View an excerpt of the full interview in German above (22:04 min)
Father Abbot, when was the last time you dined in a starred restaurant?
Abbot Johannes: Perhaps last Friday. I had confirmation and was invited for lunch. I cannot tell you whether the restaurant had stars, though. For me, that was certainly a secondary issue.
And you, Mr Käfer, when did you last pray?
Michael Käfer: That's about six weeks ago. My wife is very religious. It is an important ritual for her to go to church on Sunday. And sometimes I join her.
Which brings us to our topic. We would like to talk to you about eating and religion. What does the Lord's Supper mean to you personally, Abbot Johannes?
Abbot Johannes: In all religions including Christianity, there is the motif of the communal meal. It is about the community. Abraham entertained strangers, thus experiencing the nearness of God. The Lord's Supper expresses this ritual in a special way. When Jesus celebrated with his friends the last supper before his death, he said: Whenever you come together in my memory, I am with you. I am present in body and blood, that is, in bread and wine, here with you. You will be in communion with me. Thus, when we celebrate the Holy Supper in its ritualized form of the Eucharist celebration, we believe that we are experiencing the nearness of Jesus.
Michael Käfer: As a restaurateur, of course, I have a different approach. The "Supper" or dinner is first and foremost an economic factor in our business. But our job too consists of making people happy. When they leave the restaurant saying they had a wonderful time, then we did a good job. Then we served not only a good meal, but also created communion.
Does that mean Mr. Käfer runs a God-fearing business, Abbot Johannes?
Abbot Johannes: I believe so.
Michael Käfer: Thank you very much.
Abbot Johannes: No really, I think that is true.
As Abbot, you not only preside over St. Bonifaz Church, but also the Andechs monastery. Besides the church a fairly large restaurant and a brewery business with an output of 100,000 hectoliters annually…
Abbot Johannes: (laughing) ... even a bit more by now, but that's ok.
Whom do you serve in Andechs? Your God or the money?
Abbot Johannes: Our monastic rule says that hospitality is sacred and guests should be received like Christ. I think there is nothing disrespectful about the fact that the business in Andechs ensures that both monasteries are doing well, and that here in St. Bonifaz we can offer 150 to 200 homeless people a hot meal every day, among other things. We do not get church tax, and this has to be financed somehow. The founder of our order, Saint Benedict, says we should live by our hands' work, that is, to earn what we need. One cannot live from looking only to heaven and leaving the dear Lord to do his good deeds. In the past, we in Andechs lived off the land, i.e. farming, today, we live off the brewery and the restaurant business. But the price for a "Halbe" (1/2 liter beer) in our Bräustübl (brewery pub) is considerably less than in some pubs in Munich—which also has to do with our monastic rules.
St. Benedict says to always offer things at a little less, so one doesn't end up getting greedy.
Mr. Käfer, what table manners did your parents teach you?
Michael Käfer: I had a very strict mother, thankfully. She has taught us a number of rules to observe at the table. Just now, it is the other way round. I have small twins, they are six years old. And I pass on to them, what my mother instilled in me in terms of table manners.
Does that mean sitting up straight, not eating noisily and so on?
Michael Käfer: Yes, wrists on the edge of the table, the famous topic. How to put the cutlery down correctly, how to hold a glass and all these things. These are rituals that I find beautiful. And that is why I also think it wonderful that we can enjoy our light meal here with a cloth napkin.
Did you have fine cuisine every day at home?
Michael Käfer: It often happens that you don’t want the things that you take for granted on every occasion. Of course, fine food was served at our house. But what I liked best were the spaetzle from my Swabian grandmother, the potato dumplings and ham noodles. That really has not changed to this day. Once a year we have lobster at our house, in fact, always for breakfast on Christmas Day, December 25. If I were to eat it more often, I couldn't savor it as much anymore as on that one day.
The seasons hardly play any role in our eating habits today. We enjoy strawberries also in the middle of winter. Is this actually within the meaning of creation, Father Abbot?
Abbot Johannes: I think it is sensible to eat what the seasons are producing. This is why we have no red radishes with our snack today, because they are not yet growing here. But I find the other topic even more interesting. Learning to savor, to enjoy. That also requires asceticism. If I give up meat in the fasting season, the lamb at Easter will taste particularly good. I think this is a very important gift which we should not unlearn. It is also a reflection of creation to look forward to what will grow only tomorrow.
Do you fast, Mr. Käfer?
Michael Käfer: Yes, however, not related to proper fasting periods
You mean the famous fasting cure for EUR 500 per night and a watery warm soup for dinner?
Michael Käfer: (laughs) you said that, not I.
Abbot Johannes: You could have that a lot cheaper with us (laughs).
Keyword business lunch. Can you do business during a meal? Or, asked the other way round: Can you enjoy your meal when doing business?
Michael Käfer: It is very difficult to enjoy your meal when you are talking business, because you are concentrated on other things. Still, both go together somehow. You get to know each other, get closer to each other. And it offers you another topic besides business. The meal makes the atmosphere more relaxed. But if you really want to enjoy, business is rather bothersome.
Should meals be eaten in silence?
Abbot Johannes: When we are eating together here in the monastery, someone reads aloud at the table. This is really nice, because you not only fortify yourself physically with food, but also mentally.
Michael Käfer: Do you read from the Bible?
Abbot Johannes: That too, but not only. We have just read "Conclave" by Hubert Wolf. Next will be a biography about Adenauer. Everyone can suggest something.
Michael Käfer: And the reader has to eat alone afterwards?
Abbot Johannes: He eats later with the table server. We always rotate serving at table, each week a different brother. We attach great importance to table culture. In the Old Testament it is said: At the end of time, God himself will be host on Zion, and he will serve exquisite wines and exquisite dishes there. What we are doing here at the monastery is a bit of an image of that and a foretaste of what is to come.
It's also nice to be served from time to time, isn't it?
Abbot Johannes: Yes, just as nice as to serve. The homeless we are serving here every day are very grateful for it.
Have you ever felt the fear of having to beg for a bowl of soup?
Abbot Johannes: Not actually. But when you look at the course of the world as a whole, the thought sometimes comes to my mind that in the end, there is no final certainty about that either.
Michael Käfer: These thoughts sometimes come to me when I think of my twins. I then wish for the boys to be so lucky as to be allowed to live in just such good times in which I have spent my whole life. Also as a businessman, existential fears are not unfamiliar to me. Although I am rather daring, I sometimes tell myself, man, let's hope all of this stays as good as it is now.
In your business, you have half-eaten dishes cleared away day-in day-out, while the homeless here are queuing for a bowl of soup. How do you cope with that?
Michael Käfer: Difficult question. The worst is at the Munich Oktoberfest, when I see plates going back to the kitchen that have hardly been touched. We do ask ourselves then: Why, there are people starving out there and here it gets thrown away. That's the reality. But it is still hard to bear.
Where does eating pleasure end, where does gluttony begin?
Abbot Johannes: Also a difficult issue. What is gluttony for one doesn't have to be so for another. St. Benedict in his rules only reluctantly provided guidelines with respect to the amounts of beverages or food, because he knew that people are quite different. But when a society drifts completely into consumption, it certainly testifies to a lack of moderation.
Which is being overdone on TV. There is one cooking competition chasing the next. Mr. Käfer, what is wrong with people that they are watching TV programs about eating for hours?
Michael Käfer: For the TV producers, it is certainly a format which can be produced at fairly low cost. I myself rarely get to watch TV. But the few times that I zapped in, it was quite fun.
Because someone is always made the butt of a joke?
Michael Käfer: I think, the first one who brought cooking to TV was Alfred Biolek. In his show, no one got panned. There the ritual was celebrated, chopping vegetables and talking. That is really something wonderful. Lifting the lids to see that is simmering away in the pot, tasting here and there. I enjoy that too.
Can you cook, Abbot Johannes?
Abbot Johannes: No, but I am glad when someone else has that gift. Sometimes I see bridal couples who tell me they like to cook together. I always find this a good sign for an intact relationship. Spending time together in the kitchen, talking to each other, cooking and eating.
"When you have no more ideas, become a vegan", Michael Käfer
You are what you eat. Discussions on this subject can turn really fundamentalist. There are vegetarians, flexitarians, raw food eaters and vegans today. Are these people all nutty, Mr. Käfer?
Michael Käfer: That is individualization for you. We all want to be singular, different somehow. And if you can't come up with anything else original, you can become a vegan. Everyone has tattoos now—too commonplace. Vegetarians I can fully understand, deciding not to eat anything that has eyes and so on. This is a clear life attitude. But I don't understand vegan. Why should man not be allowed to eat an egg?
Abbot Johannes: Or guinea pigs? I have relatives in Peru, there, guinea pigs are a delicacy. It doesn't taste bad either. But when I was a chaplain and once told the first-communion children that I had eaten guinea pigs in Peru, they found that quite repugnant.
Would you be able to slaughter an animal yourself?
Michael Käfer: Definitely not. I couldn't shoot an animal either. If I had to fight for my life, then maybe yes. But not just like that, even if I sell it and eat it. Actually, I should probably be a vegetarian myself.
Abbot Johannes: I wouldn't even know the proper slaughtering process. This is also a sign of alienation, of course. We have all gotten rather remote from the innate course of nature. I once asked a committed vegan what she feeds her big dog. She got quite under pressure to offer an explanation.
And your personal food favorites?
Michael Käfer: Actually, I like everything which has to do with bread, really great bread. We just have discovered a baker in Vienna, who bakes the best bread I have eaten in my life. All done by hand and with the best ingredients. And because we are here in Bavaria, I like, of course, potato dumplings. By the way, incredibly difficult to get them just right.
Does Bavaria have the best cuisine in Germany?
Michael Käfer: Yes, but only because we are close to Austria.
Abbot Johannes: It's dangerous for me to betray my favorite food, because I might get it served at every confirmation. So just between us: I am from Baden. Obviously, I love spaetzle, pasta with sauces.
“If he exists, then the greatest cook of all is our Dear Lord” Abbot Johannes
Obviously, we have to ask you this last question. Who is the greatest cook of all, then?
Michael Käfer: The greatest one? The religious answer to that is of course: nature.
Abbot Johannes: No, I would rather say: If he really exists, then the greatest cook of all is our dear Lord.
Now that we drawing to a close, you are coming up with doubts, Abbot Johannes? What do you mean, IF HE exists?
Abbot Johannes: Doubt is an intrinsic part of faith. We must leave all options open, particularly as a monk, who is a God-seeker, after all. That's the official description of our lifestyle. If it is true that eternity is a meal, where exquisite foods and drinks are being served, as Jesus said: "I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until I am in my Father's kingdom", then that would be proof of the Scripture that there will be wine to drink in heaven.
There could be worse.
Abbot Johannes: Yes, that would not be bad at all. Understood in this sense, I would say, the dear Lord is certainly the greatest cook of all when he invites us to his table.
Following his business administration studies, Michael Käfer, 59, opened the ritzy discotheque P1 in Munich. In 1988, he joined the management of Käfer Delicatessen. In 1995, he bought all shares from his father and his uncle and took over the company—including the delicatessen business, party service and the Wiesn-Schänke at the Oktoberfest. Today, Käfer also operates several Munich restaurants, he is Europe's market leader in premium event catering, among others for Messe München, and also runs the roof-terrace restaurant at the German Bundestag in Berlin.
Johannes Eckert, 48, has been the Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey St. Bonifaz in Munich since 2003 and is thus also in charge of the Andechs Monastery. With his work on the topic "Serving instead of Ruling. Corporate Culture and Order Spirituality", he was conferred a doctorate in Catholic Theology in 1999. Since secularization in 1803, Johannes is the first Andechs monk who was elected Abbot. In February 2015, he was confirmed in office for another twelve years. His motto as Abbot is: "Diligere ex toto corde"—Loving with all your heart.
(Photo: Robert Brembeck)