NeoBioata Köln: Das Restaurant in Köln verbindet Casual Fine Dining mit innovativem Hochgenuss. ©Jennifer Braun
NeoBiota in Cologne combines casual fine dining with an innovative culinary experience of the highest standard. ©Jennifer Braun

NeoBiota in Cologne: rebels with a cause – and a Michelin star! 

They came to Cologne to stay. This city, a little unpolished in parts and endearingly forthright, understands their desire to rebel against antiquated structures in the world of Michelin-starred restaurants. A few years ago, Sonja Baumann and Erik Scheffler from NeoBiota would have been extremely flattered to be described as attempting to break the system. Nowadays though, they’re slightly more moderate and “less anarchistic” in their anti-ness.

The dream team opened their restaurant in Cologne in 2018 and earned a Guide Michelin star just one year later, boosting their desire to do lots of things very differently to the rest of the industry. They felt there was too much stiffness around the way people are expected to behave and the hype concerning stars. The name they chose for their restaurant, NeoBiota, roughly translates as “foreign species” and is a statement in itself. Like an invasive plant spreading through a forest, the exceptional duo have developed their own brand of restauranteering and blazed a riotous trail in the cosmos of starred cuisine. Their discerning palates were a great help when they were starting out but so was the anger glowing in their bellies. “Over the years, we’ve come up against quite a bit of opposition because of our attitude towards the business”, says Erik, who has a reputation for being pretty obstinate. “The past decade has seen a lot of change in the restaurant trade but it’s still too exploitative in many cases.” They’ve settled in the Apostel neighbourhood in the centre of Cologne, where they’re living their dream of a slightly different type of fine dining – food of the highest quality, served in an informal and unpretentious style.

Sonja Baumann und Erik Scheffler vom NeoBiota Köln. Die beiden haben den Ruf kulinarischer Systemsprenger. © Jennifer Braun
Sonja Baumann and Erik Scheffler from NeoBiota in Cologne Köln have a reputation for wanting to break the “gastro system”. © Jennifer Braun

The best of friends

The two best friends (no, they’re not a couple) met nine years ago when they shared a post that turned out to be a sign of the change to come. Sonja, originally from nearby Bonn, had been working at a Michelin-starred restaurant near Cologne for six years and was sous-chef when Erik, who comes from Chemnitz, joined as a second sous-chef. When the head chef left rather quickly, the management decided to make Sonja und Erik joint head chefs. It made sense theoretically since the restaurant was serving gourmet cuisine five days a week and bistro food seven days a week, both with two sittings per day, plus food for a golf club and regular catering orders. A huge workload – even for an experienced head chef.

“They wanted to pay me more than Sonja straight away even though I hadn’t been there as long. It was definitely down to gender but for me it was clear we were equals in our role as head chefs”, Erik explains. At that time, German gourmet restaurants had never seen this sort of set-up. Today, there are lots more female head chefs in the country’s (casual) fine dining scene. With all of its outmoded dogmas, the job was considered physically too tough for women.

A Michelin star minus the pomp and circumstance

After two years of working together, there was no doubt in Sonja’s and Erik’s minds that they had to have their own restaurant. So they opened NeoBiota, taking a non-conformist, slightly anarchistic approach based on how they thought things should be done, and received their star after just nine months. What was different?

Well, first, there’s the more casual atmosphere. It’s very much a “come as you are” sort of place, with no dress code and no starched tablecloths. “We call our patrons by their first names and the chefs come to the tables to serve the food and explain the dishes. The background music is a playlist of classic metal hits from the 70s ’til today. The idea is for customers to soak up the atmosphere and forget about the world outside for a while”, Sonja tells us. Her aim is to ensure the star doesn’t lead to boundaries being erected between guests. “It’s about sharing positive energy – there’s no place for dogma or airs and graces”, says Erik, adding that he does realise that the NeoBiota concept of contemporary hospitality left a bitter taste in the mouths of quite a few of the traditional type of starred restaurant guests.

Neobioata Köln: Mit ihrer unkonventionellen Art haben Sonja Baumann und Erik Scheffler zu Beginn klassische Sternegäste
Initially, Sonja Baumann’s and Erik Scheffler’s unconventional approach left a bitter taste in the mouths of the traditional type of starred restaurant guests. But plenty of newcomers to starred cuisine were more than happy to take a seat at the table. © Jennifer Braun

It didn’t matter though because people of various ages and backgrounds, including plenty of newcomers to starred cuisine, started dining at the restaurant. According to Sonja and Erik, “What we want to do is offer an extra special culinary experience, full of intense flavours, served up in a feel-good atmosphere.” And you can really sense that too, with everyone – staff and patrons alike – being treated like one big family. Besides delivering variety and quality to the table, that’s the most important thing for the duo. The idea is to seek inspiration in tradition and innovation in equal measure.

Erik and Sonja – as different as breakfast and dinner

What makes the Neobiota concept stand out is that it’s divided into breakfast and a star cuisine dinner. And that split is a perfect reflection of Erik’s and Sonja’s characters. They used to do divide everything up but now they keep their respective areas a bit more separate while still both being involved in all the processes. Erik likes his kitchen to be neat and tidy, with clearly structured workflows. Away from work, he might be a bit of a “neonerd” with a penchant for pop culture, comic superheroes and street art but he says his cooking incorporates this colourful, playful side. Sonja, on the other hand, just wants to roll up her sleeves and get on with it. She loves to cook freestyle, guided by her intuition, not by recipes. So it’s a good thing they have an à la carte breakfast menu, she says, because they never know what orders to expect in the morning.

Die Mischung im NeoBiota Köln machte:  Erik Scheffler ist zuhause ein Nerd mit Hang zur Popkultur. In der Küche mag er es organisiert und aufgeräumt. Sonja Baumann dagegen liebt Freestyle und
It’s all in the mix: at home, Erik Scheffler is a nerd with a penchant for pop culture. He likes a well-organised, tidy kitchen. Sonja Baumann, on the other hand, loves cooking freestyle and “just getting on with it”. © Jennifer Braun

Getting the day off to a good start at Neobiota in Cologne…

From 10am to 3pm, this “understated temple of taste” in the heart of Cologne city centre has everything “except your bog-standard brunch”. Sonja serves up a star-quality breakfast – without the star. Her culinary signature is inspired by her love of nature and Scandinavian countries. “Our breakfast is the new lunch. Late risers and lunchbreak breakfasters are welcome here”, she tells us. Savoury, sweet, warm or cold – you’ll find it all in the à la carte menu or the three-course set menu. Breakfast classics like Bircher muesli, freshly baked cinnamon rolls and shakshuka also put in an appearance – reinterpreted in NeoBiota’s creative style.

There are two signature dishes you shouldn’t leave without trying. The first is a seasonal regional homage to Sonja and Erik’s new home. Called “Armer Jan”, it’s based on a love story dating back to the 30 Years’ War, and is served in the form of French toast accompanied by black pudding, potato, apple and marjoram. The other is the pancakes, which come in a fluffy Japanese version or a compact American version, served with stewed apple, pear & cranberries, yoghurt froth and granola.

“We don’t mind if our guests want to copy our fine-dining breakfasts at home. In fact, we’ve even written a book so they can have a go themselves. In it, we explain that brunch is dead, which is why the title is ‘Brunch ist tot'”, Sonja tells us proudly.

Im Neobiota Köln gibt es nicht nur Unkonventionelles. Dennoch ist der Anspruch, das beste Frühstück der Stadt am Rhein zu bieten, der gesamten Karte anzusehen. © Jennifer Braun
Though NeoBiota isn’t all about the unconventional, the entire menu reflects their aspiration to serve the best breakfast in Cologne. © Jennifer Braun

…and finishing it equally deliciously

The star “officially” shines (without too much pomp) at dinner. Erik experiments with new taste combinations – he loves mixing acidity and spiciness. Opposites add a touch of excitement to the dish. The aim, however, is always to create harmonious, balanced flavours. Erik developed his culinary signature as an apprentice at some of the best three-star restaurants in London and Germany.

“We endeavour to give our guests an opportunity to discover flavours or textures they don’t know. One example is the Jasmin-like sweetness of robinia blossoms, smoked fish sauce or a hearty vegetarian foie gras alternative based on sunflower”, says Erik, whose cooking ranges from vegetarian to vegan to pescetarian to omnivorous. He likes to work out interesting alternatives to fish and meat. Often, the vegetarian meals have only had one component replaced and all diners actually get the same dish. “We’ve always got all the burners on full blast. We deliver a mix of intuition, passion, adrenalin, action and a few surprises”, Erik adds. One of those surprises is the NeoBiota team’s sweet & sour amuse-bouche, “Viking muesli” – in which mashed potato, pickled gherkins and trout caviar (algae caviar in the vegetarian option) are topped with crunchy fish skin (potato chips for the vegetarians), horseradish foam and rubbed dill.

The two starred chefs’ favourite way to serve their creations is in “vulgar, non-Instagrammable piles” that seem to land on the plate in a willy nilly, natural manner, making them somehow relatable. Often, the refined dishes are simply served in a dish with a spoon so guests can take what they want. The idea is that this makes it easier to experience the whole gamut of complex aromas, temperatures and textures. All of the wines at NeoBiota come from young winegrowers and small vineyards. As well as wines to delight connoisseurs, sommelier Volker Arndt has a stock of non-alcoholic acccompaniments with “subtle aromas”.

They don’t do brunch at NeoBita. But they do do a good breakfast, a good dinner and sometimes heavy metal. © Jennifer Braun

There are plant ingredients in every NeoBiota dish. “Vegetables are our normal. We preserve seasonal produce and things we’ve foraged ourselves using a variety of cooking, fermentation and preservation methods like pickling and marinating. That enables us to create out-of-the-ordinary flavours that make memories”, say Sonja and Erik. Naturally, they also know each of their suppliers with a 400km radius.

Sustainability – a key ingredient

Sustainability and social responsibility define what NeoBiota does, every day. One example is their root-to-leaf approach to minimise waste. Their fruit and vegetables come from regional producers. Short supply chains and sustainability are equally as essential as environmentally friendly, future-friendly farming methods. But internationally inspired, regionally interpreted cuisine needs to be thought through properly, say the NeoBiota team. People who buy seafood like blue aquaculture prawns from Bavaria should, in their opinion, be aware that the young prawns are regularly flown in from abroad. That means a substantial carbon footprint and, ultimately, it’s just marketing. For Sonja and Erik, a natural approach and constant challenging of old structures are the way forward to a better, sustainable future.

Im Neobiota in Köln gilt „Root to leaf“: Von der Wurzel bis zum Blatt wird alles verarbeitet. Die beiden Inhaber*innen setzen konsequent auf regionale Lieferanten und kurze Lieferketten. © Jennifer Braun
NeoBiota follows the “root-to-leaf” principle and only buys from regional suppliers so supply chains are short. © Jennifer Braun

Treating everyone as equals 

The split breakfast/dinner concept requires people to make it work. Including the two head chefs, there are eight chefs and ten waiting staff – mostly working a four-day week. For Erik and Sonja, it’s important to have fixed closing times so people can plan their lives outside the restaurant. “For decades, people working in the food trade were under-appreciated and exploited. We pay good money but, more importantly, we’re always evaluating whether everyone’s being treated as equals in the dining area. We do that by consulting with our restaurant manager, Hanna, because she’s in direct contact with our guests.”

Sharing should be standard

NeoBiota has joined forces with Straßenwächter e.V., cooking a weekly meal for around 150 needy and homeless people in Cologne. They’re supported by wholesale suppliers too, who provide unsold products for “sharing boxes” . “When we started, we tried to hand out the lunch bags ourselves but the people didn’t want them because they’d had some negative experiences in the past. They’ve been pulled so far into impoverishment that the people around them don’t actually see them anymore”, Sonja and Erik explain. They want to change that and get other restaurateurs on board too. At Christmas, there’s always a big senior citizens’ dinner organised by the Protestant-run social welfare organisation. Many of the diners have no family ties any more. “We could have a lot more money but we prefer to take a more ideological approach”, say the duo, who’ve also been on a number of TV programmes to spread their message.

Today, Sonja and Erik are enjoying the wind of change in the industry, to which their pioneering, non-conformist way of doing things has doubtless contributed. And that non-conformist philosophy has brought them success: apart from their Michelin star, they’ve also ranked among the “100 best chefs of Germany” since 2022. It’s another well-deserved medal that they wear in their own special, pomp-free style. | Ehrenstraße 43c, on the corner of Große & Kleine Brinkgasse | Tuesday – Saturday | 10am – 3pm breakfast | 7pm – 11pm dinner

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