Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Back to Chocolate: The Maury Rubin Interview, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I cornered Maury Rubin, owner of the City Bakery and the half dozen Birdbath locations in New York City, in his "chocolate room." We were interrupted a few times by customers, employees, and even a poet named Kyle Erickson (to whom I described Maury as "a businessman baker and a gentleman farmer). But Maury did return, and we talked about what food-informed New Yorkers knew about chocolate a decade ago, and what they know today.

Port Hot Chocolate--2013 festival finale
Emily: I’m going to turn the tape recorder on again and ask Maury about… this Chocolate Room. What did your customers know about chocolate in 2001 when they first laid eyes on this spot?

Maury: There was a very different basis of knowledge in 2001, for chocolate.  “Semi-sweet,” for example, was a very commonly used phrase.  Fast-forward 10-12 years. I’m not sure that that phrase even exists anymore in New York City, or that it's not a misdemeanor charge to actually use it in public. The notion of 60%, 65%, bitter chocolate: that was not anything anybody really talked about.  It's like the difference between Ernest and Julio Gallo wine and a specific vintage from Chateaux Margaux. Chocolate was chocolate, and it was essentially a commodity, and there wasn’t anything about its pedigree that people broke down and analyzed or preferred.

E: So what were you selling at the time?

M: I was using Valrhona, and I was using a range of different blends of Valrhona. We were serving great stuff, both in baked goods and as our hot chocolate.

And then in here, you sold…

Well the Chocolate Room was always a collection of, you know, other people who made packaged chocolates, truffles, or bar chocolates. It’s a little bit of an accident relative to the total City Bakery experience, more than it’s an integral part.

So why bring in the artisans that nobody had heard of?

Well, we want to keep up. I think that what City Bakery has done since it started was to be on the curve, on the edge of the curve. What’s new in a category like chocolate is certainly relevant to what we do at City Bakery.

So what’s new right now in the chocolate closet is Fruition, which is from upstate New York. For a long time you've carried Chocolat Moderne, which is down the street.

She came to me and she said—her name is Joan Coukos—she was thinking about opening up a chocolate company and could I talk to her about the business. And a couple of months later she brought me some chocolates that I thought were off-the-charts fabulous.  And that’s a good example of how there was talent out there lying in wait and…

So it’s a community thing.

Partially, yeah.

Alright.  And the rest of this closet is Askinosie and Nuno from Brooklyn, and Taza, a company sort of going back to chocolate’s roots. But why chocolate?  You could have a cheese closet.

That’s true, but I’m a baker.

Maury Rubin

You’re also a macaroni and cheese maker. We haven't even talked about when you started doing the mac and cheese but…


Ok, so when you moved here.  I'm going to make one of those James Lipton sycophantic comments—it’s sort of phenomenal, right?  The idea that you take this familiar food and you use artisan products to make it.  It’s probably smart in a whole bunch of ways, but it was definitely new, definitely beyond the mozzarella-and-tomato and tuna salad, moving into this hearty, wholesome, artisanal comfort food.  Now, fast-forward 12 years and there’s a proliferation of shops that are dedicated to either hot chocolate or mac and cheese in this city. So, as a member of the mac-and-cheese and hot chocolate community, tell me, what do you think they're doing right and what are they doing wrong?

(Clears his throat.) You ask the tough ones, Emily Stone. You know what, probably half of them are doing a bunch of things really right, and half of them not so much.  On the chocolate side, on the hot chocolate side, I’ve actually been amazed at how much terrible hot chocolate there remains, from a great number of people, because that just seems to me sort of incomprehensible.

And what makes it terrible?

You should ask them.  There’s a thousand ways, there are just people who…

But it’s not hard to make good hot chocolate…

Well, clearly it is… It should not be hard to make great hot chocolate and the number of… the odds that you walk into a place in New York City and get a pedestrian--or less than pedestrian--cup of hot chocolate remain way too high.

I guess it's also not hard to make bad hot chocolate. But yours is a little bit different from what might be the standard two-ingredient hot chocolate.  It’s thicker. And it’s a little bit on the sweet side.  But what makes it thick?

Chocolate.  Mostly chocolate.

About how many ingredients are in the recipe?

It’s a secret.

Is it more than three?

It’s a secret.

You can’t tell me if it’s more than three ingredients?

(Shakes his head.)

You give tough answers.  We’re about to finish up and you’re going to get back to what you were doing when I came in. Earlier, you asked me to ask you what you're doing today, so what are you doing today?

What am I doing today? A little bit of everything.  I just keep the place on its toes.  The kitchen, the counter, and running the company at the same time...

Which now includes about six sort of, well, the Birdbath is something else. How is a Birdbath different from City Bakery?

Birdbath is different from City Bakery foremost because it’s a tiny, tiny version physically. The City Bakery is nearly 4000 square feet of counters and food and people and tables and chairs. Birdbath is literally 10% of that, so 400 square feet is the average size. It’s just a tiny version of City Bakery and just everything scales down from there. The menu options are much fewer.  And everything about it’s operation, everything about the way it functions, from how we build it, what it looks like, how we get the food there, how we heat and cool it, how we throw the garbage away--everything about what makes it run every day is conceived through the lens of what’s sustainable.

So in this instance, Birdbath is more of a response to the greening of American food than an instigator?

No, it’s somewhere in between.  Birdbath wants to be an instigator of a new business model. I like that word--thank you very much.

You’re very welcome.


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