Milano, Charlotte Garlaschelli | 20 June 2011

Immagini 1, 2 Courtesy Delfino Sisto Legnani | Other images courtesy press Chinabrenner || pics 1,2,3,4, 10, 11, 12 Lambrate 2011 | pics 5 small business Berlin | pics 6 e 7 noodle dan dan mian e aubergine with fishtaste | pic 9 project Yogurt a Bejing 2008 | Small Business al Designers Open di Leipzig 2010

Thomas Wrobel and Jo Zarth have many things in common: a passion for design and art, an inclination towards the aesthetics and photography . After several years of artistic collaboration they experienced some time in China, where they discover the true Chinese cuisine. Thomas deepens the traditional cuisine of Sichuan, and once it got back he createsCHINABRENNER a mobile restaurant where eat high quality Chinese cuisine. Instead Jo continues his work as a photographer focusing on Chinese culture. Together at last Milan Design Week,presented the project CHINABRENNER. After being discovered in a corner of Ventura area we had a chat with them.

All of your projects are very interesting and they have many concepts. Is there any project that summarizes all of them?
Jo: I am mainly interested in the regional variations of everyday life and culture, so there isn’t any one project that is my favourite. I generally pursue work which allows me to combine all my different talents and skills.

How did your collaboration with Thomas Wrobel begin?
Jo: We studied applied arts together and, several years later, shared a workshop and studio. In it, Thomas developed art projects for public spaces and I built product design prototypes and models. At some point, Thomas then began cooking Sichuan cuisine because he was unhappy with the food that was being passed off here as “Chinese”.

The project presented in Lambrate is CHINABRENNER, it is a place where street food gets prepared, something Chinese, a physical place where you eat Chinese, in the world. We know that Thomas loves Chinese cuisine and he studied in China. How did you get to China?
Jo: In 2008 Thomas asked me to accompany him to China as a photographer. While there we visited Chengdu, Chongqing and Beijing and researched the topic of “the street as kitchen”. This experience helped me understand Thomas’ fascination for the country.

What did you use to cook?
Thomas: When I cook for an event, I’m interested in showing the variety of Chinese cuisine. Typically I end up preparing more than 20 different dishes. Lambrate was conceived of as a recreation of a Chinese street food experience with a number of freshly prepared, common snacks like Dan Dan Mian – this are noodles with minced meat or tofu and peanuts –, fried potato wedges with sechuan pepper and tea eggs.

Tell me also a recipe, your favourite one:
Thomas: Aubergine with fish taste (Qiézi yú xīng wèi): Cut aubergine in pieces and deep fry them. chop garlic and ginger roast them gently with chili-bean-cauce and sugar. Quench it with rice wine and light soy sauce, bind it with cornflour and add the aubergine.
Jo: As you see there is no fish in it.

You have just started a small business , what is it and how does your work at Chinabrenner goes on? Did anyone join a small business, travelling around the world and cooking?
I have worked as a freelance designer and photographer for ten years. At the moment, I am doing a lot of design work for a cookie company in support of market research which they are conducting. The next project I’ll be undertaking with CHINABRENNER will be for an “unusual” Chinese restaurant. I’ll oversee the styling and decoration which will incorporate many of the small details I have seen in China. So while I do a lot work in the food context, I am not a cook myself.

Where and what did you study?
Jo: We studied applied arts at the same small college in Schneeberg, a town in eastern Germany near Dresden. In addition to this, we both completed apprenticeships as model makers – a long time ago.
Thomas: . . . .and I am a self-taught cook.

Chinoserie is a tale about your interpretation of the Chinese society – what do you think is the key concept of the chinoseries described by your website’s images, what do you like the most?
Jo: The interesting thing about Chinoserie is the unexpected moment such as when you discover a Chinese tea pavilion in a Rococo garden using porcelain made in Meissen. Creating a Sichuan street scene complete with food vendors in an industrial section of Lambrate had such an effect and that was our intention. We did something similar to this in our hometown of Leipzig but there it was in the courtyard of an unused, 200-year old hotel that sits right in the city centre. The project lasted only three days, but I was very pleased with how it turned out. Also, my miniaturized hot food stand models is one of my favorite projects because it reflects a little bit the old cabinets of curiosities.

Food is a magnifying glass through which we can look at the whole world: design, society, people, art. What is your opinion about, also concerning your project?
Thomas: For me, CHINABRENNER is a way to conjure the world, Chine, Sichuan and my favourite city Chengdu. By consciously trying to limit myself to the use of ingredients that are available here in my home town, I hope that I keep things accessible for people. But this limitation alse creates overview. In some ways, this approach is consistent with Chinese cooking from China which was often improvised in order to deal with a missing ingredient or two.

What do you usually eat and how do you eat?
Jo: In the past I often cooked for myself and friends, but I find that these days I am often eating my lunch in Thomas’ backyard restaurant because I run into some many of my friends there. How do I eat? With chopsticks!
Thomas: In China, I will usually get my evening meal from a street vendor and this could be anything from cold noodles to beef skewers. When I’m here, I am happy eating a cheese sandwich.

What type of chinese cuisine do you prepare? What cooking instruments do you use?
Thomas: There are five kinds of Chinese cooking. My passion is for Szechuan cuisine because of its breadth. It’s most distinctive characteristic is its love of spices. In terms of the cooking utensils I use, some were brought from China, but I have many made for me in Germany, for example my copper woks. This is also part of the CHINABRENNER concept: we blur the borders and play with ideas of imitation.

Sichuan Cuisine is a very ancient type of cusine and very famous, do you follow it? in which way? what do you keep from the ancient cuisine?
Thomas: Sichuan cooking as we know it has existed for only the past 200 years as the chili was only imported from the Americas in the 16th c. I am fascinated with the way this cooking tradition is so deeply rooted in the population there, and this is something that I try to communicate with my work.

How do you manage to move your products? do you buy them in the same place where you create the
project (as Lambrate) or do you first examine the territory and choose where you can find the ingredients of
your menu?

Jo: Lambrate was our first “international” cooking project. A shipping company transported 6 pallets of equipment for us and we had a refrigerated trailer attached to our vehicle for the food we needed. Sure, the Rolling Stones might travel with more trucks, but for us this was a real adventure. Crossing borders like this does create challenges, for example, I had to research where we could get adapters for the valves of our propane canisters.
Thomas: But we shouldn’t leave the impression that it’s all a matter of preparation: the actual work of the CHINABRENNER project happens in the moment and requires a feel and talent for improvisation to make things work.

Will you tell me something about specific products? Is it important to eat something right in
the place it comes from? does it have a different taste?

Thomas: There’s no question that the food in China is simply more original and that you can eat really well there. That said, we also had many experiences where the cooking was worse than we get at home, but generally, the original is better than the copy. Still, I’d argue that my tea egss are rather nice!
Jo: Sichuan pepper is a really common ingredient in this kind of cooking and it creates slight lemony overtones and a tingling or numbness in the mouth. Through trial and error and his experiences, Thomas is really able to recognize and identify the qualities of a dish and how it’s been prepared. For him, there’s nothing that compares with authentic Szechuan cooking and you can only get the best of this there. While I don’t have as refined a palate, I have fond memories of the aroma of our hotel rooms and luggage!

CHINABRENNER is a performance, a food design project, a temporary place to eat something, a theatre
performance: there are so many elements and i like that maybe many people haven’t realized the project during the design week. Was it one of the goals of your project?

Jo: We want to bring an aesthetic moment which we found halfway around the world to people in a different context.
Thomas: Of course one of the goals is to feed people and feed them well. For me, CHINABRENNER isn’t a piece of performance or theatre, but a sculpture that I start again with every day and every event.

Could you and Thomas suggest us some very special place to eat or to buy food in the world?
Thomas: I can’t suggest a special place to eat in China because in a half year the place is maybe the same but the restaurant is completely different. But you shouldn’t be disappointed when the restaurant is full.
Jo: …and you should go to the right time: between 6pm and 8pm. But I may also reccoment this: Canadian Poutine.

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