Berlin

This Former Web Developer Is Bringing Syrian Food to Berlin

Hadi Nsreeny fled Aleppo for an IT job in Germany last year, but ended up introducing a Middle Eastern-inspired menu of hummus with flatbrot and baba ghanouj to Berlin's Wolff & Eber restaurant.

by Alexandra Hayward
05 April 2016, 10:00am

All photos by Lilly Merrick.

Hadi Nsreeny hands me a plate of venison and baked figs with Kabsa rice, accompanied by toasted cashew nuts, plump yellow raisins, and tabbouleh. He describes the dish as "Syrian-Brandenburg" cuisine.

But Nsreeny wasn't always a chef and this isn't just a restaurant. We're standing in Wolff & Eber, a Berlin eatery with a sideline in literary events, and the guy whose figs I'm enjoying used to be a web developer in Syria.

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"Syrian-Brandenburg" cuisine served by chef Hadi Nsreeny at Berlin restaurant Wolff & Eber. All photos by Lilly Merrick.

It all started in 2015, when Nsreeny escaped Aleppo for Germany, managing to land an IT job in Munich. But he found it frustrating to stare at a screen all day in a country where he wanted to learn the language and make new connections.

"I wanted to be communicating, learning languages, meeting people," he explains. "I realised computers were no longer for me."

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So Nsreeny headed to Berlin and began working with Uberdentellerand ("cooking outside the box"), a catering collective that trains native Germans and migrants as chefs. Coming from a country rich in fragrant tahina, pickles and fresh chilis, he learned to put his own spin on classic German dishes.

"People started to go crazy for my potato and herb soup," Nsreeny remembers.

His talent for combining Middle Eastern and European flavours was soon noticed by NENI Berlin, the celebrated rooftop restaurant overlooking Berlin Zoo. He carried out an intensive internship in their kitchens after training.

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Berlin Book publisher and restaurant owner Robert Eberhardt and chef Hadi Nsreeny.

From there, Nsreeny crossed paths with Wolff & Eber owner and book publisher Robert Eberhardt who invited him to cook for his weekly "literary salon"—a dinner event that sees established writers read from their latest work. Kind of like a book club but with much better food and wine.

"Robert came to me for help adding my Arabic notes to the wine and cheese menu, and it quickly became a full menu," explains Nsreeny. "After seven years of web designing, I was designing my own menu as head chef and sourcing staff."

Wolff & Eber stands on a tree-lined street in Berlin's understated Schöneberg neighbourhood, where old-time German dining rooms mingle with Middle Eastern restaurants. When I arrive at 6 PM for Nsreeny's first literary dinner, the restaurant is almost full and author Robert Von Lucius is preparing to read from his latest book August Lucius (1815-1900).

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Rotbarsch, a North Atlantic fish used in traditional German cooking.

The menu sees Nsreeny take his Syrian influence to ingredients from Eberhardt's home state of Thuringia. We're presented with bowls of baba ghanouj topped with pomegranate seeds ("They're everywhere in Syrian food—everywhere!" says Nsreeny), as well as German staples like carp and rotbarsch ("rose fish" found in the North Atlantic), and the occasional sausage—as if the excess of bratwurst elsewhere in Berlin weren't sufficient. The hummus comes with a crispy flatbrot seasoned with herbs and tiny shards of sea salt. And lots of potatoes, naturalische.

Nsreeny is proudest of his labneh, or syrischer frischekase—made by sealing fresh yogurt in a jar with olive oil and fresh rosemary for five days. The result is divine: all at once tangy, creamy, and gently fragrant.

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A jar of Nsreeny's labneh, yogurt fermented with olive oil and rosemary.

"This is my baby," he says, gently taking the jar from me and cradling it. "And people have treated it like a drug so far—they can't get enough. Word spread, like with my old soup. On Saturday, we sold out of it so fast. The production line—me—has to be rapid, and if you serve it younger than five days, it is just not right."

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Each week's literary salon will see Nsreeny produce a different menu, his proficiency in Arabic, English, French, and German already coming in handy when working with local suppliers—including the Brandenburg deer hunters, who are also friends of Eberhardt's. I'm told to await a lot of courgettes.

"I love to work this hard, and I love being the creator of my own future—my own boss," says Nsreeny.

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Hummus, tabbouleh, yogurt, and baba ghanouj with pomegranate.

As the diners settle to listen to Von Lucius, Eberhardt finally gets a moment to sit with me.

"Try the Klosterneuburg Austinger Konvent," he advises, pouring me an Austrian white wine sourced from the Stift Klosterneuburg winery.

"What's your vice?" I ask Nsreeny as he joins us. Does he harbour the near bottomless drinking capacity of many young head chefs, I wonder? He laughs, and admits a penchant for sparkling sekt once the kitchen closes and Schöneberg's residents leave with stomachs full of his Syrian-Brandenburg dishes.