It’s Thursday at 9PM and my day is just getting started.
In my apartment, I tie my hair back, put on my hat and wrap myself up in two sweatshirts, a coat, scarf and gloves. I am tired and all I really want to do is go to bed. Instead, I fumble clumsily with my keys, lock the door and head down six flights of stairs. I walk out, through the double doors, onto Morton Street and I am uncomfortably greeted by a burst of cold sweeping wind – the kind of wind that makes you want to crawl right back up those stairs, into bed and under the covers. Unfortunately, I cannot go home. I am off to work – this time, the night shift at Blue Ribbon Bakery.
I am not alone. There are over 2,000 bakers in NYC who, like me, are leaving the warmth of their homes – their families, their dogs, their cats, their cozy comforters – and heading out into the cold evening air to work through the night.
From across the street I recognize the red awning with the iconic Blue Ribbon logo. I open the door and peel back the red velvet curtain to a sea of candle-lit tables and waiters, bustling about, in their starched white button-down shirts. An eclectic array of forbidden flavors inhabit the corners of every tabletop. All around me are plates of pickled tongue with spicy mustard, foie gras, and whole roasted garlic that melts as it meets a slice of warm white bakery bread. The lights are dim and inviting – the kind that make you want to lean in just a little bit closer. It is, in a word, enchanting.
As I step deeper into the belly of the restaurant it becomes apparent – from the buzz of conversation, the clanking of glasses and the sighting of Will Farrell at the corner table – that this is indeed a big night. But don’t be mistaken – every night is a big night at Blue Ribbon Bakery.
There is a feeling of grandeur and indulgence inside these walls. Don’t get me wrong… This is not an exclusive club with member’s only privileges. And you will not be intimidated by its extravagance. I grew up on Wonder Bread and canned Bumble Bee tuna – and I fit right in. And, trust me, you will too. Blue Ribbon Bakery is a well blended cocktail of high class mixed with cozy comfort. One bite of the Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding with Hot Fudge and you will agree – elegance and informality sit side by side.
As our diner’s dinners are winding down, my night is just beginning. I descend the rustic wooden staircase deep below street level and enter the cavernous basement with exposed stone and brick walls. How fitting to be working in these dark and moody chambers for my graveyard shift.
Everything is rich. The textures, the deep colors, the vision of the beef marrow & red wine sauce, the aroma of freshly baked bread that funnels from the open bakery and into the upstairs dining room. Blue Ribbon Bakery is alive and I am awoken from my walking slumber with its sights, sounds and scents.
I round the brick wall and enter our bread-baking lair. I am greeted – by Marco, Raul and Caesar – as well as hundreds of loaves of bread piled high to the ceiling. Everywhere I look are wooden shelves and metal bakery racks lined with pullmans, house breads, ciabattas, challahs, pitas, pizzas and baguettes.We have breads with rosemary and olives and honey and oats. We have flax seed and 9-grain and wheat and white. And covering every crease and countertop, and blanketing every brick and stone is one essential ingredient: King Arthur Special Flour, sprinkled over everything like a dusting of new fallen snow.
The chill I feel from the wintery air quickly melts as I gaze upon the heart-throb at the center of the bakery. Along the stone wall on the west side of the bakery is the fiery mouth of the largest wood-burning oven in New York City. She stretches 16 feet in depth and 11 feet in width. This is no ordinary oven. She is a beast. In size, she’s just a few feet shy of my last studio apartment.
Not only am I no longer cold – I am in a deep sweat. The stone and brick oven rises to 600 degrees and I can feel the heat. My clothes are sticking to me and my curly hair has started to frizz. My muscles get a workout as I assist Raul in moving house breads in – and around – and out of the hot center of the oven with a large wooden paddle, or bakers peel. Raul is a master at the sport of swiftly jostling the peel just right so the bread slides off easily and quickly. As Raul and I quickly learned – I am notably less adept at this task. Like a child trying to grasp a pencil and write for the first time – I am clumsy and awkward.
Here in our bakers den there is a steady stream of movement – of constant and fluid labor – of arms and fingers performing a habitual dance in the dough. There is no rushing and no emergency – just work. But nearer to the mouth of the oven, the pace quickens. Breads that are too crisp are tossed aside, breads that are undercooked are sent back in – and I feel like I am watching a speedy game of tetris as Raul makes split second decisions and maneuvers bread in and around the expanse of the oven like a giant puzzle that only a mathematician could solve.
As with most great things in life, the oven was an accident. While looking for a site for their next restaurant, the owners unearthed a lucky treasure.
Discovered in the basement of a boarded up Bodega on Downing Street was a 135 year old beat-up brick oven. Abandoned for many years and worn down from neglect, she needed work. Inspired by the newly found oven, the idea for a restaurant – with a bakery at its center – was launched. With the help of Italian hardware, a Neapolitan master oven builder named Alfredo Agozzino and 21 months of hard labor she was reborn. Now, years later, she stands as the proud matriarch, the lifeblood and the epicenter of Blue Ribbon Bakery. An accidental discovery with profound results.
I love accidents. Mistakes and missteps are my friend. Missed appointments, lost keys and closing subway doors do me right. In a world of plans and purposefulness, with goals and hopes – sometimes life’s unexpected interruption is your best bet. My life is filled with great jobs I didn’t plan for and wonderful people I didn’t expect to meet. And I like it that way. When one subway door closes – I figure the next train is meant to be.
The oven at Blue Ribbon Bakery was originally used, in the late 1800′s, as a communal oven for the neighborhood. Villagers would bring their weekly supply of foodstuffs – and soon strangers and acquaintances became friends and family as they shared ingredients, shared recipes and shared their day. The oven was the focal point of the neighborhood, as Blue Ribbon Bakery is today.
As I am rolling out a series of baguettes, I think about the idea of finding something so special – that we decide to build our lives around it – a career, a child, a city, an oven. And whatever it may be that you decide to center your life around – whatever your focal point is – the important questions are these: Does it give you heat, does it warm you and does it get you hot?
I live in Greenwich Village. I work in Greenwich Village. And I play in Greenwich Village. There is nowhere else I would rather be. Over 35 years ago, my father had a mail delivery route at the Sheridan Square Post Office and he would deliver parcel post packages to apartments and businesses in this part of town. My grandfather spent his days and nights in a small but well stocked Army Navy store in Chelsea – only 10 blocks northwest of here. I have built my life, as my family has for generations, around a series of shops and restaurants and people within a 4 block radius of my front door. That thought warms me – almost as much as the oven does.
In the corner of the bakery I help Marco and Caesar mix the ingredients in a very large and very powerful mechanized mixer. Marco is the leader here and Caesar, the quiet one. Together they are a nice balance. About 200 pounds of dough is mixed and Caesar begins section off the dough with a bench scraper. Each dough section is tossed on the wooden table for Marco and I to roll out – round pitas and pizza crusts, rectangle pullmans with oats on top, mini banana breads and a beautifully braided challah. A pinch at the end – a braid through the middle – a pinch again – and a challah is born. But the more pitas we roll and the more challah we braid, – the more dough comes our way. We chat to keep awake and, in broken English, Marco tells me stories of his life here in America. He asks if I am married and he wonders what I am doing out – making bread – so late at night. Sometimes I wonder too.
As the clock strikes twelve the house lights pop up, the diners go home and the real party begins. The buzz of the restaurant simmers to a low boil as waiters and busboys begin cleaning and closing up shop . But our night is just beginning. The bakery is alive with activity. It almost feels like a disco or night club. In every corner there is movement: Bread being mixed, cut, rolled, and moving quickly, in and out of the oven - each loaf conveniently placed and perfectly timed. It’s like a night club in here – and therefore, in that spirit, we must we dance.
Raul raises the music. The song on the radio is “I know you want me” by Pitbull. And among the ciabattas and the baguettes and the flour, water, salt and yeast – Raul spins me – and we dance a quick dance to liven the mood and perk up our tired eyes. It’s late at night and I am exhausted – but these guys still have smiles on their faces and a dance in their step – as they work. Listen for yourself.
For so many of us, work is a mundane and monotonous task that we do unwillingly and unhappily. For my bread baking buddies who all hail from Ecuador, work is about willingness and desire. It is – as Marco tells me – about the American Dream. It is about joy and enthusiasm. And it is about the dance.
After a heathy dose of dancing and dough, I crawl upstairs and out of our bread baking den – aching feet, aching back, aching wrists from hours of standing, leaning and rolling. It is 3:30AM and the diners have all gone home to slumber. The waiters, bartenders and busboys have too. Out the window I see one lone taxicab racing down an otherwise empty street. Inside the chairs are artfully stacked in a criss-cross pattern and our just-baked breads are packaged and ready for their morning deliveries. The air is much cooler up here and I sit and quietly contemplate.
While the rest of New York slept – I baked. I am covered – from head to toe – in sweat, sore muscles and a little bit of King Arthur Special Flour. I am also filled with a certain pride and pleasure. I worked hard. Physically hard – possibly harder than I have ever in the past. Bread baking is back-breaking work. And I feel as if something very special has taken place deep in the dark of the night underneath this fair city. We danced and we laughed – and we made bread. Simple things, really.
Until tonight I had not given a care or a thought to the bread that sits on top and bottom of my italian sandwich or the ciabatta that is layered above and below my fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil. It hadn’t crossed my mind that someone else had to labor deep into the night – just so my morning bagel would be fresh.
(Another 30 Rock tribute to food. After you’ve watched it: click “Continue” and then “Pause” – these clips tend to run on for some reason.)
It is 4AM and my day is nearly done. I walk home on a deserted street and enjoy the cool refreshing air. A deep and well deserved sleep awaits. As I round my corner I can smell that familiar yeasty smell in the air and I know – someone else is hard at work baking in the night. And tomorrow, when I finally roll out of bed and order my morning croissant, or my afternoon sandwich or my evening baguette – I will give a little thought to my friends Raul, Marco & Caesar. And for you, I hope you drop by Blue Ribbon Bakery on the corner of Bedford & Downing – head downstairs, say hello, watch them craft your bread – and stay for a dance.