Chef Chat, Part 2: Roy Shvartzapel and What's Next For Common Bond
Check out the first part of our interview with Chef Roy Shvartzapel.
Chuck Cook Photography Chef Roy Shvartzapel of Common Bond Cafe & Bakery and a display of freshly baked breads
At Common Bond, colorful desserts are lined up like painted soldiers behind a glass case. A big metal rack holds generously sized loaves of freshly baked bread. There's a selection of coffee drinks and you can even grab a light lunch before the kitchen closes at 3 pm.
Is it surprising that people are willing to line up at Common Bond in the morning and wait 45 minutes for breakfast? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.
While we were interviewing chef Roy Shvartzapel, a gentleman with a white beard from Lafayette walked up to compliment him on the quality of the croissants. "A friend told me that of all the things that surprised him about Houston, the thing that surprised him the most was finding croissants here as good as what he had in Paris," he said. "You've done a great job here."
And why are those croissants so good? In part 2 of this interview, we talk about the mechanics of making the perfect croissant dough. We also get the scoop on another other baked goodie that will make its first appearance just in time for the holidays and find out about chef Roy's ultimate goals.
EOW: What do you think about the 45-minute average wait time here at Common Bond?
RS: I've visited places like that over my career and used to say "One day, I'm going to have a place where people wait in line for things that I make." I think there's a value in that. Not for me, but particularly in a city like Houston that's the ultra in non-pedestrian. We, on a scale from one to 10 in pedestrian life, are at a zero. We're not even at a one. It's the infrastructure. We cannot have, for example, a subway system. We're just not designed that way.
What we can have are places that allow people--whether it be in a line or in a tight space in a restaurant--where you're not sitting far away in your little bubble. We're already in our little bubbles whether it's in a car or in a cube. When you're in a line with a group of strangers, you never know who you might meet or break into conversation with. Do some people get frustrated that they have to wait in line? Sure! Those same people, if there were no line, would still find something to be frustrated about. You cannot make everyone happy.
Chuck Cook Photography Lemon Ricotta Cakes at Common Bond Cafe & Bakery
As a chef, that's very hard to swallow. You want everyone to have a great time. But you know what? That's just not going to happen. There are going to be people who don't think your croissant is "all that." There are going to be people don't think the product is worth the wait. I don't really have an answer for that. You're entitled to your opinion. We do our best to make our products perform at a level so that when you taste it you're like "Wow. I'd wait again."
We have an immense amount of repeat customers. There are people I see six days a week. I'm not kidding! Six days a week. To see the lines on the weekends waiting to come in... I've never been so humbled by something. I'm just a baker. I'm just a pastry chef. I make things that I live to make that I've dedicated my life to getting good at.
No matter how many markets we open in, I think the gratitude that me and my business partners Brad and Kathy have for this one in our hometown is a super-special feeling.
EOW: Even though Common Bond has only been open for a few months, do you think that you already have one of the best bakeries in the United States?
Chuck Cook Photography Scones at Common Bond Cafe & Bakery
RS: At this point, I think we're underachieving. I know what my team and me are capable of. We're in a very small space in the back. There are things we want to do that we are not doing. One of the things that keeps me up at night is the fact that we're not open late at night. We close at 7. It's very difficult for us to maintain product past 2 or 3 o'clock. That's not what I intended but I couldn't have foreseen this.
We're finding a solution to that. We're building an offsite production facility. In a given amount of time, that same plethora of product and "plushness" that people are used to seeing in the morning and through lunch, we're going to make happen late at night. People are starting to realize that--well, we always have stuff here but when you come at 10 a.m. it's a different ballgame.
[Author's note: On my two 3 p.m. visits to Common Bond, there have always been a nice selection of pastries and loaves of bread available. I even snagged one of those famous croissants on my last afternoon visit.]
EOW: If you could pick the three items here that you are most proud of, what would you pick?
RS: The plain croissant. It's been a lifelong obsession for me.
EOW: How many layers are in that thing?
RS: You know, there are a lot of grandmother myths out there about "layering" pastries like that. You hear people say "1,000 layers!" and stuff like that. That couldn't be further from the truth. Our croissant has 33 layers. A great croissant ranges from 33 to 55.
Chuck Cook Photography 33 layers of fun
Past that, if you imagine laminating something--fat sandwiched in between dough--shoot it out, fold it. The fat gets thinner. You will get to a point where it is so thin that it's going to get absorbed into the dough. Now you basically have a pie dough. Will it puff? Yes, but you won't see any definition. You won't see any dough separation because the fat part will have become so embedded in the dough that there is no distinction anymore.
EOW: OK, the croissant is one thing you're very proud of. What are two more?
RS: One that no one has gotten to taste yet and that is our panettone. I think Mr. Massari would be proud.
EOW: Is there only going to be one kind?
RS: One size. One kilo. It's a 40-hour process.
EOW: When will people be able to start getting those?
RS: December. A third, more of an "area" than a "specific," is our bread. Drew Gimma, who is a dear friend and also an out-of-this-world bread-baker, doesn't cease to impress me every day. Certainly with the bread, but with what else he brings to the table.
EOW: Where did he come from?
RS: Per Se in New York. There are a lot of us who worked for Thomas [Keller].
EOW: What's your ultimate goal, because I don't think Common Bond is your endpoint?
RS: Am I answering that question as Roy or as Common Bond?
EOW: Both. What's the goal for Common Bond?
Chuck Cook Photography The hands of a baker
RS: The goal for Common Bond as a company is to build it as a great, casual dining/retail concept brand, and an American-born one at that; what Ladurée is to Europe. I'm not saying we are Ladurée--I'm saying [we would have the] regard they are held in. If I painted Common Bond's Utopia, it would be that. We'd have multiple Common Bonds in other markets--even other countries--and expand on what we're doing now.
It's not going to happen until we get our commissary (probably next year) but we're going to get into a line of Common Bond chocolates, jams, spreads. Our e-commerce is going to take shape.
All we can do right now are things that don't have a shelf life. Every now and again we'll have someone who will ask "Can I buy these croissants for tomorrow?" I'll say, "Well, you can but if you're asking if I'd serve them or if they'd be good in my opinion, the answer is an overwhelming 'no'." It's the same answer on the baguettes. We have some breads designed to stay good for days. The baguettes are not one of them.
EOW: Any particular cities you'd like to see a Common Bond in?
RS: Los Angeles. I'd love to be in L.A. and New York.
RS: I think before that I'd want to be in San Francisco. When we get into our commissary and start producing Common Bond jams, chocolates and things like that, I could see us--much like Ladurée does--with outlets that just serve macaroons, jams, chocolates, confitures and things like that.
EOW: Let's talk about Roy the human being.
RS: I'd like to feel like my quest, diligence and work ethic in this craft gets to a point where it has even a small effect on people. By "people," I mean a young culinarian who comes to work for us that I have a chance to inspire, motivate or lead in the right direction. I don't take that lightly because I was once that person.
If I can affect people during their day, week, month or during their holidays... if I can know something I dedicated my life to can better their holiday experience, that's a pretty special feeling. People have a million choices of where they go, what they do, what they eat. I say to my staff all the time to be flattered and humbled that people are not only eating--repeatedly--product that you are putting your hands on but are willing to wait in line to do it.
Shortly after we opened, I was somewhere not in this area [near the restaurant] and saw someone with a Common Bond bag. That was super-cool. I know that sounds super-cheesy but it was a very cool feeling.
On a super-personal level, I'd love to get to the point in the next couple of decades where I'm spoken of amongst the great pastry chefs of this country or the world [at that time]. That's a lofty goal, but what is life without lofty goals?