A Q&A with Berlin ‘Baking Queen’ Cynthia Barcomi…
American ex-pat Cynthia Barcomi moved to Berlin in 1985 as a professional dancer. She opened up her first cafe – Barcomi’s – in Kreuzberg’s Bergmannstrasse in 1994, which sold her own roasted coffee blend and home-made cakes. A few years later she followed up with her Mitte branch, set in a beautiful ivy-covered courtyard close to Hackeschermarkt. Cynthia has also three cookbooks full of her wonderful baking recipes…
Where are you from in the States, and what brought you to Berlin?
I am originally from Seattle. I came to Berlin via New York City in 1985 where I’d just received my BA in theatre and philosophy from Columbia University.
In a number of years you went from professional dancer to professional baker—how did that transition come about?
It was 1994 and I’d just given birth to my second daughter. I realized that I simply wanted to do something else in my life—roast coffee beans. The baking was more on the side in the beginning. The customers wanted more and more pastries so I had to adjust my concept a bit in order to find a dialogue with them.
What made you think American-style cake (and roasted beans) could do well in Germany, the ‘land of bakers’?
I just believed in what I was doing. I have always been true to myself. Baking and roasting coffee beans are an extension of that belief. I think, I can.
How long did it take you to learn German: did you find it easy or difficult?
Well, I did find it difficult to learn German. I always carried a little dictionary around with me and wrote down words I didn’t know. At some point, I started to use them! I was also in an international dance company and our common language was German. Sink or swim.
What kind of cakes/products did you make at the beginning and where did you sell them?
I began by selling brownies and cookies at KaDeWe and Wertheim when I was pregnant with my second daughter.
Your first venture was Barcomi’s in Kreuzberg: what was the initial reaction when you opened it?
I found people to be very curious, welcoming and perhaps a bit skeptical at the beginning. Every business that had been in my space had been a huge failure and there was nothing like Barcomi’s in Berlin. There still isn’t, for that matter.
What are the main differences between the Kreuzberg and Mitte outlets?
In Kreuzberg it’s all about coffee beans and American pastries. Mitte encompasses the Bergmannstraße and goes further in the direction of restaurant fare: soups, salads, sandwiches, and platters.
What kind of products does the Mitte Deli sell, and where do they come from?
I have one production kitchen in the Bergmannstraße so we deliver ourselves. The products from the Deli all come from the Bergmannstraße.
How much of what you sell are from original recipes (i.e. yours or your colleagues)?
All of what is sold in the stores is from me. With the exception of one couscous salad, I do not use recipes of colleagues. Barcomi’s has my stamp on it and I want to keep it that way. Of course many things influence me, but the recipes are holy!
When did you start writing cookbooks—and what kinds of recipes can readers find in them?
I began my first of three books when I was pregnant with my fourth child, Savoy in 2007. The books reflect the food and pastries found in Barcomi’s but also go far beyond the selection we have in the stores.
How much have you been influenced by the German baking / food tradition?
I don’t think the food in Berlin is a strong reflection upon typically German food. To that extent, I have focused more on my American roots rather than letting German food influence me.
What are your thoughts on the Slow Food movement? Do you endorse it or keep track of the movement in any way?
I guess I am not real fan of the word ‘slow’. I do understand it is meant as juxtaposition to ‘fast’ but I think it is a misnomer. I’m more focused on the idea of hand-made goods in small quantities. I see my work as an alternative to industrially produced / processed food and coffee beans.
What kind of percentage of your products could you regard as made from ‘local’ ingredients?
Butter, eggs, milk, and fruit—all of our fresh (as opposed to Philly cream cheese) products are local.
What are the main barriers to sourcing ingredients locally in Berlin?
I think a lot of produce has gotten so industrial that it has overtaken the small farmer. Artisanal cheese is something you’d sadly rarely see in Berlin.
Do you think Berlin is a good Slow Food city—or has it got potential to be?
Well, I think Berlin has potential. You need to educate the consumer and make new ideas accessible. This is very important AND you need people who connect with what they’re doing. Enthusiasm is contagious.
Which are your favorite places to eat or have coffee in the city?
I only drink coffee and eat pastries at my own shops. I do like to eat at Grill Royal in Mitte. To be honest, with all the children, stores and work, I don’t have much time to go out and eat!
Can you name five favourite Slow places in Berlin?
Schlachtensee in Zehlendorf is fabulous for a bike ride or walk. The Guggenheim Museum in Mitte is great for a slice of culture. Sans Souci in Potsdam is wonderfully calming. The Botanical Garden in Dahlem is magical. Potsdamer Platz Cinestar is perfect for movies in their original language.
Baking aficionados can find lots of tasty recipes on Cynthia’s blog here.
For more information, check out Barcomi’s website.