Chef Chat, Part 1: Roy Shvartzapel's Culinary Journey to Common Bond

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His last name may be a little challenging to pronounce correctly, but chef Roy Shvartzapel of Common Bond is practically a Houston native. After traveling the world and working in some of the most renowned restaurants, he came back home to open the wildly successful, upper-crust bakery at Westheimer and Dunlavy. I get the feeling that this guy has two or three books in him, if only he had the time to write them.

Common Bond only opened a few months ago, but it's already so popular there's an average 45-minute wait in the mornings to get in. My Facebook feed is peppered with photos of friends waving around big, crunchy, brown croissants with as much pride as if they were carrying a Louis Vuitton satchel.

This is no overnight success story. After graduating from Culinary Institute of America, Chef Roy traveled the world for years, working for some of the top chefs in the world--sometimes for months with no pay just to learn their craft. His journey has not not just been about feeling the well-heeled masses, though. He's also lived and worked in the one of the poorest areas in the world. So, besides having great culinary knowledge to share, he's accumulated some valuable perspective on life's values as well.

In part 1 of our interview, Chef Shvartzapel describes the long, star-studded culinary journey that began in Houston and took him all over the globe until he made his way back home to open Common Bond. We'll pick up the story tomorrow in Part 2 and talk about some issues of importance to us consumers, like that 45-minute wait time.

EOW: Where were you born?

RS: Israel EOW: When did you come to Houston?

RS: Two

EOW: How did you get into baking?

RS: The love affair began when I was in college. I grew up in a home where food was central to all things, which is typical in a Middle Eastern home. If you'd have asked me pre-college if I could see myself becoming a chef, you could have just as easily asked if I imagined becoming a conductor in a symphony. It was just as plausible--meaning, not plausible.

EOW: Before your freshman year in collage, what did you think you were going to do?

RS: I was going to play in the NBA. I used to play professional basketball. I'm 6'1".

EOW: So, tall enough!

RS: Tall enough... or not, because I'm doing this. (smiles)

EOW: How did you decide you wanted to be a chef? RS: It happened after I graduated. My first job in the industry was as a server at Carrabba's. That was my introduction to the non-amateur side of food. I was a great server, but the problem was that I couldn't stay out of the kitchen!

As far as places to get your feet wet go, it's a remarkable establishment. I have a deep love for Johnny and all that he does. He's been in business for 30 years and has never had a year where the previous sales were more than the current ones.

By the way, I am referring to the original two locations, not the ones owned by Outback. I'm not knocking them; I'm just saying that they're different. I wish more people were aware of that because visiting [those suburban locations] affects their judgment of the original Carrabba's. Go to the one on Kirby and let's have a chat after that.

That definitely sparked a fire in me to pursue this new hobby of mine. After I hung up the basketball shoes, like every good Jewish boy I was like "All right! Time to be a lawyer!" I realized very quickly that was not going to be my angle. If I'm not in love with what I'm doing, I'm worthless.

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EOW: How did you end up working at various high-end restaurants, like elBulli in Spain?

RS: When I got to New York after culinary school, I was determined to work at the very best places. I had a tireless work ethic. 20-hour days were commonplace for me: two jobs so I could work at a place for dishwasher money and learn from the best and then be a server somewhere else so I could pay rent to live on a sofa.

My first job in New York was at Bouley Bakery. I met a gentleman, who is now a great friend and my mentor, who was Pierre Hermé's lead chef when he opened in Paris. We met by chance on the street and I knew I had to work for him.

For the first two months they wouldn't pay me and I didn't care. Finally, they paid me $400 a week.

I met Pierre Hermé at a special dinner for Alain Ducasse. [Hermé] extended an invitation to come work in Paris. With no money in hand and credit cards in pockets, I boarded a plane. My parents helped as much as they could. I worked for Pierre Hermé for seven months. He made a call to Ferran Adrià in 2006 and I spent that season at elBulli. When I finished, I spent time in Italy with Iginio Massari. He is the Pierre Hermé of Italian pastries; the godfather amongst godfathers of pastry chefs in Italy.

I specifically went to learn about what I think is the most difficult yeasted pastry there is to make: traditional panettone. Once again, it was an opportunity to learn something the right way from the right person.

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I'm not a believer in "practice makes perfect." That's the most misused, incorrect cliché that exists. "Perfect practice makes perfect." If you do something a lot, but it's wrong, the only thing you are accomplishing is doing something really well that's wrong.

I left Italy, came back to elBulli for a stint and then accepted a job as the pastry chef at the Balthazar production facility. It was my first intro to really big production. From there, I'd had my share of New York and it was time to go to California.

Again, with not much money in-hand and no interview set up, I landed in San Francisco and checked into a hostel and started fishing. One connection led to another and I got connected to a relatively new restaurant at the time, Cyrus in Healdsburg. I could argue that Doug Keane is one of the most important figures in my career, not from a pastry perspective, but from a developmental perspective.

It was my first huge job being a pastry chef at a two-star Michelin restaurant that was fighting for three. It's hard to describe that pressure. Every day, all you're thinking is "A Michelin inspector is coming in." You're continually pushing the envelope. It's not that it wasn't that way at elBulli, but I wasn't the pastry chef there. I was being led.

EOW: Every really good chef seems to have a point where he gets his ass kicked and has some amazing growth as a result. Was that it for you?

RS: Yeah. It was a tipping point for me. It pushed me to perform, adapt and problem-solve and do it all over again all the time. It was something that I hadn't really been asked to do yet. I'd never led at that caliber. The three-and-a-half years of being on a constant three-Michelin-star quest... I [got] tired of that. I wanted to get back to "I want to make what I want to make. If people want it, they want it; if they don't, they don't." I felt I'd gotten to a level high enough that enough people would want it for what it is.

I left Cyrus and took a break. I fell in love with Northern California. It's a magical place. Then, I had opportunities to do some consulting for very large-scale industrial baking companies. It's a remarkable experience to test your talents and knowledge in an arena that is so foreign to what you're accustomed to... a place that makes 200,000 croissants a day. How do you help that kind of company improve, even a little bit?

In the span of a year, I did three consulting jobs and then was itching to get back into the arena that was near and dear to me. I had an opportunity to go to Beverly Hills and open Bouchon for Thomas Keller.

When I left culinary school, I got laughed at for saying that I was going to work with Pierre Herme, Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller. "And I'm going to buy a private jet." "But I am!" There's a part of me that says "See, told ya!" It took a very long time, but Thomas completed my Triple Crown. Those three are potentially the most transcendent people in the last 50 years of food--for Ferran, maybe the last 100.

I did a year with Thomas and then had an amazing opportunity to do one more consulting job. It was in Nairobi, Kenya and was one of the most life-changing experiences of my life. There's a company there called Nairobi Java House. It was founded by an American about 20 years ago. He has about 18 different coffee houses with a centralized baking commissary and he was looking to improve his offerings.

It's different going there to visit for a week or two than embedding yourself into the culture... to live like they live, eat with their families, go into the slums where they live and manage to [still] smile and be happy. They have 1/100th of what we have. It was so monumental in grounding me. We live in the mecca of first Western world gluttony and abundance. I'm not preaching; it's just a reality check.

I spent time in the second largest slum in the world. It's called Kibera. I went to visit the family of one of the guys who worked for me. His sister, her husband and their five children lived in a shack on mud that was about 90 square feet. We think not finding work here is an issue? It's a different stratosphere of not finding work there.

Before I left, I gave them $100 and their reaction was like if you gave someone here [in the United States] $40,000. Is it retirement money? Not even close. Do I never have to worry again? Not even close. Does it really, immensely help me out for the next year or two? Yes.

My friend told me her husband earns that in six to nine months. I spend that on cocktails some nights!

People live in Kibera with no plumbing or electricity. I went to a soccer field there and saw the happiest kids I've ever seen in my life with just one ball. One ball. 100 kids. I walk into kids' rooms here and they have so many toys there' s a storage closet for overflow.

It brought a ton of perspective to my life. I think everyone should feel what it's like to depend on someone else to help you make it because you can't. It grounds and motivates you.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our interview with one of the most extensively-traveled chefs in Houston.

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