One man has exquisite meals prepared for his guests every evening, while the other preaches about it when he can. We talked to Father Abbot Johannes Eckert and top restaurant owner and gastronome Michael Käfer about the perfect Lord’s Supper, the joy of eating and why radishes are no longer eaten at St. Boniface’s Abbey.
Interview: Stefan Lemle and Stefan Schmortte (Messe München Magazine 01/2017)
Michael Käfer and Abbot Johannes Eckert in front of St. Boniface’s Abbey
Abbot Johannes, when was the last time you dined in a Michelin-starred restaurant?
Abbot Johannes: Maybe last Friday. I had a confirmation and was invited to dinner. However, I’m not sure whether the restaurant had any stars. That wasn’t really important to me.
And you, Mr. Käfer? When was the last time you prayed?
Michael Käfer: About six weeks ago. My wife is very religious. For her, it’s an important ritual to go to church on Sundays. Sometimes, I accompany her.
Which brings us to our main subject. We would like to talk to you about food and religion. What does the Lord’s Supper mean to you personally, Abbot Johannes?
Abbot Johannes: The theme of a common meal is present in all religions, including Christianity. It’s about communion. Abraham gave hospitality to strangers, thereby experiencing closeness to God. The Lord’s Supper expresses this ritual with particular vividness. When Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples before he died, he said: “Whenever you gather in remembrance of me, I will be with you. Then I will be present with you with my body and blood, through bread and wine. Then you will have communion with me.” Therefore, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in its ritualized form of the celebration of the Eucharist, we believe that we are experiencing the closeness of Jesus.
Michael Käfer: As a gastronome, of course, I have a different perspective. First and foremost, the evening meal is an economic factor in our business. But our job also consists of making the people who come to us happy. If they leave the restaurant and say they had a wonderful time, then we’ve done everything right. We’ve given our guests a social experience in addition to a good meal.
So Mr. Käfer operates a God-fearing business, Abbot Johannes?
Abbot Johannes: Yes, I believe so.
Michael Käfer: Thank you very much.
Abbot Johannes: No, really, I believe that’s true.
You are not just the abbot at St. Boniface’s Abbey, but also at Kloster Andechs, which, in addition to the church, has a rather large restaurant and a brewery with an annual output of 2.6 million gallons …
Abbot Johannes: [laughs]... It’s a little more than that now, actually, but go on.
Who do you serve at Andechs? God or money?
Abbot Johannes: According to our monastic rule, hospitality is holy and guests should be received like Christ. I don’t think there is anything indecent about the business at Andechs resulting in both monasteries doing well, and the fact that, here at St. Boniface, for example, we are able to offer 150 to 200 homeless people a warm meal every day. We do not receive any church tax, and that, of course, has to be financed somehow. The founder of our order, Saint Benedict, tells us to live off the work of our hands, to produce and earn what we need. You cannot live off simply looking up into the sky. We used to live from farming at Kloster Andechs; today, it’s the brewery and the restaurant business. But half a liter of beer costs far less in our restaurant than it does in Munich. That, by the way, is also related to the rules of our order. Saint Benedict wrote that you should always sell something at a cheaper price so you won’t end up becoming greedy.
Abbot and top gastronome in the monastery garden
Mr. Käfer, how did your parents raise you in terms of table manners?
Michael Käfer: I had a very strict mother, which I am grateful for. And she taught me that there are certain rules to follow at the table. Right now, things are the other way around. I have young twins who are six years old and I’m passing on to them the table manners my mother taught me.
So that means: Sit up straight, don’t eat noisily and so on?
Michael Käfer: Yes, hands on the edge of the table, that old classic. How you arrange cutlery properly, how you hold a glass in your hand and all these sorts of things. Those are rituals that I consider important. And that’s why I also think it is wonderful that we are enjoying our small meal here with a cloth napkin.
Did you have delicacies every day at home?
Michael Käfer: You know, very often, we don’t always want to have the things we take for granted. Of course, we had delicacies at home. But what I liked best were the Spätzle egg noodles that my Swabian grandmother cooked, the potato dumplings, and ham and noodles. And that’s still true today. Once a year, on December 25th, we have lobster in the morning for breakfast at home. If I were to eat that more often, it would no longer taste as good as it does on that one day.
Seasons are barely relevant anymore when it comes to eating. Strawberries can also be enjoyed in the middle of winter. Is that really compatible with creation, Abbot Johannes?
Abbot Johannes: I think it makes sense to eat only what each season provides. That’s why we aren’t having radishes with our lunch, because they don’t grow here at this time of year. But I find the other subject even more interesting: Learning to enjoy. We also need self-discipline to do that. When I don’t eat meat during Lent, I find the lamb served for the Easter celebration especially tasty. I believe that’s a very important gift that we should not forget. After all, it is also a reflection of creation when we look forward to what will only grow tomorrow.
Do you fast, Mr. Käfer?
Michael Käfer: Yes, but not with reference to the fasting periods.
So, that means the famous fasting regimens for 500 euros per night and with a watery, warm soup for dinner?
Michael Käfer: [laughs] You said that, not me.
Abbot Johannes: You could get that cheaper in our monastery. [laughs]
Let’s take business lunch as a cue. Is it possible to do business while eating? Or the other way around: Is it possible to enjoy a good meal while doing business?
Michael Käfer: Eating while doing business is very difficult, because you are concentrating on something else. Somehow, though, the two go together well. You get to know each other, get closer to each other. And you already have a different subject to talk about besides business matters. Eating makes the atmosphere more relaxed. But if you really want to enjoy a meal, business tends to interfere with that.
Should we refrain from talking while eating?
Abbot Johannes: When we eat together here in the monastery, someone reads aloud at the table. That is something very beautiful, because you aren’t just nourishing yourself physically with food, but spiritually as well.
Michael Käfer: Do you read aloud from the Bible?
Abbot Johannes: Yes, but not just from the Bible. We just read Konklave by Hubert Wolf. Next on the list is a biography of former [German chancellor] Konrad Adenauer. Everyone can suggest something.
Michael Käfer: And the person reading aloud has to eat alone afterwards?
Abbot Johannes: He eats with the person serving us afterwards. In our monastery, someone always serves us at the table, a different brother every week. Table culture is very important to us. In the Old Testament, it states: “At the end of time, God himself will be host on Mount Zion, and there he will serve the finest of wines and the best of meats.” What we do here in the monastery is a bit of a likeness of that and a taste of what is to come.
But it’s also nice to be served occasionally, isn’t it?
Abbot Johannes: Yes, just as nice as serving others. The homeless people we serve here every day are very grateful for that.
Have you yourself ever sensed the fear of having to beg for a bowl of soup?
Abbot Johannes: Not concretely, no. But when looking at the course of the world as a whole, the thought sometimes occurs to me that even I don’t have absolute security.
Michael Käfer: That sometimes occur to me when I think about my twins. Then I wish that the boys will be fortunate enough to live in times that are as good as those that I am living in. As an entrepreneur, however, I am quite familiar with existential fear. Although I am incredibly brave, sometimes I say to myself, “I hope things will all stay as good as they are now.”
Lunch at St. Boniface’s: Abbot Johannes and Michael Käfer in conversation with Stefan Schmortte and Stefan Lemle (clockwise, from left)
In your business, every day, you have to clear away plates from the table that are still half-full, while the homeless people here stand in line for a bowl of soup. How do you deal with that?
Michael Käfer: That’s a difficult question. Worst of all is the Oktoberfest, where I see entire platters going back half-full. Then we realize: There are people with nothing to eat and here it’s being thrown away. That’s reality. But it’s still hard to take.
Where does enjoyment end and gluttony begin?
Abbot Johannes: That’s also a difficult subject. What is considered gluttony by one person won’t necessarily be seen that way by another. St. Benedict is reluctant to prescribe an amount for foods or beverages in his rules, because he knew that people are very different. But when a society totally drifts off into consumption, it is right to talk about exorbitance.
Which, today, is certainly being catered to on television. One cooking contest after the other. Mr. Käfer, what is wrong with people that they sit and watch TV shows about eating for hours on end?
Michael Käfer: For those working in the television business, it is certainly a format that can be produced at relatively low cost. I only rarely find time to watch TV. The few times I really surfed through the channels, though, were actually quite fun.
Because someone is always getting a verbal grilling?
Michael Käfer: I think the first person to put cooking on TV in Germany was Alfred Biolek. He didn’t stand there and criticize anyone. Back then, they celebrated the ritual of chopping vegetables and talking. And that’s what makes cooking so much fun. You lift the lid to see what’s simmering in the pot and have a taste. I enjoy doing that, too.
Can you cook, Abbot Johannes?
Abbot Johannes: No, but it makes me happy when someone else has that gift. Sometimes, brides and grooms come to me and tell me that they like to cook together. I think that’s always an indication of an intact relationship. To be in the kitchen together, talking to each other, cooking and eating.
If people can’t think of anything else, then they just become vegan.Michael Käfer
You are what you eat. When that subject comes up, people occasionally get somewhat fundamentalist. Today, there are vegetarians, flexitarians, raw food eaters and vegans. Are all these people crazy, Mr. Käfer?
Michael Käfer: That’s just individualization. We humans always want to be different in some way or another. And if people can’t think of anything else, then they just become vegan. Everyone has a tattoo by now. I understand vegetarians one hundred percent. I understand that someone decides not to eat anything that has eyes and so on. That is a very clear attitude to life. But I don’t understand being vegan. Why shouldn’t a person be allowed to eat an egg?
Abbot Johannes: Or guinea pigs? I have relatives in Peru. There, guinea pigs are a delicacy. And they don’t taste all that bad. But once, when I was a chaplain, I told the First Communion children that I had eaten guinea pigs in Peru. They didn’t think that was good at all.
Would you be able to butcher an animal yourself?
Michael Käfer: Definitely not. I couldn’t shoot an animal either. If I had to fight for my life, maybe then. But not like that, even if I sell it and eat it myself. I guess I should be a vegetarian.
Abbot Johannes: I wouldn’t even know how to butcher an animal. But, that is also a sign of alienation, of course. We have all become very far removed from natural processes. I once asked a committed vegan what she fed her big dog. She had trouble explaining that one.
And your personal favorites in terms of food?
Michael Käfer: Well, I like everything to do with bread, really fantastic bread. We’ve just discovered a bakery in Vienna that bakes the best bread I have ever eaten in my whole life. Everything made by hand and with the best ingredients. And, on a general level, as we live in Bavaria, I like potato dumplings. By the way, it’s incredibly hard to cook those right.
Does Bavaria have the best cuisine in Germany?
Michael Käfer: Yes, but only because we’re close to Austria.
Abbot Johannes: It’s dangerous for me to disclose my favorite food, because then I would get that at every communion. So, just between us: I’m from the Baden region, so I love Spätzle egg noodles, pastas with sauces.
If he even exists, the greatest cook of all is God.Abbot Johannes
There is one last question we must ask before we finish. Who is the greatest cook of all?
Michael Käfer: The greatest? The religious answer, of course, is Mother Nature.
Abbot Johannes: No, I would rather say: If he even exists, then the greatest cook of all is God.
Now, right at the end, you mention your doubts, Abbot Johannes? If HE even exists?
Abbot Johannes: Doubt is an existential part of faith. We have to keep everything open, especially as a monk, who, after all, is a God-seeker. That is how our lifestyle is described. If it’s true that eternity is a meal with exquisite food and drink, because Jesus says, “I shall never again drink wine from the fruit of the vine until I am in the kingdom of my Father,” then that would be written proof that you can drink wine in Heaven.
That wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Abbot Johannes: No, that wouldn’t be bad at all. And seen that way, I would say that God is certainly the greatest cook of all when he invites us to dine at his table.
Michael Käfer, 59, opened the upscale nightclub P1 in Munich after studying business. In 1988, he joined the management team of the delicatessen company Feinkost Käfer. In 1995, he bought his father’s and uncle’s shares and took over the company, including the party service and the tent at the Oktoberfest. In addition, Käfer owns several restaurant businesses in Munich, is Europe’s market leader in upscale event catering—for Messe München among others—and manages the rooftop restaurant in Germany’s Parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin.
Father Abbot Johannes Eckert, 48, has been Head Abbot of the Benedictine abbey in Munich since 2003, thereby also making him head of the abbey Kloster Andechs. With his paper “Serving instead of Ruling, Corporate Culture and Order Spirituality,” he received his doctorate in Catholic theology in 1999. Johannes is the first monk from Kloster Andechs to be elected abbot since secularization in 1803. In February of 2015, he was confirmed in this position for another 12 years. His motto as abbot is: Diligere ex toto corde—Love with your whole heart.