On Tuesday at 6:30 a.m., there was already a line of people waiting to get in. It wasn't a rowdy crowd who'd been camped out all night like the folks who brave the elements and each other to get their grubby hands on flat screen TVs on Black Friday. There weren't any flat screen TVs for sale inside anyway.
No, this crowd had gathered for something else: Pastries.
Tuesday was opening day for Common Bond, the long-awaited bakery helmed by pastry chef Roy Shvartzapel, who honed his craft at some of the best restaurants around the world including El Bulli in Spain and Balthazar and Bouley in New York City. He's gathered a team of equally talented individuals from restaurants around the country with the goal of creating the best bakery in the America.
At least, that's what he told CultureMap back in November, in a quote that he's since gotten a lot of flack for. Who is this guy, coming back here from New York with the aim of taking Houston by storm?
I sat down with Shvartzapel and his wife, Tali, to find out.
Oh, and I also ate some chocolate chip cookies. I haven't had chocolate chip cookies all over America, so I can't definitively say that they're the best. But they are pretty damn good.
Explain to me the philosophy "Only for all." The slogan comes from the idea that we're creating exceptional products that are within their class aiming to be the best at a price point that is approachable, as opposed to best in class restaurant experiences can be $200-300 a head easily. Casual concept, approachable price points for best in class products.
Why did you want to build this concept in Houston? There are quite a few reasons I wanted to come to Houston, aside from the obvious that we're all from here. For me, if you'd have asked me years ago was Houston on the horizon, I would have said no. But then, coming back and seeing how the food scene has transformed, it became something that I found interesting from an entry to the market perspective. Doing something like this as a pilot concept in a city where nothing like this exists is probably an easier task than doing your first pilot concept in New York or San Francisco. Not that it couldn't work there, but the barrier to entry is certainly different there than it is here.
Why do you think now is a good time for this business in Houston? What changed since you last examined it and found it lacking? The food identity of the city has completely changed from being identified as a steakhouse, generic restaurant city to now there are handfuls of chef-driven, chef-owned restaurants and food concepts. That did not used to exist here. It's young and it's changing.
How did you assemble your team? I don't know.
Magic? It just fell into place. It started out as just wanting to get one person, and one turned into two, turned into four, turned into six. I don't know. I wish I had a very clear answer and was able to say that I had this methodical plan, but I really didn't. It just happened.
Did people approach you and ask about the business? I kept in touch, so a lot of them are not only former coworkers but great friends. It was "Hey what are you up to? What are you doing? I know you've never been to Texas...What do you think?" "I'm game." I wish it was more complicated than that, but that's really how it happened.
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Now, I've heard that you've picked up some people who were already here working in Houston. There's been talk that not every chef in town is happy about that...I know it's kind of an awkward question, but I have to ask. I can certainly comment. I have an opinion about opinions: They're free, and everyone can have them. But that said, a lot of it is hearsay. The assumption is that I went out to seek employees. I actually -- from the moment this began as an idea -- I didn't seek out one person other than my core group from New York and California. Not one. Everyone who had a job in Houston and is now employed here knocked on my door. Without naming names, I'm a business owner just like them. Someone knocks on my door and wants a job and their qualified, what am I supposed to say? Oh, you've had a job before? Sorry, we're not going to hire you. I don't know how else it's supposed to work.
Seth at The Pass and Provisions is a close friend of mine. Because I have a personal relationship with him, when his bread baker reached out to me, I called him and was like, "Hey I just want you to know, one of your employees reached out, and she's very interested in working here, but I do not want to engage if it's an issue." But the other people in town, who I have zero relationships with -- if somebody shows up at my door and wants a job, and they're qualified... And I always find it interesting when people have opinions about a person they haven't even met.
I also heard that you had a quote about trying to make the best bakery in the country that people just took totally out of context. It was in answer to the question "What is the goal?" And that's the goal!
Isn't that always the goal? Apparently not! It is for me. That's a bothersome thing for some people to hear--that I wake up every day and my goal is to be the best.
Why did you decide to do savory lunch and dinner items here in addition to desserts and pastries? To have a well-rounded offering. I wanted to give people a reason to come have lunch, come have breakfast. It's my idea of what a true cafe should be as it is in most of Europe. It's a place with well-rounded offerings in a casual, upbeat atmosphere.
Is there a particular dessert or pastry here that you're most proud of? I have a particular fanaticism toward the plain croissant.
Why is that? It's the most difficult to master. There are many, many layers of intricate steps. If you stumble in any of them, it will show up in the final product.
Are you happy with the final product? There are days.
Why do you like pastry as opposed to charcuterie or vegetable-centric cooking? I love food in general. I love to cook. But in terms of my cadence as a human being, I love precision. Love precision. On a day-to-day basis, I like to weigh and measure and be very exact.
Yeah, you can't just throw stuff together with baking. I've tried. It does not work. You can't just do a pinch of yeast.
How do you think Common Bond differs from other pastry shops or cafes in Houston? That's a hard question. I don't really know of others like this. I haven't been here in a long time, so I don't really know what's here. If you know a shop I need to visit, I'd love to.
Shvartzapel's wife chimed in. But I also think his philosophy is less about his relationship to other people, but just accepting his own standards and living up to that.
You sort of already touched on this, but what do you hope for the future of Common Bond? I think you know that answer.
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