Sat, Dec 04, 2004 - Page 9 News List

New restaurant offers anorexics all they can bear to eat

A classy new eatery in Berlin features delectable dishes for diners obsessed with not eating, prepared by chefs who also find eating deeply disturbing

By Emma Cook  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Katja Eichbaum's bird-like hand reaches instinctively for another Marlboro Light. Perched on a bar stool, her slight frame is engulfed in a smart navy business suit. She looks a great deal younger than her 32 years. She smiles nervously as guests arrive, while her husband, Ralf, working behind the bar, offers them red wine.

The restaurant is intimate and inviting. There are around 30 small wooden tables and chairs, a squashy red sofa to sink into and a sleek, modern bar decorated with lanterns that bear the restaurant's name in dusky-pink italics.

A waitress hovers with a tray of appetizers. Morsels of smoked salmon rest on tiny circles of tessellated cucumber. Petals have been carved into plum tomatoes to resemble roses. The attention to detail is impressive. Someone here is extremely serious about their food -- maybe a little too serious, I can't help thinking, as another dish of ornate delicacies sails past from the kitchen.

Welcome to Sehnsucht ("Longing"), in the leafy Tiergarten district of Berlin, aimed specifically at people with eating disorders and run by recovering anorexics. It is a paradoxical concept: a restaurant where the food is cooked by chefs who can't eat, for diners who are obsessed with, well, not eating. It certainly raises some awkward questions, the most practical being: how do they expect to succeed when the customers find the idea of eating so deeply troubling?

"That's the point," said Eichbaum, who was refused funding by her bank and eventually turned to her father for a loan.

"We're here to encourage girls to eat and make it attractive to them again. We want them to get a gradual feel for food, through lovely smells and tastes. It may take time, but it works," she said.

Nothing here is harsh or intrusive. Every aspect of a restaurant that could distress an anxious diner has been addressed. Even the lavatories are sensitively designed with inscriptions on each tile that read "love," "energy" or "courage."

The names of each dish skirt around every anorexic's obsession -- the calories. A rack of lamb is Heisshunge, meaning "ravenous hunger;" a cappuccino creme dessert is Seele -- "soul;" and lobster bisque is simply "Hallo." It does seem a little whimsical, although the hope is that the names will connect with the diners in an emotive way. "Ravenous hunger," for example, is a term loaded with emotional significance for anyone with an eating disorder. Usually an instinct the anorexic tries to suppress, hunger in this context is seen as something to be celebrated and encouraged.

"Yes," Eichbaum agreed, "it's nothing to do with hiding the ingredients or fooling girls into eating more. I have given these dishes names that mean something to me. Hopefully, it will draw them into conversation so I can talk to them about their problems."

One fish dish, she explains, is called "Sparrow" because it reminds her of when she was first admitted to hospital two years ago. She weighed just 45kg.

"People like me were called sparrows because we looked so vulnerable. In those first two weeks, you don't have any contact with the outside world. It is very difficult," she said.

Her approach to anorexia is strikingly candid; the most painful associations of her condition are intimately bound up with this restaurant.

"My favorite dishes will be there," she told me -- hard-boiled eggs in mustard sauce and dumplings. "Those dishes are very personal to me. They remind me of how ill I was. Once I started eating them, I really couldn't stop. I would binge."

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