German cuisine doesn't make many lists hyping the hottest, sexiest food these days. Bold, vibrant and spice-laden dishes from Thailand, Vietnam, China's Sichuan province, Oaxaca and South India get the lion's share of attention from culinary adventurers seeking out the new and exciting. But that doesn't matter to Gaby Berben: She's happy cooking the food she grew up with, living in an industrial town near Cologne. And she's cooking more than ever since opening Gaby's German Eatery at 245 South Harlan Street in Lakewood this spring.
The Gaby's name might be familiar to folks who frequent farmers' markets or have a fondness for the annual Christkindl Market that makes downtown just a little more festive each holiday season. Berben moved to Denver from Germany in 2010 and the next year founded Gaby's Soups, selling fresh and frozen products at farmers' market stalls before introducing other traditional German dishes at the Christmas market. She says she's collected more than 700 soup recipes from family members and friends over the years, many of which she has never cooked for customers.
"People kept asking us if we could open a shop," Berben explains. A year and a half ago, she found a vacant space that had once been a tattoo parlor wedged between the garages of an auto mechanic's shop. Converting the spot into a kitchen with a small dining room took months of work and lots of patience, but Berben says that Lakewood officials were cooperative and helpful throughout the process. Since the grand opening in April, customers — including some of those city employees — have been finding their way in for "food like Grandma's," as the sign out front of Gaby's reads.
Berben helped her mother bake cakes and cook sauerbraten and beef rouladen when she was young. "She was a great cook and a real innovator," she recalls, pointing out that the mocha buttercake on the restaurant's menu was a family recipe that originated in her mother's home state of Thuringen. Her grandfather was "a waiter in high-class restaurants in Europe — the Cote D'Azure and London," she adds, so his tastes and expectations at the home table were very particular. This background shaped Berben's love of cooking, as well as her insistence on quality ingredients.
While much of the menu at Gaby's will be familiar to those in search of German comfort food, Berben notes that her cooking technique borrows from another tradition. She follows the Chinese method of cooking with the "five elements": earth, metal, water, wood and fire. Ingredients correspond to each of the elements and are added sequentially in a specific order to maintain balance and achieve circular harmony, she explains.
The chef also uses organic, non-GMO ingredients for the majority of her cooking. "I believe in good food, real food," she adds. "I don't get deliveries; I go out and get my produce from Grower's Organic, my meats from Western Daughters and Boulder Natural Meats."
Dishes are simple and hearty, but not heavy. In addition to the sauerbraten and rouladen of her youth, Berben serves goulash, stroganoff, spätzle with cheese, sausages with potato salad or sauerkraut, and cabbage rolls. She wanted a dumpling dish for her menu but realized that she didn't have time to make them herself; instead, she offers pierogi from Pierogies Factory. Polish people really know what they're doing, she explains, adding that Cezary Grosfeld, the owner of Pierogies Factory, is the best. (In fact, Grosfeld has become something of a pierogi celebrity in Denver as he followed a route similar to that of Berben, showing up at farmers' markets and food-truck rallies and selling frozen pierogi while launching his own restaurants.)
Not surprisingly, soups are a big part of Gaby's menu, with daily specials that range from blood-red borscht to German-style lentil, carrot-ginger-coconut and liver-dumpling soup bobbing with golf-ball-sized liver meatballs. While the dining room is austere, the soups are served in elegant white bowls that resemble miniature tureens.
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Gaby's is a counter-service restaurant, but Berben comes out and chats with customers, making sure that everyone is comfortable and taken care of as well as they would be at any fine-dining establishment.
Still, the cakes are what keep people coming back, she says. They include an iconic Black Forest cake, German cheesecakes, apfelstrudel and sachertorte, among others.
When you go, be sure to ask for the soup specials; for the full German experience, stick around for a slice of that cake and a cup of coffee. And you might want to bring friends. "There's no TV or music; people really sit and talk," Berben points out. "Eating is a social act — that's why I like to cook for people."
Gaby's is open from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Call 720-329-8188 or visit gabysgermaneatery.com for more information.