This tiny shop at the end of Görlitzer Straße in Kreuzberg just might be the fulfillment of all your pastry-dreams. “Barcellos Salon Sucré” is a perhaps unlikely combination of pâtisserie and hair salon managed by Eric Muller and his wife Katia Barcello. Visiting them for an interview last week, I entered the shop just after it had opened its doors at 10am. Eric Muller served me a coffee with a croissant au creme d’amandes whose crispy sweetness literally melts in my mouth while I wait for him to get ready. Eric is a talkative man and we often get interrupted by customers, who all seem to have known him for years. The audience is mixed, from heart-warming pensioners who like to enjoy their second breakfast with a hot chocolate and a dainty pastry, French fellows ordering their daily Café au Lait, to American hipster dads carrying babies and grocery shopping bags. All the while, Eric and I talked about how he got to Kreuzberg, why he stayed, and what the secret of his dainty croissants is.
I was in Paris last week and discovered two new pastry favorites: Cannelés and Financiers.
Eric Muller: Ah yes, Cannelés is a speciality from Bordeaux. I like them when they are really fresh. I make them mostly on Sundays.
When did you get up this morning?
Today it was at 4am.
4am? Every day?
I work Thursdays through Sundays. In the winter time I get up at 3:30am. In the summer it depends on the weather, because we’ve got this big sunny terrace that takes some extra preparation. Mostly I get up at 3am on weekends.
And you’ve been doing this for how many years now?
When I opened the shop with my wife I got up even earlier. When you’re just starting a business there is a lot to do, and sometimes I worked 120 hours a week.
How did you become a pâtissier?
My family was poor, so when I was 13 years old, it was time to start working. I’ve got five brothers and a sister and I therefore had to decide very early on what I wanted to do. In my family it was like that, we had no money, but at the beginning of the month, when the money came in, I went to the bakery to buy croissants. And I’ve always liked that. The smell, when you enter the bakery. Now that I’m older, I of course know that you can’t really know what you want to do at 13. But I decided on Pâtisserie and made the right choice.
Where are you from?
I’m from Strasbourg, from a small village near Kappel. After my mother got divorced we moved to the Vosges. I was trained in Strasbourg, where my mother found me an apprenticeship with a pâtissier and a baker. These days an apprentice starts at 16, as 13 years is just too young, since you have to do the same job as everybody else, working 60 hours a week. But this was long ago, It’s 34 years since I did my apprenticeship and I’ve worked in gastronomy for all those 34 years.
How did you come to Berlin?
The first time I came here was in 1986 and I just really liked the city. I noticed that historically many things happened here and it’s a very liberal city.
But you didn’t stay?
No. I was working in a hostel in the mountains in 1989 and I lived and worked at a communal organic farm with Americans, Germans and some French people. Around this time is when I first got to know Berlin. One of us sold cheese to organic stores in Berlin and I accompanied him.
And when did you move to Berlin?
1990, right after the wall came down. Directly to Kreuzberg, to this area.
Did you immediately open the shop?
No, I worked on several different projects. In the first year it was an educational project, where together with a chef from Austria I tried to help people on welfare find work, and trained them. After that I went to India for three months. I heard a lot about Pakistan and India from my flatmates, got interested and wanted to go to India as soon as I had some money to do so.
Did you start meditating?
I also heard a lot about meditation and yoga from my flatmates, but I did not understand much about it yet. I went backpacking and just enjoyed myself. Since I came back to Berlin I’ve worked in gastronomy for the next nine years, in hotels, restaurants, and even an American pastry shop. In 2000 I finally opened this shop.
How did this happen?
My wife and I were working a lot. She as a hairdresser and I usually at night. So we did not see each other a lot, and had the idea of opening up a shop together to see each other more often.
And what was this area like back then?
In 2000 almost everything here had vanished, since the Wall came down many families had moved to Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg and this area was almost deserted. We wanted to bring it back to life!
How did you decide to open the shop here?
I’ve always lived in Kreuzberg, but when we had the idea to open the store, I visited several places, first St. Tropez, then Rio de Janeiro.
You wanted to move away?
I was wondering where to start the shop. First in St. Tropez, Rio de Janeiro and then in Freiburg.
The alternative organic-town. The conservative-alternative organic-town. I thought about where I liked it best for a year, and finally decided to stay in Kreuzberg.
And what kind of concept did you have?
Everything was supposed to be traditional, handmade and produced with fine ingredients. And then of course the location. Many people opened a shop in Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg, but I didn’t want to pay such hight rents, I wanted to use expensive ingredients.
And how did the people react?
Honestly? Most said I wouldn’t survive, that I’d be crazy to open a shop here. I felt that some of them were bothered by a shop that only offered high-quality products.
They were not used to it in this area?
They really weren’t! Not only in Kreuzberg but in all of Berlin. They thought I was crazy to have a shop at the end of the world, where everyone else had fled the social problems or because there were no good schools.
So how did it go in the beginning?
I must say that I was lucky. I was always confident that my quality was worth something. I’ve won many awards and worked in star-hotels. That wasn’t a problem, also not for my wife, who already had her customers. In the beginning the hours were long, as I said I worked 120 hours a week. From morning to evening. It was a lot of work to set up this shop. Usually you open a shop in an area with lots of pedestrian traffic, near a subway or a bus-stop. So I did exactly the opposite, but I like to have some challenges in my life.
And it worked out.
It worked out because I offer quality.
Was ist difficult to convince people of this quality?
I like to spend time with my customers and explain everything. How the flour and chocolate are made and where the milk comes from. Those things are interesting and these days most people are interested in those things again. Quality and someone who knows his stuff and can explain it.
You have many regular customers nowadays, and you have to get here early to get the best treats before they’re gone. The first years must have been different – how did it change?
I worked 120 hours a week for a year and a half, until I physically could not no longer take it. After some time the business got into a groove and I was able to reduce my hours. And the area changed a lot too. When we started out the neighborhood was already changing and many new stores opened. I think we have been something like an example for others, since our concept to combine a pâtisserie with a hairdresser is pretty unique. Others opened large stores, but we kept it modest and did not go bankrupt. The Wirtschaftsamt even made a film about us!
How does the neighborhood feel today?
When I opened the store I knew how things were going in the rest of the world. You can see it, for example, in the Marais in Paris, today it’s flourishing, but there was nothing there twenty years ago. Districts all develop in the same way, like it also happened with Williamsburg in New York. It changes constantly, first it’s not trendy, and then it becomes trendy. There is not enough space in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, everything is very expensive, so people come to Kreuzberg, because there are possibilities for them here.
But the rents in this area have also increased considerably and it’s become really hard to find an apartment.
EM: Yes, we should not forget that. But Kreuzberg is so beautiful, there are so many beautiful places. That’s why I’ve always stayed here.
Let’s talk about the pâtisserie. You’ve been doing this for so many years, what do you still like in your job?
What I love is to get up early. There is this calm, this silence, I love that. When I start to roll out the croissants and it’s completely quiet, that is what makes me very happy. It’s meditative and totally inspiring. It is so beautiful to be awake when the city is still asleep and to work in peace. That’s a very good energy for me.
So what is the secret of your wonderful croissants?
The secret lies in my 34 years of intensive work and experience. I get up early, bake the pastries and then sell them. I love to teach people how important food is.
And what do you like to do best?
That’s a very difficult question, since I’ve done many things and when you become older you realize that no matter what you do, as long as you do it with love, you’ll be the most successful.
And how do you decide whether to make gâteau au chocolat or passion fruit cake?
I’m spontaneous. Like the morning feels, that’s how I set up my vitrine. This way I’ll never be bored, because I can be creative every day. I don’t want to be the best, I just want to do my best and do it with love, so my customers leave the shop happy.