee, who worked with us during the construction phase and who has been very important for the outcome of the interior design. Furthermore, she created the amazing light installation in the entrance. But also other people contributed to designing the space. My good friend the Swiss artist Kerim Seiler created the great light installation on the ceiling of the wood panel room and came up with various other ideas. Interior designer Joachim von Schönberg, my brother Nikolas, who’s also a designer, as well as our friend the designer Matthias Netzberger also made valuable contributions.
You could argue that you can afford the luxury of trust because you’re used to financial stability…
Sure. But that has nothing to do with trust. Like I said, it’s not about your circumstances but what is happening inside of you. Financial stability is no different than your external circumstances. There were times in my life when I was ruled by fear rather than trust although I wasn’t worse off financially. I have very loving and giving parents. I have never lacked anything, and I am very grateful for that.
But I also started working and developing my own projects when I was 20 years old. Before I turned 30, I had accumulated enough financial wealth out of my own accord to be able to realize my visions. Obviously, I was born into a situation that allowed for a certain amount of freedom to pursue things others couldn’t. But then again, you could say that about anybody. I believe that we are born into those circumstances that will allow us to fulfill our life’s purpose. I’ve lived in slums and indigenous villages and was fortunate enough to learn that even the most basic living conditions, can be filled with happiness. On the other hand, I also know a lot of financially stable people who want nothing more than love and happiness. Others started worse than I did, but have accomplished a lot more. Everybody is on their own path, following their own destiny.
Isn’t all this an excuse to escape the dilemma of free will?
And exactly that’s the point: I don’t believe in free will. I believe that we do what we should be doing.
What about the Native American pictures?
It’s a bit of family history: My great-grandmother was a Native American from the Pawnee tribe. This descent has always played an important role in our family and fascinated me ever since I was a child. You could say that, as a child, my head was in a different world. The mind-altering experiences that were to be the incisive impetus to start this project also happened with native shamans in South America. I am grateful to this culture and I wanted to incorporate this aspect of my life in the restaurant.
To wrap this up, tell me about your food…
We prepare our food with respect for the product–animals, as well as plants, which we also see as living beings. We also want to show that you can turn things others would consider to be waste into something good. For example, we turn cucumber rinds into a salad that is so delicious our customers are amazed.
All in all, it is very important to us to find a holistic way of processing our food. Of course, we’re not dogmatic about it. We want to educate in a subtle way, not preach like missionaries. We buy an entire animal and use it to make a soup, a sandwich, and a roast, for example, so that in the end we’ve utilized all its parts. Our menu offers vegan meals, but also meat. We think that once you make a connection with your environment you automatically treat it with respect. From this respect, or compassion, you begin asking yourself whether or not it’s really necessary to torture animals in order to save some money or if we could just pay a little more to let all beings live a dignified life. In that respect, I think our society is taking things a bit too far. We hope to contribute in redefining those boundaries. The natural conclusion here is not necessarily to lead a vegan lifestyle– everybody should make their own informed decision. We want to be a living example, of a path that has by no means come to its conclusion.
Thank you, Ludwig for this nice interview!
Interview: Louisa Löwenstein
Photography: Juliane Spaete
Translation: Jennifer Hofmann