Every year, thousands of people come to Berlin in search of new experiences, outlets for their creativity and maybe even a little notoriety. Arriving with little more than a backpack, limited German skills, and no job or contacts, Andrew Preble wasn't looking for any of these things. But after less than two years in the city, the 25-year-old may have already discovered them all – in a way he never expected.
An idea came to Preble while attending a creative meet-up group, where expats and other adventure-seekers gather in hopes of turning their cocktail-napkin dreams into reality.
“I met a girl from New Orleans who wanted to start a gumbo delivery service,” says Preble. “I said there's no way I'm pedaling a bike with gumbo through this city in winter. So I thought – the customers can come to me.”
Having never before started, owned or even managed a restaurant, Preble is now the owner of an authentic Cajun-Creole restaurant in Berlin. Just off of Görlitzer Park in the heavily touristed, multicultural mecca of Kreuzberg, the New Orleans Haus joins a growing list of Berlin restaurants serving food made by Americans according to traditional recipes.
Jambalaya, crawfish étouffée, crab cakes, red beans and rice, Creole cheesecake, and fruity Hurricane and Orange Blossom cocktails – all have that close-your-eyes-and-you're-on-Bourbon-Street taste. Preble's foundation is the Cajun-Creole recipes he inherited from grandmothers on both sides of his family – though curiously enough they had Mexican and Swiss roots.
“In New Orleans, it's normal to grow up in the kitchen – so I've been baking since I was six,” says Preble, soft-spoken and still a bit boyish. “All of the food we cook here at the restaurant – I grew up eating. The gumbo we make, with okra, is the same that we ate every Christmas Eve back home.”
For Preble, back home is Abita Springs, a town of about 2,000 just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans that was originally a Native American village legendary for its medicinal waters. Today it's probably best known for Abita beer and its Mystery House, which happens to be run by Preble's father, John, who has become famous for his homemade inventions and folk art – including a flying saucer protruding from the side of an Airstream mobile home.
Also an artist, Preble's mother, Ann O'Brien, was a respected jewelry-maker who died of cancer four years ago. Shaken by her death, and with New Orleans still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, Preble bought an airplane ticket and left the next day for Argentina, where he stayed for six months to work on his Spanish. “I needed to reset my brain,” he says.
In addition to South America, Preble's travels also took him to Australia, where he worked as a landscaper on movie sets; Norway, where he studied Norwegian at the University of Oslo; and Austria, where he studied business in Innsbruck – and also where he realized he was broke after just two weeks on the road when his bankcard stopped working.
Eventually he landed in Berlin, but frustrated with his employment search, Preble began looking for a restaurant location about a year ago, finding a southern German-style café about to close down. Luckily, after taking it over, he was able to keep all the equipment and furnishings. “Everything was here,” he says. “We just had to make the food.” Instead of liver-noodle soup and sausage salad, the small kitchen now dishes out Jambalaya and gumbo to the sounds of Professor Longhair and Fats Domino.
As complicated as Cajun-Creole food tastes – blending French, Spanish, African and Native American flavours – Preble admits it is “really easy to cook in big batches. You can keep it warm and serve it instantly.” But, he says – and here comes the tricky part when opening a restaurant like this in a place like Berlin – “You can't short-cut anything.”
Preble searched for months before finding such basics as fresh crab meat for his crab cakes, celery seeds for Creole mustard and the perfect red beans. “Seafood is the most difficult piece,” he says, adding that the crawfish for his étouffée and crawfish Monique dishes come from Denmark.
With no hope of finding smoked Andouille sausage – a must-have for gumbo – he found a local butcher who agreed to make it for him, following a recipe from Preble's grandmother. He can't find filé powder (dried Sassafras leaves) for his gumbo, but he can easily buy Philadelphia cream cheese for his Creole cheesecake – a genuine treat for those who tire of German-style cake made with quark.
Still not satisfied with his menu, Preble will soon introduce more Bayou classics, including po' boy and muffaletta sandwiches, and Café Du Monde-style beignets and coffee with chicory. On a recent Sunday he spontaneously whipped up pancakes, and corn and shrimp soup. “You can't get complacent,” he says. “We'll always be experimenting and playing around. That's how you stay fresh.”
Though open for just six months, Preble has already attracted a loyal and diverse clientele, evidenced by many favorable reviews – in both English and German.
“Our customers always notice that our food is special. But,” Preble says, “that's hard for me to imagine because I grew up eating it.”
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