Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Rosebud Was Taken
From Cosell to Croissants
How did the producer of the Howard Cosell Show become a talented pastry chef, entrepreneur and retailer in New York City? My curiosity was piqued. The 'starter' of the story was Marion Rubin, who overheard my conversation at the gym about my food styling for cookbook authors. Marion asked, "Have you ever heard of The City Bakery in New York City?" My reply, "Yes," knowing in the back of my mind it had an excellent reputation. She replied, "My son Maury owns it."
Call it serendipity or call it coincidence, but Maury Rubin and Steven Raichlen, the BBQ guru on PBS and the Food Network, both attended Baltimore's Milford Mill High School. Raichlen used to hang out with Maury's older brother, Barry. Two great food talents from my alma mater (I don't think I count for the 3rd). My curiosity drove me further, and my writing instincts screamed, "This is a story to be told!"
Maury Rubin's interest in high school was sports; he was the sports editor for the school paper and went on to the University of Maryland's WMUC as the Sports Director doing play-by-plays. His passion ran deep, and he became a 'gofer' for all the sports programs when they came to Baltimore or Washington, DC. Rubin said, "It was the Baltimore Orioles that decided my future during the '79 World Series. ABC Television was in Baltimore more, and I kept getting additional work on Monday Night Baseball and the Wide World of Sports." Eventually, the sports raconteur Howard Cosell hired him to produce his show. Maury made the move to New York City and hasn't looked back since.
"It was challenging working seven days a week for five years, and then Cosell retired," Rubin expounded. It had been a hard five years, and it was time for a break. Maury moved to Paris and took a pastry course that changed his life's path. Maury was very close with his maternal grandfather who was a baker. Rubin reminisces, "He baked for, I believe, 53 years. Every Tuesday night, he and my uncle would come to our house and he would bring Danish from the bakery. My deciding to try my hand at baking when I did was very much with him in mind, and always has been."
A French federation of pastry chefs had designed a six-day course for Americans, and Maury dug in with both hands. With the first bit of pate brisee under his fingernails, a new passion evolved, and Maury was on the flour-covered path of a baker. Chef instructor Denis Ruffel arranged a stage at his friend's bakery, Patisserie Rouseau-Seurre, where Maury interned for six months and then completed an additional apprenticeship at La Maison du Chocolat. Rubin left Paris for New York in 1987, his goal to continue his apprenticeship for greater knowledge. Reality hit once back in the Big Apple: the pastry shops in New York weren't all that good. It was then he decided to open his own bakery.
Dara: "Is the La Maison du Chocolat at Rockefeller Center the same bakery you worked for in Paris?"
Maury: "Yes, and this is a particularly exalted business in the mindset of chocolate and pastry in France."
The King of Tarts
It took three years to turn his vision into a reality. In December, 1990, the doors opened at City Bakery. With his mind set on sustainability and organic ingredients, Chef Rubin opened the doors to City Bakery at 22 E. 17th at the northwest edge of Union Square known for its farmers Greenmarket.
Dara: "Maury, when you opened City Bakery in 1990, sustainable agriculture/using organic was in its infancy. What was your influence?"
Maury: "My girlfriend taught me about cultural politics. The farmers market (Greenmarket) really got my attention, and that became the basis of my learning of local farming/local food supplies/organics. You are right to say that organic was in its infancy; I used only organic flour from the day we opened (1990). Looking back, that was easily ahead of its time by about 10 years."
His minimalist tarts are legendary - simplistic but mind-lingering. Jeffrey Steingarten, the food critic, author, and persnickety judge on Iron Chef America said, "If a baker at home or in commerce cannot make a better pastry than Maury, he or she should simply follow Maury's recipe or throw in the towel and find other work." (Buy Maury's pastry cookbook ~ book of tarts at Amazon.com and you won't have to throw in the towel.)
It was not just the tarts that sent City Bakery into the stratosphere; consider the pretzel croissants, homemade ice creams, hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows. Add the talented savory chef Ilene Rosen with her penchant for world cuisines, the largest salad bar in New York, and the lunch counter called Lucille, and the popularity continues to grow ... so much so, they moved to larger digs at 3 W. 18th Street, a couple of steps off 5th Avenue.
"I was a solid C student in high school," Maury explained with a slight laugh in his voice. The solid C now stands for clever. Not only a talented baker, Rubin is a marketing genius! For over 13 years, he has organized City Bakery's Hot Chocolate Festival. During the month of February, the City Bakery offers a rotating menu of 25 flavors like ginger hot chocolate, dark darkest hot chocolate, sunken treasure hot chocolate, mango tea hot chocolate, etc. "Interesting," you say, "but clever?" Read on...
Dara: "I have a little bit of information on your Hot Chocolate Festival. Which was the best festival so far?"
Maury: "Last year was the biggest and best: we closed 18th Street down from 5th Avenue to 6th Avenue. We brought in 2 tons of snow from upstate NY, lined the street and set-up a portable ice-skating rink and outdoor grills for toasting marshmallows. The NYPD said that 15,000 came for the day. In terms of marketing, I like to bring a lot of creative energy to our customers. (5,000 cups of hot chocolate served)
The City Bakery Hot Chocolate Festival has its own website where they sell the beautifully-designed festival posters, the calendar for February that reflects the hot chocolate flavor-of-the-day, hot chocolate news, essay contests, and more.
When Rubin wanted to promote his pies reminiscent of the ones you might find at the state fair, he transformed City Bakery to the City Bakery State Fair. He brought in picket fences, put straw on the floor, and had the staff in big ol'e country overalls and straw hats. Corn dogs and lemonade, games for the kids, and all you can eat down-home country food. If you were able to spit a watermelon seed 12 feet on to a small tart they anteed up 100 free tarts.
Dara: "You seem to be the true entrepreneur, the whole package - do you sleep?"
Maury: "First, I'll take that as a compliment. Many people have asked me through the years about the sleep question. Retail requires a lot. I like doing it a certain way; I'd say overall, it's an old-fashioned approach, like a mom and pop business where they live above the store. That is how I have grown City Bakery over the years. Answer to the actual sleep question: one day I won't do this anymore, and when that time comes, I plan on catching-up on my sleep."
"C" is for Coast
City Bakery has gone bi-coastal with a second City Bakery, 5,000 square feet, in Brentwood Country Mart, a small collection of shops and restaurants in a circa 1948 red barn building. Nestled between Westwood and Santa Monica in Los Angeles, the new City Bakery will flourish. Rubin's Barnum & Bailey, big show sensibilities and commitment to organic, farm-to-table will flourish in the land of starlets and glitter. The big question is how long does two tons of snow last in Los Angeles?
"G" is for Green
The hot gossip on the food blogs around Manhattan and just making the papers in New York is the new bakery in the East Village on 1st Avenue between 13th and 14th. It has no name and when you ask the staff the name they tell you there is no name. If you go the website, http://www.buildagreenbakery.com/, the best you come up with is Birdbath, which is an e-mail address. It's a green bakery, a bakery that is environmentally good with sustainable, biodegradable, recycled, renewable surroundings. The bakery has walls of wheat, milk-based paint and cork floors. So it's a business, it's a statement, and it's the first green bakery (and hopefully not the last).
Dara: "Can you shed some light on your goals and the statements you are making with the green bakery?"
Maury: "Easy: I didn't want City Bakery's reputation to undermine the idea behind Birdbath. If people know it is City Bakery when they walk in the door, then their perception is already largely formed. I'm not the type of business person who cares to put a 'mission statement' over our front door, but Birdbath is in fact a business with a particularly narrow 'mission.' I want people thinking about the connection between food made with environmentally-virtuous items to the built environment made of the same."
Dara: "Why the secret code word 'Birdbath'? What ecological significance does that have over possibly a name like 'earthly delights'?"
Maury: "Birdbath' begins with the letter 'B' as in 'bakery', a word I like. It was conceived as a codeword, but it has clearly already taken hold with the public. Now, the best I can do is to let that be. And finally, Orson Wells beat me to 'Rosebud'."
©Dara Bunjon, Dining Dish 2006
Photograph of Maury Rubin by Chris Callas