Brooklyn's New Culinary Movement
By Oliver Schwaner-Albright
TO get the slightly battered convection oven for their new Brooklyn chocolate factory, Rick and Michael Mast traded 250 chocolate bars.
The chocolate is as good as legal tender for Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth, owners of Marlow & Sons, the restaurant and specialty shop that bartered away the oven. “We can’t keep it in stock,” Mr. Tarlow said. “It sells better than anything else.”
About two years ago the Masts were trading truffles for beers at a local bar. Now Mast Brothers Chocolate has a national following as one of the few producers in the country, and the only one in the city, to make chocolate by hand from cacao beans they’ve roasted, in that oven. These days, with a kitchen and a bit of ambition, you can start to make a name for yourself in Brooklyn. The borough has become an incubator for a culinary-minded generation whose idea of fun is learning how to make something delicious and finding a way to sell it.
These Brooklynites, most in their 20s and 30s, are hand-making pickles, cheeses and chocolates the way others form bands and artists’ collectives. They have a sense of community and an appreciation for traditional methods and flavors. They also share an aesthetic that’s equal parts 19th and 21st century, with a taste for bold graphics, salvaged wood and, for the men, scruffy beards.
Rick Mast, 32, said he and his brother were initially attracted to the borough because it was cheaper than Manhattan. “But now I think the real draw is the creativity,” he said. “In Brooklyn, to be into food is do it yourself, to get your hands dirty, to roll up your sleeves. You want to peek in the kitchen in the back, as opposed to being served in the front.”
Gabrielle Langholtz, the editor of Edible Brooklyn, which chronicles the borough’s food scene, said it has grown along with the arrival of what she calls the “new demographic.”
“It’s that guy in the band with the big plastic glasses who’s already asking for grass-fed steak and knows about nibs,” Ms. Langholtz said.
“Ten years ago all of these people hadn’t moved to Brooklyn yet,” she added, comparing Brooklyn today to Berkeley in the 1970s. “There’s a relationship to food that comes with that approach to the universe,” Ms. Langholtz said. “Every person you pass has read Michael Pollan, every person has thought about joining a raw milk club, and if they haven’t made ricotta, they want to.”
The prevailing attitude is anticorporate, she said.
“Pre-industrial revolution tactics with food,” is how Frank Castronovo describes what he and Frank Falcinelli are up to at Prime Meats, a restaurant, specialty shop and butcher they are starting in Carroll Gardens, as well as Delightful Coffee, a cafe that will share a warehouse with the new Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Red Hook.
Along with butchering whole animals, Mr. Castronovo and Mr. Falcinelli, the owners of Frankies Spuntino restaurants in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, will be making their own charcuterie at Prime Meats.
“The whole process, truthfully, will take a long time.” Mr. Falcinelli said. “The aged stuff will take a year to understand. Pâté will take a few months.”
Most of the artisans started simply and have stayed simple, like Salvatore Bklyn, makers of a superbly light ricotta. “We were selling it out of the back of a truck,” Betsy Devine, who makes the ricotta along with her partner, Rachel Mark, said of their first retail efforts. Now their product is in eight stores.
They learned their craft on a visit to Tuscany. The Masts essentially taught themselves. Others, like Tom Mylan at Marlow & Daughters, a butcher shop opened in December by the owners of Marlow & Sons, found mentors.
Mr. Mylan apprenticed himself last year at Fleisher’s, a highly regarded butcher shop in Kingston, N.Y., where he slept in the owners’ TV room for a month and a half.
At Marlow & Daughters, all of the butchering is done in plain sight. “We do this out on the floor because we want you to see the difference,” Mr. Mylan said. “We can tell you it’s all local, and it’s all pastured, and buzzword, buzzword, buzzword, but until you take out a whole animal and put it on the table people have no idea what it means to bring really good meat into the city and break it down.”
Mr. Mylan also teaches butchering at the Brooklyn Kitchen, a kitchen supply store in Williamsburg. He demonstrates with a whole pig. Every student goes home with six pounds of fresh pork.
“The classes have turned out to be much more of a success than I imagined,” said Harry Rosenblum, who opened the Brooklyn Kitchen with his wife, Taylor Erkkinen, in 2006.
Next month, Bob McClure, of McClure’s Pickles, will teach pickling there, and later this spring the Masts will teach chocolate-making.
“We’ve become something like a community,” Mr. Rosenblum added, explaining that the store holds the occasional potluck and has a food literature book club. When baking no-knead bread in Dutch ovens was popular a couple of years ago, customers who bought the pots often returned with gifts of freshly baked bread.
The Brooklyn Kitchen carries major brands, but it is the sole retailer for knives from Cut Brooklyn, a local specialty knife maker.
“It’s difficult to keep those guys stocked,” said Joel Bukiewicz, Cut Brooklyn’s owner and solitary employee. “It’s like sweeping a dirt floor.”
Maybe that’s because Mr. Bukiewicz takes 10 to 12 hours to fashion one eight-inch chef’s knife. In an average week he will make between four and six knives. He first learned how to make hunting knives in Georgia, and started creating kitchen knives in his small Gowanus workshop in 2007.
“There’s an appreciation here for craftsmanship and people who work with their hands,” Mr. Bukiewicz said. “I had no idea there was going to be this convergence of artists, artisans and food culture in Brooklyn.”
To design a boning knife, Mr. Bukiewicz has been sitting in on Mr. Mylan’s butchering classes and taking note of how his hands move.
That sort of collaboration is common.
Two weeks ago Sixpoint Craft Ales, in Red Hook, introduced Dubbel Trubbel, an ale made with cacao nibs from Mast Brothers Chocolate. Sixpoint Craft Ales already brews Gorilla Warfare, an American porter made with Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from Gorilla Coffee, the Park Slope cafe and roaster. At Wheelhouse Pickles, based in Park Slope, Jon Orren uses wort, a byproduct of brewing from Sixpoint Craft Ales, to flavor his Ploughman’s pickle, a mild, earthy relish made with Greenmarket root vegetables.
And McClure’s Pickles, of Williamsburg, is making a strong, grainy mustard with Brooklyn Brewery’s Brown Ale. (Mr. McClure, by the way, sometimes pays his picklers in pickles.)
Local store owners play an important role, more collaborators than simply merchants. Urban Rustic, Spuyten Duyvil Grocery, Blue Apron Foods, Bedford Cheese Shop and Marlow & Daughters all make a point of carrying Brooklyn-made foods.
Stinky Bklyn, a cheese shop in Carroll Gardens, carries wild boar pâté made by one of the salesmen at Smith & Vine, its sibling wine shop across the street. Robert Fischman, the fishmonger at Greene Grape Provisions in Fort Greene, sometimes sells fluke or striped bass he catches himself on one of the charter boats that departs from Sheepshead Bay. And later this spring the owners of Franny’s restaurant in Prospect Heights will open Bklyn Larder, which will sell salumi cured in-house.
Steven Manning, a manager at Urban Rustic, said he wants to make things easy for local food makers.
“There’s no red tape,” Mr. Manning said. “It’s, Give me the chocolate, here’s your money.”
Another culinary stage is the Brooklyn Flea, the Fort Greene flea market, now in winter quarters in Dumbo.
“I try everything that’s served there,” said Eric Demby, one of the market’s founders, recounting the time he slurped down six bowls of soup in one sitting.
“There’s an opportunity to be recognized, not just locally but nationally,” Mr. Demby said, explaining that Salvatore Bklyn created chocolate- and lemon-studded cannoli specifically for the market.
Not everyone who tries out is a star.
“The longer I do this the more I get a sense of who’s doing this for fun and who’s doing this for a life’s pursuit,” Mr. Demby said. “The ones who are doing it seriously are the ones who wait before they approach me because they want to make sure they have it right before they come to the Flea. The ones who are doing it for fun are the ones who think it’s a glorified bake sale.”
Some sellers at the Flea make sporadic appearances, like Plan B Foods, which sells caramelized onions in a jar. Now the onions are available at Greene Grape Provisions.
Others are regulars, like Mr. McClure and his brother, Joe, and Daniel Sklaar, a former financial analyst, who produces Fine & Raw, a velvety, complex chocolate made with unroasted cacao beans.
“I love being a part of this community,” said Mr. Sklaar, 28, noting that Fine & Raw’s packaging was created by a lingerie designer paid with chocolate. “Brooklyn is always in beta testing.”
But for all the momentum, most members of this food movement are taking time to refine their crafts.
Even though they could more than double their output to 2,000 bars a week, the Masts don’t have a timetable for increasing production in their new factory, a tastefully raw space with exposed brick walls and a counter salvaged from a 100-year-old Pennsylvania ice cream parlor.
“We’re not sure how a micro-batch chocolate factory is supposed to run,” Rick Mast said. “We’re going take our time and let it evolve.”
As Michael Mast, 29, said, “Slow growth, slow design, slow food. Slow, but without being flaky.”
The mantra is similar at Prime Meats, which has been opening in stages since January.
“It’s going to be incremental,” Mr. Castronovo said. “But when it’s ready you’re going to totally trip.”