NEW YORK — All Adir Michaeli asks when you come into his newly opened bakery on the Lower East Side is that you trust him.
“Take the ugly one,” he often advises customers who find themselves in front of the pile of chocolate rugelach sitting behind the glass at the main counter, trying to carefully select their treat. “The brown one means that it’s baked all the way, but the one that’s falling apart in some places means that you’re gonna have nice chunks of chocolate,” he explains.
Michaeli Bakery, which opened last month, is undeniably Israeli. If the Hebrew-language hits blasting on the stereo don’t give it away, the comforting smell of freshly baked challah and warm burekas will: This could be any Tel Aviv bakery on a Friday morning.
The space itself is modest: long and narrow, with walls covered in rectangular white tiles. A simple thin wooden bar and some high stools line up the sides and a series of potted plants sit on a shelf above.
On the counter, there are many more goodies beside the rugelach: braided chocolate babkas leaning in a row against the back wall, classic South American alfajores loved by Israelis, Moroccan sfenj doughnuts – labeled here as a vegan, to fit better into the New York food jargon – and perhaps most importantly, the burekas – cheese, potato, spinach and even a rolled pizza-flavored kind, one of Michaeli’s personal favorites.
“The pizza bureka is something that I knew I had to bring here, because it’s combining our bureka and their pizza and it may expose [the American public] to the rest of our burekas, they will trust me more,” he says.
The escargot-shaped pastry is filled with a homemade, rich tomato sauce, olive tapenade, feta and gouda cheese. Michaeli only serves it warm, like a fresh slice of pizza. Eating it cold, he says, is completely unacceptable and ruins the experience. “When people order, I don’t even ask. I just say, ‘OK, give me two minutes,’ and I warm it up,” he explains as he shows off his creations on the counter, which he says are “like my children.”
Baking was a natural fit for Michaeli. After he finished his military service in Israel, the Holon native knew his energetic personality was not a good fit for a desk job and decided to take a course on baking. “I have attention deficit disorder, I am aware of this,” he says. “I have to do something that’s good for me.”
He soon became fascinated with the chemistry behind baking – temperature, hydration, timing – the science of it is what he likes best. “Taking a raw material and transforming it into a product, you need to give it your own touch, you need to understand the raw materials, the interaction between them, and make adjustments,” he says.
After running the pastry operations at the famous Lehamim bakery in Tel Aviv, he moved to New York in 2013 to oversee the opening of its first branch abroad, known here as Breads Bakery. Several other locations have opened since then and it has become a real institution, famous for its chocolate babka.
“I am someone who needs a lot of action,” says Michaeli. “I thrive under pressure, with crazy challenges. I realized this during the peak of the holidays at Lehamim in Israel. The more action, the more balagan, chaos and the more things happen at the same time, [the more] that’s completely me, that’s when I’m at my best.”
A taste of success
Michaeli Bakery, his first solo endeavor, is located on the edge of Chinatown and isn’t chaotic just yet, although he is cautiously optimistic. Michaeli recently got a taste of what high demand looks like when a critic for the publication Food52 unexpectedly fell in love with his take on the classic European kugelhopf – a yeast bread with raisins – and deemed it “the best snack in New York.”
“I didn’t think it would come to such a high,” he admits. “There is no chocolate in it.”
Although the kugelhopf is a classic in the pastry world, and Michaeli admits that “touching a classic is a bit sensitive,” his Israeli chutzpah pushed him to modify it. “I think [the original] is a bit boring,” he ventures.
After “playing with the dough” and trying out some processes that were “borderline against logic,” Michaeli’s kugelhopf was born.
“You want to try it?” he asks, getting up from his chair with enthusiasm. Less than a minute later, he comes back with the crown-shaped pastry in a small metal tray lined with parchment paper. From the outside, it looks firm, almost like a rock, with its rough sugar crust. But once it’s ripped apart, it reveals a soft buttery belly exuding flavors of citrus zest, almonds and raisins.
“People ask, ‘What is this? What’s in it?’ and I say, ‘Just try it. ... Trust me, if it’s not good, I’ll give it to you for free,” he says. “It’s very hard to describe [the kugelhopf] if you don’t taste it. It’s the kind of thing that you bite into and it comes to you later that there is something good in this.”
Jewish or Israeli?
Israeli food and pastries have gained popularity in the Big Apple over the last few years. But even before this trend, New Yorkers were already intimately familiar with Jewish delis and bakeries. Long-standing places such as Moishe’s Bake Shop and Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery on the Lower East Side are considered city landmarks. However, food writer and entrepreneur Jeffrey Yoskowitz explains that what New Yorkers have always known as Jewish bakeries are in fact Ashkenazi, or Eastern European-style bakeries.
“When people talk about New York Jewish food, they talk about Ashkenazi Jewish food,” he says. “That’s partly because a majority of American Jews are Ashkenazi, that’s partly because there is a Eurocentrism.”
In that sense, he adds, there is a big difference between the traditional Jewish bakeries and Israeli bakeries such as Breads and Michaeli’s. “What’s interesting about Israeli bakeries is that they take from all over the diaspora,” says Yoskowitz. “Burekas have origins in Turkey and Greece, they have a Mediterranean origin. You’ll often find things from Yemen, treats from the Middle East.”
“In Ashkenazi bakeries, you have baked goods that often pull from very specific regions of Europe: If it’s more of a Yiddish bakery, you’ll tend to have mostly Polish, Ukrainian, Russian kinds of treats; if it’s more of a German-style Yekke bakery, you’ll have more strudels, more kind of German, Austro-Hungarian Empire treats,” he explains. “Often there is a mixture of all of those together. They tell a story of Old World Europe and the story of immigration in the U.S.”
A risky business
After the kugelhopf review, Michaeli Bakery experienced a buzz: People came asking for “the best snack in New York” and they sold like hotcakes – until they ran out. But the craze was short-lived, and Michaeli knows it will take time to build a name for himself in the neighborhood and get a routine going for his business. “The most important thing for me is that people know we are here,” he says. “Most of the neighborhood still doesn’t know we exist.”
After he stopped working at Breads three years ago, Michaeli knew he wanted to open his own place. At first, the plan was to do that in Tel Aviv, but he ultimately decided to stay in New York. “Opening a full production bakery in a place like this, with a certain budget, is not easy at all and it’s dangerous,” he says. “In general, to start a food business in a place like Manhattan you need a very strong financial backbone. I did it without having one, and I still have a lot of work left.”
“It’s not simple at all,” he adds. “I barely sleep and do most of it myself. The beginning is the hardest part of anything that can happen in this process.” The pressure is certainly on, but one source of relief is his business partner, Anat Sror, the Israeli owner of a local catering company and cafe a short walk from Michaeli’s. “Without her, I wouldn’t do this,” he says. Michaeli provides Sror’s business with pastries weekly, which is helping the business establish a stable foundation.
Leaving the comfort zone
Leaving a well-oiled machine like Breads to leap into the almost unknown required a lot of “calculations”, Michaeli says. “Breads was a sort of comfort zone, for sure. But the challenge attracts me more than anything.”
There is no denying that Breads has become synonymous with babka in the city over the past six years. The Israeli spot comes up in any Google search for “Best babka in NYC.” Grub Street, New York Magazine’s food blog, even called its babka “the absolute best.”
Yoskowitz, who co-authored the cookbook “The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods,” says that Israeli bakeries have had some influence on the New York food scene in recent years. “I feel confident in saying that [Breads] is the first [Israeli bakery] to make a huge impact, without a doubt.”
“It’s the experience of being in Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem and going to places like Marzipan,” he says, referring to a rugelach hot spot in the market. “American Jews would come back from these places and so you find that even the kind of Israeli-style Jewish pastries that have come originally from Eastern Europe came by way of Israel now to the U.S., to Jewish bakeries. But Breads really took it to another level.”
Although many have attempted to label him a rival of Breads, Michaeli wants to do away with that idea. “I came here with Breads, it’s a part of me, how can I be their competition?” he asks. “And some of these pastries that have become very popular there, like the babka and the rugelach, are things that I developed myself, so why should I compete with myself?”
“The [Breads’] babka had such a crazy take-off here because of the huge gap between it and the babka that [Americans] knew before: It was more like a challah with a cocoa swirl,” he says. Since his babka is more similar to Breads’ than the standard American variety, he says people can’t help but compare. “But I try to explain that this is Israeli culture,” he says. “In Israel, there are even more of these. I want to reinforce [Americans’ taste for these pastries], not go against it.”
Yoskowitz, who is currently in the middle of a food and heritage tour through Eastern Europe, agrees that Israeli and traditional New York Jewish babkas are very different pastries. “[Israelis] use a laminated dough, which some people may say adds a level of sophistication to it,” he says. “Others might say it is unfair that they added all that butter and made it more tasty.”
“The Israeli-style rugelach, too, are more [similar to] these yeast pastries as opposed to a more cream cheese-y, yeast-free dough, and so these familiar baked goods are also a little bit different,” Yoskowitz says, adding that it probably adds to the popularity of Israeli baked goods.
Minus the baggage
Beyond this, Michaeli believes that “Israeli flavors” are more than welcome in New York, a sort of “kibbutz of cultures and flavors,” as he calls it. “I want to give [the American public] the things that we love most,” the baker says with a smile. “I think there is a place for a lot more of this – and all over the U.S.”
“I think [Americans] like the kick we put in our food, that we are not afraid of daring, on the savory side or in sweeter things like rugelach,” he says. “When they bite into the feta burekitas, it’s salty for them, but they love it.”
Although knowing the basic rules of baking is a must, Michaeli says that with enough experience, great things can come out of breaking the mold and even purposely “ruining” a product. “There is the book, and there is us,” he tells Haaretz. “I think that’s the Israeli aspect. We’re more daring and you know what? Even the customers contribute to that, because Israelis love to give you criticism.”
Michaeli says that more than once he has changed and tweaked recipes after Israeli customers gave him some unsolicited advice. “It upgrades us and makes us improve all the time and fast,” he says.
Although he believes “no one has the full answer” as to why Israeli food and baked goods are so well received in the U.S., Yoskowitz says that some of it has to do with what Israel itself represents: novelty.
“The Jewish bakeries here ... have so much history packed in, and everything has to be done in deference to that tradition, so a Jewish bakery has a typical smell and feel to it in New York and if you depart from that, people get upset.” he explains. “In an Israeli bakery, you can serve some of the same baked goods but you can do them in this cleaner, newer, simpler way, without all that baggage.”
Yoskowitz believes that presenting Jewish classics anew is what Israeli bakeries like Michaeli’s have going on for them. “[Israeli bakeries like Breads] are serving people things that they love but giving them a new way of engaging with it, in a way that releases them from the burden of all of that history,” he says. “It also helps that their stuff is really good and really high quality.”
“There are a lot of great Jewish bakeries, but there are also a lot of bakeries that have gone downhill over the years, or that have closed, and a lot of people were getting their babkas from these places that bake them in huge batches and they shelf them in bags for five or six days – it means you’re not getting them fresh,” Yoskowitz says. “So that same feeling you get in Mahane Yehuda, in the market, you can now get right off of Union Square.”
Although he is positive that he isn’t trying to change the local culture, Michaeli wants to bring a piece of Israeli living to the Lower East Side: perhaps developing the Israeli habit of “running downstairs just to get something from the bakery” or spreading his love for burekas around the Big Apple, a mission he has vowed to take on. “‘Till now, Americans haven’t fully embraced burekas, and I would love for that to happen,” he says.
“I actually think it’s a great idea to go all in on burekas,” Yoskowitz weighs in. “They are so good, people should know about them.” So why haven’t burekas made it in the New York yet, the way babka has? “Maybe there hasn’t been yet someone who’s said, ‘I wanna make burekas a thing,’ and maybe it takes someone of influence to make that case, the way Breads has done with babka already six years ago,” Yoskowitz says.
“Any American that eats burekas loves them,” he adds. “They are delicious. I can easily imagine burekas being the next thing.”