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July 29, 2011

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German finds a cooking niche

German chef Sebastian Werbing has found his niche in Suzhou. The 31-year-old expat from a small town in Germany communicates easily with locals using body language (though not Mandarin yet), checks out famous old Chinese restaurants and occasionally tries a bit of baijiu (a Chinese distilled alcoholic beverage) - but prefers German beer.

What he likes best is German food, which he prepares every day for guests at the Paulaner restaurant, Kempinski Suzhou, where he is head chef of the Bavarian kitchen.

Werbing, who has been in Suzhou for two years, used to cook for a family-owned hotel with a history of around 150 years.

"I want to bring the most authentic German food with the original flavor to Suzhou, presenting Suzhou people a true German dining experience," he says.

A typical busy work day in the traditional kitchen lasts from morning to night, as long as it takes, to prepare for both events and a la carte dining.

"It's busy but not boring, because every day is new and different for me," Werbing says. "I love being a chef and making food makes me happy."

He mostly cooks food from southern Germany, which has a strong rural tradition. He prepares many kinds of sausage, meats, dumplings and old-fashioned salads with various sauces and dressings. Fresh vegetables and fruit, of course.

"Dumplings are so popular in my country that every family has its own recipe. Every mom can cook," Werbing says.

German dumplings are typically round and made of bread or potatoes. Bread dumplings are made day-old bread, milk and egg, so that it's soft and doesn't fall apart; potato dumplings are made with mashed potato and stuffed with small bread cubes to make them crunchy.

As a chef, he likes to try Chinese food in various Suzhou restaurants. His favorites dishes are sautéed beef filet with hot green pepper, meat dumplings with vinegar sauce, sweet and sour fried croacker and fried noodles.

He doesn't go for fiery baijiu, which he finds too strong and containing too much alcohol.

It was in Suzhou that Werbing met his wife, who is also German.

In his hotel kitchen, he prepares the traditional German food that guests want, while at home in Suzhou Industrial Park, Werbing sometimes prepares dishes combining European and Chinese food.

"I use Chinese noodles to make Italian pasta and I use carrots, potatoes and cauliflower to replace German vegetables."

The Paulaner restaurant offers three kinds of beer - golden lager, dark beer and wheat beer. Special beer is brewed for traditional German festivals in May and October, Oktoberfest.

"It's a grand gala for everybody," he says, noting that in Germany there are around 6,000 beers.

Paulaner restaurant contains a mini brewery so guests receive the freshest beers.

Werbing says he feels quite comfortable in Suzhou.

"I find Suzhou people are helpful and friendly. When I'm asking the way, the taxi and bus drivers are all willing to help," he says.

"In Germany, people sometimes are indifferent and wary of strangers," he observes. Though he doesn't speak Mandarin, his lively body language makes it easy to get his point across.

Chinese tradition

He enjoys visiting the famous classical gardens of Suzhou. Though he lives and works in the new and developing industrial park, he prefers the old city with its ancient architecture.

"I feel sad because I see too many new things mushrooming but the tradition is being lost," he says.

Unlike many expats, he's tolerant of bad public manners, such as spitting and littering.

"I think it's a cultural difference and accept them as part of Chinese tradition, which goes along with the country," Werbing says.

"I have to say that Suzhou itself is a very clean city with green trees and flowers everywhere."

He's awed by the traffic jams and flagrant violations. "It's so crazy. Everyone - taxis, buses, bikes and cars - goes so fast and violates traffic rules any time. But amazingly, few accidents happen. It seems that pedestrians and cars cooperate. In Germany, everyone obeys the rules but there are so many accidents," he says.

The air is the only thing he doesn't like. "It's polluted and I miss the fresh air in Germany," says Werbing who comes from a town of around 10,000 residents, a two hour's drive from Hamburg.

His friends are shocked when he tells them that Suzhou has 7 million people and is considered a small city in China.

"In my hometown, ride a bike for five minutes and you are in the forest and another five minutes you're in the village square," he says.

Q: Favorite dish?

A: Sautéed beef filet with hot green pepper, meat dumplings with vinegar sauce, sweet and sour fried croacker and fried noodles.

Q: What's your favorite place in Suzhou?

A: It depends on the weather. When it's good, I like to sit in the plaza and idle away the afternoon with a mug of beer.

Sebastian Werbing

Nationality: German

Profession: Chef


? Impression of Suzhou:

Clean streets but polluted air.

? Motto for life:Enjoy the small things. Even a mug of beer and the chirping of little birds can make me happy.

? How to improveSuzhou:

Straighten out the laws for climate and environmental protection.

? Strangest sight:

Fast driving.

? Self-description:

Open-minded, like to make new friends and definitely German.


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