A couple weeks ago I started watching the German TV Series Das perfekte Dinner (The Perfect Dinner), in which five amateur cooks take turns on consecutive weeknights inviting the other four participants into their homes and cooking three-course meals for each other. After dinner, the contestants rate the meal on a ten-point scale and, according to the show’s website, the winner takes home 3,000 euros. In three weeks of watching the show, I’ve never heard mention of the cash prize. The show’s stakes seem rather to hinge on a trifecta of universal human motivators: winning the favor of your peers, eating good food, and not being lonely.
Last week the show did something it had never done in its ten-year history. It went to Vienna.
Few, if any, elements of the Austrian consciousness inspire as unified a sense of pride as the national cuisine. From the empire’s old favorites—Tafelspitz and Kaiserschmarrn—to the Würstlstand, present on every street corner, the sausage-vending culinary bastion of the drinking and working classes, the way to the Austrian identity goes through the taste buds and down into a satisfied, high-caloric1 stomach. And Vienna, the capital city, where Frau Sopherl and other fictional characters of city lore hawked not just vegetables and spices but local news and opinions from their stands at Naschmarkt, the city market, is the country’s gastronomic beating heart.
In Vienna we’re introduced to the week’s contestants, who over the next five days will be inviting strangers into their homes to eat their food and speak into a camera about how good or not good it was. Over the course of an evening, camera crews pull aside guests to ask them for their opinion on the warmth of the host’s greeting, the layout of the dinner table, the tenderness of the meat, etc.
Why is any of this interesting? First, regardless of whether or not it sets out to, the show lays bare the values, quirks, and customs of its participants and the culture in which they find themselves. After watching a table of newly introduced Germans tell a host her soup was over-salted, I tried to imagine the equivalent happening back home in the American Midwest. I can’t.
Second, because big, celebratory meals are themselves not just a cultural but a human touchstone. In the past two months in Germany, I’ve been invited to four separate multi-course dinners. In the Midwest, instead of three courses, one is more likely to find a table running over with side dishes. The layout varies, but the sentiment remains the same. People come together to eat. In The Table Comes First, journalist Adam Gopnik illustrates the importance of our dining customs by summarizing the philosophy of one of the world’s first known food writers Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “The table is the place where a need becomes a want. Something we have to do—eat—becomes something we care to do—dine—and then something we care to do becomes something we try to do with grace.”
Here is where we return to Vienna. By the time we make it to Friday, we have already gotten to know Gerhard, that day’s cook the eccentric 60-year-old owner of an advertising agency. Viennese to his core, Gerhard’s first words are, “I was born here and I’ll die here.” In a city where both the hot dog and boiled veal are claimed as culinary specialties, Gerhard is the aesthetic embodiment of highbrow-lowbrow mélange. His hair is moplike: grey, long, thick, and frazzled. He’s most comfortable in a hoodie and jeans and sports a pair of round lens tortoise-shell glasses so thick it’s sometimes difficult to see his eyes. He lives and works from his first district apartment, which is more or less the 21st century version of an imperial palace, with walls painted vibrantly in greens, blues, and yellows according to room and generously adorned with retro advertising posters and a kitchen most restaurants would envy. “Every corner tells a story,” says Jonathan, the ever-awed German.
The week has already seen some impressively high scores. On Monday, Bernadette nabbed 31 (of a possible 40) for her Popcorn Polenta Roasted Chicken. Yesterday Mesi (yes, that’s short for Maria Theresa, the former Habsburg monarch) scored 37, a number that’s always enough to win.
But Gerhard has struck the group as someone capable of harnessing the grace that Brillat-Savarin calls essential to dining. Jonathan, the group’s only (token?) German labels him a “Wiener Original” and a “Feinspitz,” an Austro-specific word for gastronome. Bernadette fancies him as someone “who likes to pamper guests.” When asked if the group’s lofty expectations are justified, Gerhard exhales, tucks his hair behind his ear, shrugs, and flashes a winking grin. It’s this tension—between unknowing shrug and knowing smile—that fuels his legend, that clues his guests in to the possibility that perhaps something special awaits.
Never lacking for theatrical presentation, Gerhard crafts his meal as a story. The guests are handed handwritten menus, black ink scrawled on brown parchment underneath the title, “A meal that Claude Monet might have served in Giverny 100 years ago.” His plan is to take a few of Impressionist’s favorites and serve them on his iconic gold and blue porcelain dinnerware.
The meal is received with near hallucinatory reviews, each course inducing ecstasy more intense than the last. The appetizer, Vichyssoise, a cold French soup, is like “a seaside vacation.” The entrée, a slow-cooked “tender as butter” roast beef with truffled potato gratin. (Here, Gerhard asks for Monet’s forgiveness. He prefers white truffles to Monet’s black Périgord variety.) By the time they’re served dessert, chocolate cake with nougat ice cream and raspberry sauce, the guests are either nonverbally delirious or incapable of finding words to capture their delight. Even Gerhard, the perennial underseller, has a hard time masking his supremely satisfied countenance. “It was a mild success,” he says before succumbing to a fit of laughter.
Before the evening ends they all sit around the table to learn their scores. Gerhard pulls his card out of the envelope last. 40 points. For the sixth time in series history, The Perfect Dinner. The room erupts into a joyous, restrained round of Austrian applause. There they are, sitting around the table. They’ve seen their needs—approval, food, company—become wants. They can awkwardly hug, say goodbye, and go home.
As the guests leave, one question remains. This was the show’s first time in Austria. Will there be a second? The winner is left the last word. “I don’t think you’ll be able to stay away from this city much longer,” says Gerhard.
After such a brush with grace, how can you not go back?
- According to a map tweeted by the Amazing Maps™ Twitter account (@amazingmap) and put to my attention by my math-teaching mother (@pimom6), at 3,769 kcal, Austria serves more calories per capita than any other country. ↩