Sharon Schael: A Venezuelan DJ turned Food Truck Owner in Berlin

It was one of Berlin’s hottest Sunday’s and the final match of the European Soccer Championship but that didn’t stop El Carrito owner, Sharon Schael and her crew, from serving the tastiest arepas at the Flea Market in Berlin’s Mauerpark. The DJ Cookbook sat along the banks of the river Spree to talk with the Venezuelan DJ turned food truck owner to discuss her journey from Venezuela to Germany, being a risk taker and bringing arepas and Venezuelan charm to Berlin’s food scene.

Q: There are 8,428 km between Caracas and Berlin. Why did you leave Caracas and was Berlin your final destination?

A: When I left Venezuela I had no idea I was going to end up here in Berlin! I lived in Mexico and Spain prior to settling here.

The deciding factor behind leaving Venezuela was the coup d’état of April 11th, 2002, and the general strike that December. I fell into a deep depression because I saw how the country was going crazy and falling apart. I, along with thousands of Venezuelans, marched on April 11th in Caracas to express our discontent with Hugo Chávez’s increasingly autocratic government. Chávez had recently fired the board of Venezuela’s Oil Company PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.). Union workers and business leaders called for a general strike in solidarity of the oil workers. We peacefully marched to PDVSA headquarters in the east of Caracas and then spontaneously decided to march all the way to Miraflores (the official workplace of the President). At the same time armed government sympathizers had been gathering around the surrounding areas of Miraflores in support of Chávez, along with the police and the National Guard. We walked west along the highway towards Miraflores in downtown Caracas, it was crazy because I saw my brother walking back in the opposite direction of the protest and he told me that he had spoken to my father who told him there were snipers positioned all over Miraflores waiting for the opposition march and he wanted us to go back home. I’ve always been a rebel and I said: “No, I am walking to Miraflores.” As soon as we were getting closer to Miraflores it got very confusing, it began with tear gas and suddenly people were falling dead in front of me from gunshots. I was with 5 friends and we began to run like everyone else, looking for cover, we ran and ran until we were no longer in harm’s way. As you can imagine this was a very traumatic experience.

As soon as we arrived at my friend’s house we turned on the TV and all the major networks were broadcasting live what was happening in Miraflores and suddenly there was a Chávez press conference nationwide (TV and radio). During this press conference Chávez was telling the country that nothing was happening in Caracas and as soon as he said that all the networks decided to do a live split screen; one side showed Chávez’s speech from Miraflores and the other side showed snipers and government supporters shooting innocent people. After that, Venezuela’s high military command went on TV to say that they did not recognize Chavez’s government and that Chávez had resigned from the presidency. We couldn’t believe it, we were happy, but we were in shock at the same time. April 11th and April 12th 2002 are dates that Venezuelans will never forget. It was a long night and as soon as we woke up on April 12th the nightmare continued, Chávez had been brought back to power…

During this time I was involved with electronic music, but I wasn’t quite DJing yet. I was working for a lot of magazines in Venezuela and I had a lot of friends who had websites about lifestyle and events in Caracas, so I always wrote articles about electronic music for them. This allowed me to be in touch with a lot of DJ’s in Mexico and they kept telling me that I had to leave Venezuela. A friend of mine had given me a Vestax mixer as a gift, and I was dreaming of buying turntables and records. I had spent a full year doing all the repairs (autobody and paint) on a Renault 5, my goal was to sell the car and buy my turntables and records. A lot of my friends were encouraging me to start DJing because they liked my taste in music and my compilation CDs.

I sold the car during the general strike of December of 2002 and then the foreign exchange control happened… I remember going from bank to bank trying to buy Dollars but there were no Dollars for sale. I deposited my money in a friend’s bank account and he gave me traveler’s checks. I bought a plane ticket to Guadalajara, Mexico and left Venezuela with the Vestax mixer in my suitcase.

Q: What were you listening to when the decision to leave Venezuela was made?

A: I was listening to Sasha and John Digweed, and everyone else was listening to acid techno, hardcore techno or Latin house during that time. This was also a reason why I wanted to leave Venezuela, the music being played there was not the music I listened too.

Q: Was Mexico your first experience as an immigrant and how did you get involved in the electronic music scene there?        

A: Yes, I had never lived in another country until I left Venezuela. I had no idea what was going to happen; I had no plan, nothing. I had a contact in Mexico who put me in touch with DJ Concept, a very well known print magazine distributed all over Mexico. I got in touch with them and offered them an interview with Hernan Cattaneo and they said yes. I also began to work in a gallery and travelled a lot throughout Mexico. I went to a lot of festivals throughout Mexico and Ultra in Miami. From Guadalajara I moved to Cancún. A friend of mine told me about an editor-in-chief position at a magazine in Cancún so I sent my resume, they called me for an interview and I took the risk and bought a one-way ticket to Cancún. I had nothing planned; I just decided to leave Guadalajara. Luckily I got the job! This magazine was like the Hello Magazine of Cancún. I lived in Mexico for two years. Mexico and the Internet opened me up to a whole new musical world. I discovered the likes of Ricardo Villalobos and his critically acclaimed album Alcachofa, Robag Wruhme and Wighnomy Brothers. I also started listening to dub and dubby house music.

I met some DJ’s in Mexico and they asked me if they could borrow my mixer and I said yes on the condition that they lend me their equipment during the week so I could practice at home. I remember they gave me CD players and I had the whole set up on an ironing board! I started practicing and began playing out. I played incredible parties in Ciudad Juárez, Playa del Carmen, and all over Cancún.

Q: Why did you move to Spain?

A: When I was living in Cancún the editor-in-chief of DJ Concept called me and said he wanted to start his own magazine and asked me if I wanted to write for them. I gave him a proposal and told him that I wanted to be part of the magazine so we began working on Groove Magazine.

It was thanks to this magazine that I went to Spain. The first time I went to Sónar festival was as a correspondent for the magazine. I had made a lot of contacts and the opportunity to move to Madrid arose, but I didn’t really click with Madrid. I got invited to play at a party in Sevilla where I met some like-minded people from Granada. They later invited me to play in Granada and I just loved it there, by then I was spinning vinyl. I packed my things and moved. I lived in Granada for exactly three years.

There, I started working in a call center and I was spinning everywhere. I eventually met the owner of Industrial Copera, a massive club in Granada and I got offered a job as a runner, later I began doing the international bookings. That was great because I was able to book DJ’s who had never played in Granada, like for example: Agoria from France. I also learned the ins and outs of the nightclub scene and how to deal with booking agencies.

During this time, I had made a very experimental set and I recorded it on a CD, which I was listening to in the company car and one day I forgot my CD in the car and it turns out that the son of the owner of the club heard it and he decided I should become the club’s resident DJ. That was an amazing experience for me. I got to DJ along with very important DJ’s. This allowed me to get bookings in other towns and cities throughout Spain and eventually led to me playing Sónar in 2008. You can imagine I was bouncing off the walls when I got the invitation. It was an incredible experience.

It was through Industrial Copera that I made my first trip to Germany. We went to the Frankfurt Musicmesse (Frankfurt Music Trade Show) to check out some equipment for the club.

The minimal hype was just taking off in Spain and I was already over it. I wanted to play other genres; I wanted to branch out musically. I also felt that my time in Granada had run its course. I was still too young to settle in such a small city like Granada, the scene there was very small. I got a booking to play in Leipzig and after that I decided I wanted to move to Berlin. It was an unconscious decision. I love to start from zero and take risks. I like jumping into the unknown. I like the rush of not knowing what is going to happen and everything is new to you and you are new to everyone. I love that feeling.

Q: What was coming to the epicenter of DJ culture like? Was Berlin welcoming?

A: I arrived in Berlin in early 2009 and thanks to the magazine and the club in Granada I had already made a name for myself. For the most part, Germans like to give you a chance if they see that you are authentic and that you have a passion for what you do, plus musically, they are much more open than other countries.

I remember I got a gig in this bar in Prenzlauer Berg called Bar 22 and I played a techno set and in the audience was Andreas Krüger from Der Dritte Raum and he told me how much he enjoyed my set and invited me to play at Ritter Butzker on new year’s eve right after AKA AKA, I was more nervous for that gig than I was for Sónar. Argenis Brito also invited me to play at Club der Visionaere. When I played at ://aboutblank it was still an illegal club and we were not allowed to do any online promotion back then.

Q: What are your thoughts on Berlin’s club culture? Are the golden days behind us or is the best yet to come?

A: I regret that I arrived towards the end of that period in Berlin. I remember when you only paid 2€ to get in at Bar 25. There were a lot of great underground parties back then, but eventually the organizers of these parties got older and began to have babies. Things have definitely changed over the past couple of years; it is actually a bit disappointing now. The scene in Berlin now is mostly hype and like all hypes, it too will pass. I remember when going to Berghain on Sunday was only 5€ and there wasn’t so much stupidity to let you in. I am much more interested in parties that can offer a variety of music in the same party and not the same rhythm the whole night. I think the 4/4 beat is like a dictator on the dance floor and it is so boring. I like it when the rhythm is broken.

Q: Your radio show Der Schall is 11 years old, how did you become involved with protonradio.com?

A: Der Schall on Proton radio is actually 10 years old, because I did a year of Der Schall with Mercury Station first, and then after a year they closed. I met Brian Ffar when I was launching the magazine in Mexico and he asked me if he could use my set for his show on Proton radio. The guys from Proton radio liked my set and asked me if I wanted to have a show on the station. Proton Radio was one of the very first electronic music platforms and my first guest was John Tejada.

Q: What kind of music are you listening to at the moment?

A: I am listening to drum & bass. I didn’t listen to it much when it first came out. I started listening to drum & bass here in Berlin, mostly because I was very involved with dubstep. I like sets from Djrum. I listen to a lot of roots reggae music especially during the summer, it reminds me of my life in Venezuela. Reggae music always cheers me up.

Q: The logical progression in a DJ’s career is to get bookings, a steady residency, touring, playing music festivals and eventually opening their own record label. You’ve pretty much done everything in the DJ career but instead of a record label you went into the food industry, why?

A: I always wanted to have my own place, like a restaurant close to nature, but with music. I wanted to change the concept of parties always being at night. I am a day person and that is something that I can appreciate about Berlin that you can play at 11 in the morning, for example. This work concept that we have to work 5 or 6 days a week and only have 2 days off and only be able to party Friday, Saturday and Sunday night is so tiring. I like to go to sleep early. So I wanted to have a place with all types of music, not just electronic music.

I produced one track. I think producing and DJing are two separate worlds. Many people think DJing is a job related to producing and it is not. I’ve seen so many producers empty out dance floors because they don’t know how to manage the dance floor. A good DJ needs to learn how to juggle any dance floor. The time slot you are playing, where you are playing, who you are playing for, all of it influences your set.

I’m going to sound like those people who always say things were better before! But it is true because the scene has gotten so superficial and there are so many people playing now. Technology has a lot to do with it and everybody wants his or her 15 minutes of fame. When I started, I had to work really hard in overcoming stage fright and now for many it is just for show. It is not about the music, it is about them.

Q: What is the story behind El Carrito?

A: I always wanted to have a place that served breakfast and on Sunday’s I always made arepas with perico (Venezuelan scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions and peppers) for my German friends and they always said: “This is so delicious I can’t believe nobody sells this here.” So I decided to do it.

I didn’t know what to call the business and I liked the name Canelita. Canelita is a Venezuelan liquor or schnapps made out of cinnamon and I love it. I wanted to offer it in the business but then I would need to import it and that’s too much to worry about. Then I was thinking El Maní, in honor of the legendary Caracas salsa club: El Maní es Así but “maní” means “peanut” in English and that has nothing to do with arepas!

Whenever I talked about the business I called it “el carrito.” I was always saying, “el carrito this or el carrito that” the name was there the whole time. In Venezuela we call hot dog and hamburger stands “carrito” too. The “ito/ita” is the diminutive ending, it indicates small and it is very Latin American, plus it also has the double “rr” that nobody here can pronounce! It means: “the little car.”

carritosharon
Sharon Schael with El Carrito.

The aesthetic of El Carrito is also very important to me. I not only wanted to bring the food but also the aesthetic of a taguara de playa in Venezuela (Venezuelan-beach-food-kiosk). This concept has not been exported properly, these are places that are on the roadside of highways on the way to the beach or at the beach and they have these murals where the art is very naïve. Everything is done by hand and they are so colorful. They represent something very beautiful about the Venezuelan countryside. El Carrito is going to have more color! Right now it has a palm tree and the iconic face of the Harina Pan lady painted on it and people take their picture with the Harina Pan lady behind them at Mauerpark, it is like a tourist attraction!

My team is very cool we are all 100% Venezuelan and that adds a very special energy to El Carrito! We speak the same language, the same slang and that is very important. Fernando is a musician and music freak! He is studying musicology at Humboldt University here in Berlin. Carlos comes from the state of Barinas; he is incredibly helpful, sweet and nice. He knows these very old, wise and funny Venezuelan sayings and they are just hilarious! Diego moved to Berlin around a year ago and he loves to party! He comes from a family of restaurateurs so he knows the food business really well. He is a Virgo, so he always wants to do and be the best no matter if he’s been partying the night before, that guy is always there ready for battle!

Left to right: Carlos, Diego, Fernando.

Q: What is an arepa and what do you eat it with?

A: I like to say that an arepa is a very practical container that you can stuff with whatever you want! I don’t like it when people call it Venezuelan bread because it is not bread. An arepa is made out of corn flour, you knead the dough until it no longer sticks to your fingers, then you make a round patty, thick or thin depending on your preference. It can be baked, grilled or fried. Like I said you can stuff it with practically anything. El Carrito offers 4 types of arepas; La Pelúa: Carne mechada (shredded beef), Gouda cheese and a very special avocado cream (my secret ingredient), Domino: Black beans and white cheese and my avocado cream, Con Todo: This is our best seller because it is la pelúa and domino together, Summer Special: This is a refreshing arepa for the summer and for people who don’t want to eat a hot filling. It is mozzallera di bufala, tomatoes, fresh basil, prosciutto and olive oil, essentially a caprese salad inside of an arepa! If you are vegetarian you can substitute the prosciutto with a slice of avocado. I also make 2 different types of salsa (sauces) that you can pour over the arepa and they’ve become very popular, people love it! They pour these salsas as if it were salad dressing! I learned how to make these salsas when I lived in Mexico.

arepa

 

Q: Where can we find El Carrito?

A: El Carrito has 2 locations. There is the El Carrito food truck every Sunday at Mauerpark from 9:00 am – 6:00pm. Look out for the palm tree it is so cute! Our second location is more stylish, every second Thursday at Street Food Thursday at Markthalle Neun from 5:00pm – 10:00pm. Best thing is to follow us on facebook: elcarritoberlin.

Q: In an average German supermarket you can’t find the necessary ingredients to make arepas and its respective traditional fillings. How do you go about food shopping in Berlin?

A: I have to go shopping in different parts of the city. It depends on the prices because they fluctuate especially vegetables. I go to the Turkish market to buy the cheeses, I go to a supermarket called Metro for wholesale items, and I go to a very good meat market for the shredded beef.

Q: Where are you the most comfortable at the moment, behind the decks or behind the grill/counter? Is cooking as relaxing as mixing?

A: It is the same process because you are having a response, the feedback from people in real time. It happens immediately and it is the same with music. You get to see how people enjoy what you are giving to them and it is a real pleasure to see their faces as soon as they bite an arepa, their yum faces are the best!

The real hard work is prepping and getting everything set up but once we are actually there that is the fun part. I’m playing live with flavors for people and to see them queue more than once is great ! I ask people if this is their very first arepa and when they say yes I feel very satisfied to have been able to introduce them to something that tastes delicious and is completely new to them!

El Carrito is also a name for public transportation in Venezuela. Asides from trains and buses there are many transportation companies who use Minivans or bigger passenger vans known as “carritos.” These vans are notoriously famous for their driver’s music. Yes, there is loud music being played in these vans! It is like a party so El Carrito has its own playlist too. We play reggae, salsa, merengue, and techno merengue! This enhances the experience because we are serving customers and we are dancing and singing at the same time!

Here goes a Sharon Schael original mix from her show Der Schall on prontonradio.com