The Turngemeinde (Gymnastics Association) in Berlin has had an eventful history. It was founded in the midst of the 1848 revolutions in the tradition of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the so-called “father of German gymnastics”. (An indisputably huge figure in the sports world, Jahn pioneered the use of equipment like rings and high bars at his open-air gym in Hasenheide in 1810, while at the same time espousing racist and anti-Semitic views.) Later, the association served as a front for the Communist Party, banned and then re-allowed by the Allies in post-War West Berlin. To this day, it boasts over 6000 active members.
Let’s get to the point. Why do you, a non-gymnast, need to know about this place? Because since last year, the Turngemeinde has been home not only to handsprings and cartwheels, but to Berlin’s best Jamaican food.
In August 2021, without much fanfare, the mobile catering business Vybz took over the club restaurant. So long, schnitzel – now, hungry gymnasts (and anyone else who stops by) can refuel with jerk chicken, plantains, rice ‘n’ peas, oxtail stew, curried goat or ackee and saltfish. The only reminder of the kitchen’s German past is the Berliner Kindl on tap.
From Jamaica to Hasenheide
“Some people still ask about the schnitzel, but then I just nicely explain to them that it isn’t here anymore,” says Vybz owner Stokley White. Born in Jamaica, he moved to Steglitz as an 11-year-old in 1990 to live with his mother; the two of them now run the kitchen together.
It was his childhood dream to be a chef – one that he abandoned upon realising the gruelling working conditions he’d have to face in the industry. But he couldn’t completely stay away from the topic. He completed his apprenticeship as a retail salesman on KaDeWe’s gourmet floor, then freelanced until the day he had a fateful conversation with his cousin, owner of the since-shuttered Jamerica in Schöneberg. The restaurant had been asked to cater a concert by an American rapper; White’s cousin wanted to turn it down, but White took the job instead. That’s when he got a taste for it.
Bit by bit, he expanded the catering arm of the family business until striking out on his own with Vybz. Suddenly, White found himself at home in the backstage rooms at Berlin’s biggest concert venues, as well as at events like Karneval der Kulturen and street food markets like Bite Club, where his jerk chicken – barbecued on a grill he’d welded together himself – was a huge hit.
Such was also the case when he catered Turngemeinde’s summer festival on their Columbiadamm premises. In fact, the club’s heads were so bowled over by his food that they offered him a contract on the spot. White jumped at the chance.
Winning over the Germans
Now, his huge black grills stand on the Turnverein’s grounds. Next to the gym, rice and beans are cooking on the kitchen stove. In the dining room, German and Jamaican worlds collide.
“The members are really taking to the new food,” White explains, while serving a group of regulars who come in every week for their post-workout meal. Maybe because you can taste the passion on every plate. White and his mother make nearly everything themselves, from the changing selection of cakes and tortes to the traditional dumplings (cornmeal fritters) that are served as a side or used as buns for veggie burgers.
If you’re new to Jamaican food, start with the jerk chicken: marinated in a dark spice mix that’s hot, fruity and sweet at the same time, grilled outside and served with coconutty rice and beans, sweet-savoury fried plantains, dumplings and salad. Vegetarians can get the same plate with the chicken switched out for callaloo, a Caribbean amaranth relative that’s comparable to spinach. Wash it all down with the Jamaican hibiscus drink Sorrel or a can of Ting, a grapefruit soda that’s huge in Caribbean countries (and England) but hard to track down in Berlin.
And there’s still more to come. White is working on a recipe for patties – savoury pastries filled with meat, veggies or saltfish, found not only in Jamaica but on street corners in London or New York.
Jamaica’s motto is “Out of Many One People”, which is reflected in the island’s cuisine: enslaved Africans brought their own influences; colonial migration from England and India left behind things like curry. From these individual components, a culture of its own grew.
Maybe it’s precisely this diverse quality of Jamaican food that makes it a good fit for that most German of institutions: the sports clubhouse. In any case, fewer and fewer guests are asking about the schnitzel.
Good Vybz Columbiadamm 111, Neukölln, Tue–Sun 10–22:30, www.vybz-catering.com