A 95 Year-Old Starter gets a Fresh Start at Orwasher’s Bakery
“People hate change. We get complaints from our oldest customers that it’s not as good as the old Orwasher’s, but then they’ll keep coming back once or twice a week.” Keith Cohen, owner of Orwasher’s Bakery since August 2007, is a man who understands the delicate process of change.
Running New York’s oldest bread bakery means evolving alongside New Yorkers while keeping the legacy of an Upper East Side institution alive. “We’ve been able to attract new customers without disenfranchising longtime customers,” Cohen reflects.
When Abraham Orwasher opened the eponymous bakery in 1916, Yorkville was an enclave of German, Czechoslovakian, and Hungarian families. A Hungarian immigrant himself, Orwasher lived in a small apartment in the back of the bakery and baked in the basement. Along with a small staff, Orwasher would tend to the flour-water-salt-based starter and bake loaves of bread and rolls in a coal-fired brick oven below 78th Street. He became famous for the Eastern European, or Jewish style, loaves like pumpernickel, rye, cinnamon raisin and challah he baked for both neighborhood regulars and wholesale customers.
Abraham’s son Louis eventually took over the business, keeping the handmade starter alive in the midst of the white bread factory boom of the 1950’s. When third generation-owner Abram was ready to pass the seed on to a set of hands outside the family name in 2007, it was Cohen’s turn to knead the Orwasher dough. Coming from Tribeca Oven, Cohen was excited to take over a legendary bakery. He was intent on keeping the old Orwasher’s alive while renewing it with a fresh, creative touch.
Cohen looked for ways to innovate with respect to Orwasher’s long history, and in 2009 he brought Artisan Wine Breads to Orwasher’s under the brand name Oven Artisans. He makes the bread using a wine grape starter, a method that is new to Orwasher’s, but based in ancient practices. Cohen explains that Egyptians used to ferment wine and bake breads in the same facility; the natural yeast in the air from fermenting grapes would leaven the bread and give it a special flavor.
Nothing says New York quite like New York bread, and Artisan Wine Breads are no exception. Reflecting New York regionally and culturally, Artisan Wine Breads use Long Island’s Channing Daughters Winery grapes as yeast. This style of bread appeals to both New Yorkers’ taste for European fare and the city’s growing European population, particularly the French.
Cohen has cultivated a considerable French customer base since he introduced Oven Artisans to the bakery. The same French lady who used to come every week for rye bread and salt sticks still comes every week, but now she order orders rye bread, salt sticks and miche. Impressively crusty with a chewy, subtly sour interior, miche is one of two Artisan Wine Breads made from Chardonnay grapes.
“Sometimes things are best when they’re reversed,” says Cohen of his decision to use the lighter chardonnay grapes for the darker miche and olive breads, and the darker Cabernet grape for the lighter levain and fruit focaccia. Cohen suggests that his Chardonnay-based breads pair best with a darker wine, while the Cab-based are best with something light.
Intrigued by the art of pairing, Cohen stocked the shop with local specialties such as cheeses, roasted tomatoes and JoMart Chocolates, which suggests trying with his miche. Cohen feels a synergy between Orwasher’s and JoMart, a Brooklyn-based company with a strong local lineage. He sells his bread to the Brooklyn neighborhood haunts like Marlow & Daughters, Prime Meats, Frankie’s and Henry’s Public, and plans to bring more local flavor like Ricks Picks pickles to the store as they expand.
Talking about Orwasher’s evolution brings us back to the subject of reversal. Cohen suggests that the best metaphor for Orwasher’s life is that of Benjamin Button – a man who grew younger with age. I ask Cohen whether he feels that the shop has gone back to what it was like at birth. “Yes,” he muses, “In the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, this place was hopping. We are bringing it back to its past life.”
White walls, pale yellow shelves and abundant natural light allow the small bakery to retain a airy feel even when the place is packed. The windowed storefront lures passerbys to join regulars in line, which on a Saturday morning is nearly out the door. Eyeing two walls packed with loaves and a glass case of strudels and other sweets as they wait, the crowd is a mix of the old ladies with big glasses who personify the old Upper East Side, preppy middle aged couples and casual twentysomethings.
With a renewed demand for “old school” comfort food like smoked meats, cheeses, and classic style breads and a trend towards local, artisanal foods, Orwasher’s is perhaps more relevant to the New York food scene than it has ever been. They carry Orwasher’s Classic Breads, like pumpernickel and rye, alongside newer Oven Artisan loaves like the wine breads and Ultimate Whole Wheat, an essential nutty mix of rye flakes, millet, sesame seeds, and 100% whole wheat flour from New York’s Finger Lakes.
Cohen takes pride in his local ingredients and high quality, handmade bread, but admits that being an artisan in New York is a challenge. New Yorkers want to eat something special, and handmade bread is indeed special “[Handmade bread] is like a snowflake; no two loaves are alike, but the general public wants the same product day in and day out, and it’s hard to achieve that” even when the quality is consistent.
He tells me that the quality of the bread is defined first by the starter. As long as you keep feeding your starter, you can use it indefinitely. I ask Cohen if still uses Orwasher’s1916-born starter. His response is nonchalant but telling: “We still use it, but we needed to refresh it to make it right.”Orwasher’s Bakery 308 East 78th Street New York, NY 10075 212-288-6569 http://www.orwasherbakery.com/