he idea of a menu doesn’t interest Dylan Watson-Brawn, nor does the idea of a signature dish. In fact, if there is a particular dish at Ernst that people truly seem to love, it gets axed. Not because people love it, but because Dylan has moved on to something else and there are more exciting ideas to be realized.
The chef embraces the idea that someone dining at Ernst may be challenged or intimidated by five or ten of the restaurant’s sometimes 30-dish tasting menu. It’s all because he chooses not to compromise.
“When you’re pushing for that level of excellence, where everything comes together in a beautiful way, it’s really interesting and exciting. But the moment you get there, it’s boring,” he tells me. About the idea of cooking the same dishes night after night, he adds, "You just get bored of it. It starts feeling like a routine.”
Born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, Watson-Brawn’s CV includes some of the best eateries in Japan, Hong Kong, and Denmark, beginning with his apprenticeship at three-Michelin star Tokyo eatery Nihonryori Ryugin, before a stint at Noma in Copenhagen. Once he arrived in Berlin, he operated a private-kitchen style restaurant out of his apartment, before Ernst opened its doors, and later its little-sister bistro-style restaurant Julius-Ernst.
Our first conversation takes place inside Ernst, in Berlin’s Wedding district. Since Covid-19 restrictions were lifted in Berlin, Ernst has been open for about six weeks at the time of this interview. Watson-Brawn estimates the restaurant has created about 300 individual plates in that time. We are sitting in two of the restaurant’s eight seats which are all facing the kitchen—while two of Ernst’s staff prepare for the upcoming night’s service.
Dylan figured out Ernst on the fly. The restaurant follows no specific mould, and as a result the restaurant has carved out its own space.“I think when we opened Ernst, we were extremely unprepared," the chef recounts. "There was a total lack of preparation. That made everything a lot more difficult, but at the same time I think it made everything unique. Because we approached things like nobody else.”
The nucleus of Ernst is the ingredients, which Watson-Brawn naturally obsesses over.
Just scroll through the restaurant's Instagram. “This trout from last night broke the internet,” he says when we meet in the morning a week later. He’s wearing Birkenstocks and adidas track pants, and has shaved his head since I saw him last. It’s refreshing to hear Dylan share his thoughts - about Ernst and in general - quite candidly.
Every day, new ingredients come in, and the menu is tailor-made from there.
“All the produce comes in every day, and we figure out what we’re going to cook. It requires you to be thinking every day,” Watson-Brawn tells me.
“We want to cook whatever is in front of us. We don’t think ‘Oh it would be nice if we had this.’ It’s produce-forward.”
I tagged along with him and his partner Jules to a farm south of Berlin, which is focused on the idea of regenerative agriculture. We spend the drive mostly talking about McDonald's (Dylan approves, in a highly situational sense) and tomatoes (when they’re in season, try serving them freshly sliced and lightly sprinked with salt).
When we arrive at the farm, we spend two hours sampling, nibbling, and smelling: tomatoes off the vine and carrots plucked from the soil.
Standing beneath a tree, Watson-Brawn lobs me a cherry plum, as he bites into one himself, and spits out the pit. They do this every weekend. As we move from bite to bite, Dylan and Jules are ideating dishes on the spot. Watson-Brawn tells me he plans to collaborate with the farm on produce co-grown with Ernst. “We work with some suppliers that are unique in the way that they produce. We work with another farmer who only uses horsepower.”
The Ernst concept seems to be completely fluid. Each dish is always changing and evolving, and exists in iterations. Ideas come at all times, even during service. “Even when we are finishing a dish and serving it, I’m like ‘Tomorrow we can do it differently like this,’” he says. The open-kitchen style restaurant also allows you to watch everything as it’s happening. “We cook everything as you’re eating. As you’re sitting, we are breaking down a lobster, we are cutting vegetables. We cook really simple food.”
Ernst sources most of its ingredients from the area surrounding Berlin, within one or two-hour's drive.
Their closest partner is in Potsdam, their furthest is Hokkaido, where they get regionally special ingredients like kombu.
Although a night at the restaurant will entail a lot of amazing small-plates with locally sourced ingredients from the Berlin area, a certain Japanese influence is still at the core of the restaurant, right down to the chefs’ knives, the interior space itself, and many of the techniques used. During my time with him, the word umeboshi—the pickled plums ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine—is uttered more times than I can count.
But other than horse powered-vegetables, it's clear to see Ernst is special in a plethora of ways, and Watson-Brawn is happy to list all of them. “There are literally four people working here. It’s a very small restaurant. The unique thing is how we cook."
He goes on to tell me a restaurant similar to Ernst simply doesn't exist. "The approach to cooking is unique. The format is unique. The way we serve the dishes, the flavours. There’s nothing quite like it. At the same time, we change the menu every day. We don’t want to be stuck in a rigid system.”
“There are literally four people working here. It’s a very small restaurant. The unique thing is how we cook."
So what does the future hold for Dylan and Ernst? For some reason I freestyle some ideas: his own line of knives? Restaurant franchises?
Obviously none of that.
His only focus is Ernst. “What we did this week is going to be very different from what we did last week. I think that’s the beauty of this place. We do what feels right.”