At noon during a busy Wednesday lunch hour, a snail-like line of preschoolers were putting on their plastic “bakers” caps, covering their heads before getting a behind-the-scenes look at Breads Bakery. This was the third school tour at the New York City bakery on this chilly, wintery day. The open-door policy and warmth of Breads Bakery makes sense once you meet the Israeli owners, Gadi Peleg and Uri Scheft.
Scheft is a Danish-Israeli pastry chef and owner of three Lehamin (meaning “breads” in Hebrew) Bakery locations in Tel Aviv, Israel. Scheft was “lured”—their words not mine—by Peleg to open Breads Bakery flagship Manhattan bakery/cafe. After a year and half of location scouting, according to Scheft, Breads Bakery finally opened its Union Square doors just a little over a year ago.
Scheft’s journey to the art of pastry began with growing up with the hearty Scandinavian breads and pastries from his Danish heritage. Both his parents are Jewish immigrants to Israel from Denmark. Born in Israel in 1962, Scheft often visited his extended family in Denmark while growing up.
Fast forward…with a degree in biology and, as many Israeli young adults do, a rite of passage journey to India, and Scheft found himself landing in pastry school in Denmark. Thirteen years ago, he opened Lehamin Bakery.
Today, Breads Bakery is particularly famed for its chocolate and Nutella babka and rugelach, but there is more to it than these two celebrated Eastern European, Jewish bread and pastry. The excellent sweet and savory pastries and breads keep the locals and tourists, like me, alike coming back. With a turnover this high it explains the abundance of pastries and breads you see as you enter.
I’ve been hypnotized time and time again, over the years, watching videos and seeing photos of Scheft’s challah making online. The challah dough so pliable and smooth, the work space spotless and the chef’s technique immaculate. The addictive olive straws, or bread sticks, I even baked myself in the past and inhaled as soon as they came out of the oven, piping hot.
The almond croissant is a must-have…a flaky pastry filled with spot-on marzipan almond paste. I love having cheese or cheese and spinach burekas with a cup of soup for lunch at the café while the muesli bread reminiscent of everything Scandinavian is probably my most recent favorite.
Scheft commented on the challenges of surrounding yourself with the right staff when opening a new place, saying, “The art is not only in the bread-making, but also in fostering freedom of creativity in your employees.” The retention rate of a well trained staff at Scheft’s bakeries/cafes is high due to this very philosophy.
He introduced me to the manager at Breads Bakery and a pastry chef who was working on what looked like a gigantic, heart-shaped Linzer cookie for Valentine’s Day. Both are trusted employees he brought with him from in Israel to help him open and run Breads Bakery in the US.
While I was getting a behind the scenes look at Breads Bakery, Scheft was working on a new oat honey bread inspired by tastes and aromas of his childhood and Danish roots. The base to this bread was an oat porridge. His movements in the kitchen were so intuitive and fluid. His baking came with such ease. Only the confidence that a wealth of experience can permit. The new oat honey dough was so supple that I can only imagine the flavor and texture baked right out of the oven a few hours later.
When I asked the very personable Peleg about plans for an expansion to DC (a girl can hope), he responded, “I love DC, Bethesda and the neighborhoods in the area, but not in the plans for now.” Peleg stayed mum about a second location of this NYC meets TLV bakery/cafe in a neighborhood nearby in Manhattan.
I bet there is more to come from this Peleg-Scheft Israeli duo, in addition to the translated-into-English edition of the Breads Bakery cookbook, so stay tuned.
Meanwhile, I can imagine the many kindergartners that marched in and out of Breads Bakery on a field trip since my last visit there, with snow melting from the soles of their little feet and plastic caps on, with anticipation of seeing how bread is made. Getting a glimpse, just as we did, behind the scenes.
Breads Bakery, 18 East 16th Street, Union Square, NYC. Phone: 212-633-2253. Hours: Monday-Friday 6:30 am-9:00 pm, Saturday 6:30 am-8:00 pm, Sunday 7:30 am-8:00 pm.
Photo credit: Shulie Madnick