Taking a Bite of Brooklyn: A Rising Number of Artisanal-Food Makers Help Their Neighbors Eat Locally
By Chris Erikson
When he graduated from the Institute for Culinary Education, Rick Mast went the usual apprenticeship route, taking kitchen jobs at Gramercy Tavern and Soho House. But he found himself thinking about chocolate. In cooking school he'd been smitten by its complexity and its rich history, by "how temperamental it is to work with, and how creative you can be with it."
So he went to work at the Brooklyn shop of boutique chocolatier Jacques Torres. It was a great place to learn, but Mast soon grew restless.
"I starting thinking, why am I making chocolate for someone else?" says Mast, 31, a genial former musician raised in Iowa City.
After all, he was already making his own chocolate at home, and people "went crazy over it." And he was taken by the idea of creating a brand that would appeal to his peers, eschewing the "cheesiness" of many chocolate shops, and packaging aimed at "some old lady who wants to give it to her friends for tea."
He shared that thought with his brother Michael, 29, who lives near him in Williamsburg. Rick was used to his younger sibling talking him down from his various schemes, but Michael surprised him by taking a shine to the idea.
"Williamsburg's got that do-it-yourself kind of attitude," says Michael, who'd come to New York in 2001, aspiring to produce independent films, and was doing accounting for production companies. Between glass blowers, clothing designers and other creatives of every ilk, he says, "everywhere there's people making stuff."
So as of last September, the two started making stuff of their own, as the co-founders of Mast Brothers Chocolate, whose initial production facilities were the brothers' apartments. Now operating from a Greenpoint loft building, they're the city's only "bean to bar" chocolate maker, taking cacao from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic and handcrafting it into dark chocolates of towering quality.
If Jacques Torres is to Hershey's as a microbrewery is to Coors, then the Mast Brothers are something else entirely - more akin to a gifted home brewer who crafts specialty beers in his basement and sells them to friends and neighbors.
And they're in good company. Brooklyn is home to a rising number of artisanal food makers, whose shoestring budgets and youthful energy bring to mind the culinary equivalent of an indie band. Working without investors, employees, distributors or publicists, they operate from Greenpoint, where the Masts' neighbors include the winery Brooklyn Oenology; to Park Slope, home to Nunu's organic chocolates and the small-batch Wheelhouse Pickles; and Red Hook, where a 29-year-old former law student runs Six Point Craft Ales, which sells nearly all of its output to local bars and restaurants.
"Among this generation there's an unprecedented amount of interest in food and more specifically in local food, on the part of both consumers and producers," says Tom Mylan, the butcher at the Williamsburg restaurant Marlow and Sons and co-founder of the UnFancy Food Show, an upstart retort to Manhattan's annual Fancy Food Show. Two weeks ago the second installment of the show drew 2,000 people, who braved a rainstorm to drink Six Point brews and sample patés, cheeses, sweets and other locally made treats.
A CULINARY HOTSPOT
That kind of enthusiasm for handcrafted local products - largely from 20- and 30-somethings who a decade ago might have been more inclined toward Bud and Cheetos than Belgian dubbel ales and farmhouse cheeses - has allowed the borough's fledgling food makers to thrive. They've found an enthusiastic clientele at a small network of specialty stores like Urban Rustic in Williamsburg and Stinky Bklyn in Cobble Hill, as well as outlets like the three-month-old Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene.
"Brooklyn is one of the best places in the country for doing this," says Williamsburg resident Bob McClure, who sells $12 jars of his hand-packed McClure's Pickles at the Flea as well as a dozen shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan. "You can find people who are willing to try anything, and aren't afraid to pay extra for something high-quality, because they know who's creating it and how they're making it."
McClure, a 29-year-old actor and comedy writer, started the business two years ago with his younger brother, Joe, using an old family recipe they learned while growing up in Detroit, during weekend pickling sessions with their parents. Two summers ago Bob made a batch and gave them to friends, and the raves they drew set him and Joe thinking.
"We talked one day, and we were like, let's give this a shot," he says.
So they rented a commercial kitchen in Michigan, where Joe is a doctoral student in physiology, and made a test run of 1,000 jars. Soon the verdict was in.
"We knew we had a pretty good pickle," he says. "Now we were like, all right, there's a demand."
They took out a loan for $50,000, and now, between acting jobs and freelance design work, McClure spends his time making deliveries, doing paperwork and testing new products in his kitchen. And once a month he flies to Detroit to join Joe for a few marathon sessions of pickling and packing.
How many hours does he put into it weekly? He laughs at the question.
"You sleep it," he says.
But he loves the work, and enjoys being part of a community that extends from the farmers who grow their cucumbers and the shop owners who sell their pickles to his fellow Brooklyn food makers, who share tips and otherwise enjoy a friendly camaraderie.
"What's so great is that there's this focus on community relationships, and making your food life connected to the people around you," he says.
DRINKING IT IN
If Kings County offers some food makers a nurturing home, to Alie Shaper it offered something more: sheer inspiration. It was the borough itself that motivated Shaper, a Carroll Gardens resident, to start her year-old winery, Brooklyn Oenology.
A Long Island native, Shaper, who's 36, studied engineering in college, and spent a few postgrad years working in Silicon Valley. Her passion was wine, though, and when she came back East determined to "do something fun for a while," she took a job at a Hudson Valley winery, helping out in the tasting room and giving tours of the cellar.
Gradually, wine took over her life, as she took a succession of jobs in the industry, with the goal of opening a winery someday lodged in the back of her mind. But the creative energy that captivated her when she moved to Brooklyn three years ago made her think maybe she didn't have to wait.
"I got so caught up in it. There are so many artistic and entreprenurial adventures, and everyone's trying to make the best quality, most artisanal things they can," she says.
On a visit to an artist-filled former warehouse in Red Hook, "It hit me on the head like a brick: It would be really cool to put a winery here."
That didn't quite pan out. Today her office is in an industrial stretch of Greenpoint, and she uses a custom crushing facility on Long Island to make her wines, which so far include a 2005 Merlot and Chardonnay, released last November. (2007 vintages will follow next month, along with four new varietals.) But her bottles feature Brooklyn artists' work on the labels, and she's planning to bring her winemaking operation to the borough as soon as possible, even scheming to use grapes grown within New York City.
If a preference for local ingredients is something these food makers share, so is a preoccupation with what Bob McClure calls the "integrity of the product."
"We're absolutely, 1,000 percent focused on the product being great, and letting that substitute for marketing ourselves," says Betsy Devine, 30, who with her partner Rachel Mark, 27, founded Salvatore Brooklyn, a brand of ricotta cheese inspired by a mind-blowing version they encountered on a trip to Italy.
That approach seems to be working. Since they started last year, business has steadily grown, allowing Devine, a veteran chef, to quit her restaurant job in March. They're hoping to expand into different cheeses, but for now their biggest issue is meeting orders.
The same goes for the McClure brothers, who "never anticipated the demand," says Bob, and are contemplating how to grow without losing their homespun appeal. Contracting out the packing would help, but "but we don't want to, because want to know how every single jar is made," he says.
Justine Pringle, who makes Nunu Chocolates on graveyard shifts in a local restaurant's kitchen after finishing her day job in the office of a Midtown health-care firm, has likewise been taken aback by the interest in her sweets.
"I'm at a point now where I'm either going to stay where I am and stagnate or take the next big leap," she says.
For the Mast brothers, whose $7 handwrapped bars are flying out the door, the answer is a larger facility they plan to open in October, with a storefront where they'll sell their wares along with selections from other small chocolatiers. In between making chocolate, dealing with suppliers and doing the books, they're currently rehabbing a space on N. 3rd Street, piling onto a debt load that started with a $35,000 bank loan.
What they'd eventually like, says Rick, is to grow into "New York's chocolate maker." But if they stay Williamsburg's chocolate maker that's fine too, say the brothers, who take a certain pride in a role they compare to that of a family farmer.
"That's the serious part under the fun: being a person who produces food for the community," says Rick. "We're not looking to serve chocolate to the world. Why can't you have your chocolate produced by someone you know?"