While sitting in his eponymous new Israeli-style bakery, 35-year-old baking guru Adir Michaeli paints a picture: It’s Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv, and your Jewish mom is cooking for tonight’s Sabbath dinner. Aromas emanating from a rainbow of stews, rice dishes, pot roasts, schnitzels, and kugels waft through the air as you get back from school, starving. “Don’t touch anything! It’s for tonight!” screams mom as you’re reaching for a meatball. “Go downstairs and get something,” she says. So you walk into your neighborhood bakery and are welcomed by the slew of women buying challah and kids looking for something as sweet-smelling and delicious as the food they just noticed in their own kitchens—albeit not off-limits. Enter the bureka, a baked pastry filled with potatoes or spinach or even served plain, warm and moist, that’s a cornerstone of Israeli cuisine and is the exact kind of fare that Michaeli is looking to serve at Michaeli Bakery on Division Street in New York City. At first glance it’s an odd location but one that ends up serving his ultimate goal: to provide food to people who have yet to discover the power of a neighborhood patisserie.
“[This] neighborhood didn’t have a real, classic bakery close by, and this was something that I wanted to do,” Michaeli says while sitting in the narrow store filled with plants, an open kitchen, white countertops, and six stools. “It’s very nice to go downstairs for a few minutes to grab something or on the way from work to pick up some items for the kids.”
Let’s start with the basics, which I’ve attempted to stay away from until now, given Michaeli’s own disposition: The baker is the genius behind the chocolate babka cake served at Manhattan’s Breads Bakery, which revolutionized the local culinary scene and was, arguably, one of the first-ever desserts to “go viral” on social media. Moving to New York from his hometown in Tel Aviv back in 2013 to open the American version of Mafiat Lehamim (which translates from Hebrew to English as “bakery of breads”), Michaeli spent over five years at what is now a New York staple, helping propel the venue to success in large part thanks to his own sweet invention.
But the baker doesn’t want to talk about Breads—and it’s not because of any sort of animosity. On the contrary, Michaeli left what he calls his “home” (he still uses the pronoun “we” when discussing Breads) under great auspices and calls his new shop “second” to Breads’ “first.” (“[It’s] mathematics, it’s very basic: We are the second, they are the first,” Michaeli explains.) But Michaeli says he feels Manhattan is owed something new and different.
That’s not because the babka shouldn’t reign supreme. Michaeli also serves the sweet cake at Michaeli Bakery, although Michaeli says he prefers “this not be what’s flashing in my bakery. I really like the fact that this was in Breads, and it should stay there as their thing.” Rather, Michaeli thinks the scene is ripe for the sorts of flavors that could tickle American palates.
But Michaeli is quick to note that he’s dealing in Israeli products and not Jewish ones, as plenty of publications have inaccurately labeled his offerings. “Tradition has nothing to do with religion,” he says, explaining that there really isn’t such a thing as a “Jewish” baked good.
Michaeli’s drive to be more than a one-hit wonder is palpable, especially when considering his devotion to turning the bakery into a viable business independent from the level of “viralism” of his creations. Nowhere is this approach more apparent than in his decision to delay the release of what he’s sure will be a delicious, revolutionary product until the fall. “I really wanted the bakery to be respected and beloved for itself, without any buzz,” Michaeli says, echoing his feelings about his connection to the chocolate babka: He wants patrons to walk in not knowing much about him. “Because if the product is good, and it is good in my opinion, I don’t want to mix it with some PR buzz, especially in the Instagram era.”
But curious minds wander, especially after tasting a roster of sweets now available at the eatery. The mere thought of a product even more delectable and so good it needs to be kept a secret is mind-boggling. The baker is intransigent, though, and reveals only that the delicacy will be “fresh every few minutes,” has chocolate and “very popular components” inside, and will awaken senses not just through taste but also touch. Basically, a gastronomic utopia is about to bombard New York City.
For now, though, New Yorkers will have to do with Michaeli’s current offerings. Among them: an extraordinary kugelhopf (“something between a super-light brioche and a very rich cake”) that begs to be devoured, rugelach cookies drenched in chocolate (in a good way), and three types of burekas, savory stuffed pastries. The bakery also serves apple pies as well as chocolate and almond croissants, which seem to strike far from the ethnic concept he’s inviting people to enjoy. “Some products are classic and are related to the concept of the bakery in general,” Michaeli explains. “Especially when you’re not in your own country, you have to present something that there’s a request for. That’s the basis of good business. Then, when the customer trusts you with what he likes, I believe they’ll be much more open to try something crazier.”
Michaeli also points out the supremacy of certain classic American goods. “The American chocolate chip cookie is the best I’ve ever tasted. Because [Americans] don’t care: They put chocolate, sugar, peanut butter.” His vision of what’s right within the U.S. ecosystem of pastries gets the Israeli treatment with his yet-to-be-released (but not secret) Fun Cake: “It’s a cheesecake, kind of Ben & Jerry’s–style. I put all the good stuff inside.”
The shattering of pre-established methods is the driving madness behind Michaeli’s genius. When asked to compare the American way with Israelis’ behavior toward food, Michaeli says that in his hometown “everybody has an opinion” and that has “helped shape our taste.”
“We put the book aside, we put aside all the professional traditional processes of the French [so] you have this foundation to deviate after,” Michaeli continues. “I respect [the French way], but in the last term of my career, I started deviating.”
So why not follow through with his original plans of opening up shop in Tel Aviv? “There are plenty of bakeries with concepts similar to this in Israel and, during my stay here, I got to know the city, the American shopping and food habits,” Michaeli says. “I really feel there is plenty of space still for the Israeli flavor and touch.”
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