Shannon Bennett has the inside track on Berlin’s greatest hits.
THIS IS A STORY that starts like a spy novel. A tale spanning six years, beginning with organ donation in Israel, traversing Eastern Europe to a software company in Romania, on to test households in Düsseldorf, through to the power-broking restaurants of the world and a celebrity chef in Melbourne, climaxing in dramatic scenes in a former theatre in Berlin.
Intrigued? Like all bestselling thrillers, not all is as it seems. In fact, this is the story of how Germany’s pre-eminent applicance manufacturer, Miele, laid plans to revolutionise kitchens and home cooking forever, kept it top secret, and launched it to the world against the backdrop of Germany’s enigmatic capital, also the home of Miele.
“From the outside, whitegoods are not necessarily interesting,” says Dr Markus Miele, fourth-generation Miele co-owner and managing director. “But when you look at the little details, they are.”
We are in Berlin for the launch of the company’s landmark new Dialog oven, along with a brigade of the world’s best chefs, including Australia’s Shannon Bennett. The global launch is high budget, high profile and dramatic. Why the secrecy and fuss? Because Miele’s new oven has an irresistible pitch: it cooks food up to 70 per cent faster than conventional ovens (it’ll roast a chicken in 15 minutes). It’s intuitive, so you can control cooking from your smartphone, or import recipe settings. And it’s sophisticated, so you can cook dishes simultaneously – whether they be truss tomatoes and a lamb roast – with each cooked to perfection. It even guarantees a perfect souffle. Basically, once the tinkering is done, this appliance is slated to change cooking forever.
While it sounds too good to be true, I witnessed mind-boggling tricks at the launch: a block of ice with a piece of fish inside went into the Dialog oven. When it re-emerged, the ice was still frozen, yet the fish inside was perfectly cooked.
Frozen cakes were defrosted in record time, as well as other feats of cooking that could not otherwise be explained.
Miele is no stranger to innovation. Its first breakthrough in 1901 was a solution to churn butter better. Co-owned for four generations by the Miele and Zinkann families, its solidarity and consistency is a rarity. Dr Miele says family conflict is generally easy to keep separate from work. Debate occurs over things like design or colour, but “most of the time if someone doesn’t have a big problem with it, we can try it out and stop if it doesn’t work”.
Dr Miele is genial, frank, interesting and informed. He likes to cook when he has time, and he’s famous for hosting Miele employees at his home for dinner. His speciality is his pizza dough recipe. “I use brown sugar instead of white, as well as good olive oil from Greece,” he explains.
He honeymooned in Australia, and has seen our country become a bigger market for the brand than the US. “Australia is closer to Europe than they think,” he explains. “When you look at the food, and how people behave, you’re still very close to Europe, with influences from Italy, Spain and Germany.”
Miele calls the new Dialog oven revolutionary. “It’s basically a new technology that will heat food from the inside,” says Dr Miele. “You can do things which can’t be done with a conventional system. It comes with a high price tag, so it won’t be mainstream in the next two to four years, and it still has some way to go.”
He believes the rise of the home appliance as status symbol is not surprising. “German newspapers are really fond of cars. But they say that the new status symbol is no longer a Mercedes or a BMW, but the kitchen. People are investing money into their home and cocooning; everything outside is uncertain, so people want to invest in their own home.”
Dr Miele says the leaps and bounds in technology have transformed the perception of the kitchen. “Twenty to thirty years ago, there was just the cooktop, the basic things. Now you have so many different options. Steam oven, warming drawers, speed ovens… the ability of configuration is so big and there are so many new trends. Induction has become extremely strong.”
The Dialog was six years in the making and came about via contact with an Israeli organ transplantation company. “When you transplant organs, you have to take that organ and cool it for transportation, and then you have to reheat it,” says Dr Miele.
The even distribution of heat influences the probability of the organ being rejected, he explains, and the company developed a technology to evenly reheat organs. “We said, well if we can do that to human tissue, what about food? We did a lot of testing to see where the limit is.”
Enter Shannon Bennett, a Miele ambassador for more than a decade and a frequent visitor to Berlin. He began a testing process on Dialog more than two years ago. “The fact that they are using organ technology is fascinating,” says the chef, restaurateur and delicious. contributor. He threw himself into testing prototypes, providing thorough notes on how the food could be better cooked. I watch him in Berlin’s Miele Gallery working closely with other chefs, including New Zealand’s Michael Meredith. He stands firm on things he believes won’t work, and even has a heated exchange with a home economist.
Bennett fits many bills for Miele: his strong communication skills, expertise, credibility with industry and consumers, and his ethics play well with the company ethos. Both believe energy conservation is a must. Both have the desire to do something better. Miele’s relationships with top chefs goes back to its beginnings and helps explain the higher price point. “Our quality difference and innovation is hard to convey to the consumer, so we do it via channels that the customers believe and will listen to,” says Dr Miele. “Chefs help us develop products, and it is also how we learn.”
Dr Miele tells me that some of the visiting chefs want to have the Dialog oven at their chef’s tables. “They want to create signature dishes to do something you can’t do anywhere else.” Bennett, too, is interested to trial the technology at Vue de Monde when the product is ready.
But for now, we have Berlin to explore. We leave the Miele Gallery for a whirlwind tour of the city, guided by Bennett. First stop: the city’s oldest beer garden, Prater Garten. Berlin and Dialog have more in common than I first realised – the combination of old and new; or tradition and innovation. In Berlin, no matter what path you take, you can always expect the unexpected.
TOP: chefs cooked for the audience at the launch of Miele’s Dialog oven (pictured left) and (inset centre) demonstrated feats of ice and heat using the new oven’s technology.