Over the past decade, Stil in Berlin has played an integral role in both documenting and influencing the cultural and gastronomical zeitgeists of Germany’s capital city. By extension, its founder, Mary Scherpe, has been an important figure in the public eye when it comes to filtering out the best that the city has to offer in terms of everything from fashion to food. Yet, something remains elusive and enigmatic about the woman behind the blog. Knowing her story and the values that ground her work breathes new life into each post on the widely read platform.
Born in the former GDR, Mary has rural origins. “My mother had a huge garden and she would farm loads of things herself and we had cows and rabbits and chickens. My mother would make all these things like preserves and sauerkraut.” Her family’s approach to food changed substantially, however, after the fall of the Wall. “When the Wall came down and unification happened, this all kind of went away. It was replaced by supermarkets. You know, pre-processed foods. My mother kind of went in the opposite direction.” While lots of these choices were out of her control as a child, her coming of age was marked by her own decision to become a vegetarian, something that didn’t exactly bode well in her parents’ eyes. “I was very uncomfortable with the animals on our farm being killed for a long time.” This stance remains quite telling of Mary’s own value system and her willingness to stick to it.
Moving on to college, Mary resettled in Berlin where she began a street fashion blog with a friend as a creative outlet from her studies. This project served as the original version of Stil in Berlin. After four years of working on it, the kind of content they were creating gained corporate attention, which for many might be the sign that the years of hard work had paid off. This was not the case for Mary. “When other people would have said at this point, ‘Oh, finally we can make money,’ I was really very much bored with it.” Having maintained the integrity of her own blog by not selling out to the larger companies taking hold of the street fashion scene, she realized that she had the freedom to take things in whichever direction she wanted. It was then she realized that, “no one is going to tell you what you can do with your own blog. That’s why you wanted to do something for yourself because then you can decide what you can do.”
She started to infuse the content with other things, ultimately landing on gastronomy as a more central focus for the platform, and it has remained as such for the last five years. In so doing, Mary has used her prominent voice in the blogosphere to elevate Berlin’s dynamic food culture into something creative, comparable to fashion or contemporary art. Now, her influence is a fundamental aspect of its gastronomical development.
Mary traces the upward trajectory of Berlin’s food scene to the emergence of widely popular events like Street Food Thursday, which began in 2013 at the historic Markthalle Neun. “This kind of made it grow. I think that because more expats came to the city, there were bigger expectations when it came to food, and on the other hand, Berliners themselves [began] earning a little bit more.” The increasing number of other events revolving around food trucks, in turn, made it possible, “for a lot of youngsters to try out their concepts without opening a place.”
“For a long time Berlin was very much looking for what could define the city. Right now, for me, food is the most interesting creative industry of Berlin.”
While it may not be so blatantly obvious as Stil in Berlin is not in itself a stand-out political publication, Mary has also been careful to imbue her personal values in her writing and recommendations as well as in her business decisions surrounding the blog. Not only does she strive to make honest assessments of what is good in the city, it is apparent that she is gradually seeking to use her voice to get more socially active in impactful ways.
Ever-mindful of the tendency towards eurocentrism, for instance, she traces this awareness at least in part to her studies of Japanese culture at university. “It teaches you that this is not the only point of view one can have and that the other ones are just as valid.” Therefore, she tries her best to be as thoughtful as possible about what she highlights on the blog. Most recently, she emphasizes Stil in Berlin as, “featuring ONLY small-scale and independent businesses run by locals (albeit locals from all over the world).”
In practice, this means that, “this not only refers to heritage in terms of whether it’s a Turkish place or Syrian, but also in terms of class. I try to put in places that maybe other people who do a ‘cool’ guide of Berlin would not include. You also have to be careful not to fetishize these kinds of places. There’s a couple that people probably like because they’re so ‘ethnic.’ It’s really easy to fall into that trap as well. For myself, I solve that mostly by going with what’s the most delicious. I also try to be very wary of this whole fine dining and expensive food scene because I feel in the food world, it’s often presented as the thing to strive for. The same is for white German chefs vs. nonwhite people making food. I am much less interested in a place that is opened by another set of white German guys than say, by some other people coming from somewhere else.”
“The thing is that I have a lot of opinions. I have an opinion on almost everything. I am quite political. You don’t necessarily see it, but I try to have my political opinions influence the choices that I make for Stil in Berlin.”
Mary has also resisted succumbing to certain industry pitfalls even when doing so comes at the cost of her own career growth. “To be more successful also means that you have to step on top of other people. In my business, you need to get interns. How this system works, how blogging and journalism works, you can’t pay them properly so your own success and money is always only on the basis of not properly rewarding people. I’m insanely uncomfortable with that. I can’t deal with it!”
She has since redefined success on her own terms. “I don’t want work too much. I work on not working too much. I don’t have a drive to be the dominating or the biggest or to be expanding what I do. For me, it’s less about trying to accumulate money and trying to save, save, save. It’s more about what you do in the now, and how you’re able to serve your community, be with your friends, and build all these kinds of things instead of only thinking about how can I be more successful. This is my ideal.”
Serving her community has also begun to take forms beyond the work she does on the blog. Mary holds a strong feminist perspective that has taken on a life of its own in the cofounding of the Feminist Food Club alongside designer, Ruth Bartlett. Here, Mary hopes to create a stronger coalition of women in Berlin’s food industry where female chefs, shop owners, writers and more can gather to collaborate and bolster their collective feminist consciousness in constructive ways. The meetings include discussions, film screenings, and workshops that enrich the network of Berlin’s talented women who are working hard to make meaningful contributions to the city’s food scene. “The Feminist Food Club was finally the solution of trying to fuse my interest in feminism and my interest in food.”
All the while, one of the most striking aspects of Mary is her humility. She has undoubtedly played a key role in shaping the city’s creative development since the early 2000s, yet she remains wholly sincere in her aims and without pretense. “I try to think about my own point of view, and then I’m trying to think about how I’m representing Berlin. I don’t always succeed, but at least I want to present things that are different in terms of the cultural bubble that readers come from.”
If you’re interested in supporting the small businesses owned and operated by the kinds of people Mary serves to highlight through her work, she just released the 2018 edition of the Stil in Berlin map. You can pre-order yours here.