Maury Rubin Transcript
Maury: I was American in France who didn't speak French. I was a Baker in New York who had never baked before. I was a business owner in Union Square who had never run a business before.
There's a lot about coming to it sideways that I think led to what became the sum of city bakery.
Helga: How do you make community? And what does it mean to feed and nourish people?
Pastry chef Maury Rubin has been doing exactly that here in New York at city bakery for more than 20 years. And his path took a somewhat unexpected turn when he made the move from producing sports television to making baked goods and hot chocolate.
Today he joins me to talk about leaving home to create something of his own. And like baking itself, the evidence of your work is what's left behind.
I'm great. I see you have a coffee. You know it's funny. I brought you a donut.
Hi. So, I was passing this place and there were these donuts. They were really pretty. And I wanted to see if they tasted as good as they looked. And you had to buy a pair of them. You couldn't just have one. You had to buy the pair.
Maury: It's called donut, tyranny.
Helga: And so, I said, "Well, I'll eat one and I'll save the other one for who else? For Maury."
Maury: You liked or didn't like?
Helga: I'm not going to tell. I think you should have your own donut experience.
Maury: I think donuts are really hit or miss.
Helga: And how come?
Maury: Defined by sugar. It's like speeding, you know? It's like, it's as easy to go too fast. Just to like- just so quickly. Just a little bit too much and you're done.
I mean, there's the dough. I have a favorite donut in New York. I don't know if I'm ready to name names.
Helga: No, you don't have to name names. But you have a favorite donut. How come it's your favorite donut?
Maury: Because the dough of the donut itself. The dough is so good. It's so well-made. And it is incredibly consistent. The quality of it, for what it tastes like, for how it pleases you. That's one thing.
The ability for it to be that way all the time. That's the mark. So my favorite donut, I love it in every sense. I think it's an accomplished piece of work.
Helga: We are talking about donuts. Okay. I just wanted to make sure. And consistent meaning that you can buy it any day of the year and it delivers the same-
Maury: Let's go beyond day.
Maury: I mean, seriously. It's a mark of time. It's like year after year, you know. Think of it like primal pleasures. And you go into- you have a favorite drink in a bar. Or you have a favorite slice of pizza or whatever, you know. And you haven't been in there for awhile. Like what's the hope? The hope is you're going to go in there and it's going to be exactly what you remember and you love.
So with this particular donut, it's been years and years and years. And I don't think that gets it due. But, if you're looking at it a little bit clinically, the mark of time and consistency. It's like the railroad track.
It's like the the road in the middle of. What's the whole thing mean? What the whole thing about?
Helga: It's like soul food restaurants that can't fry chicken. If you can't fry chicken, you not, shouldn't be in that business.
Okay. Well, we've been talking about it all this time. Put your hand in there. No, just put your hand in. So, first observations.
Maury: I know this donut.
Helga: Even if you know that donut, will you eat a bite of it anyway?
Maury: Damn right. Why would I not? I'm predisposed to enjoying this donut. I have to say.
Helga: You are?
Maury: I like this donut. It's the contrary, savory minute. I like it a lot.
When you were going the opposite direction, like a savory flavor in something that's primordially sweet. That can go off the rails kind of easily, too. This is- I like this. It's very well done.
I actually think, and this is hard to get me to say, there's a little too much sugar on it.
Helga: Thank you. I agree. And I feel like they put the sugar on because they've read too many of those articles where they know what sugar does to the brain. And that we are inclined to like sweet things.
But as with many things, what's underneath the sugar? And how do we get to what is below the thing that I'm obviously suppose to like. And that I am inclined to like. And that my brain is wired to like.
And so while it was fun to buy it and to be forced to buy two, because they come in a pair.
Maury: That's a part. Can I ask you a question?
Maury: What did you think about the idea that you had to buy two?
Helga: I was more upset that I couldn't get my coffee to go. Because they don't allow- they don't have cups to go for the coffee.
I asked why not? And they said, "Because we prefer that you enjoy your beverage here." Which I find controlling. It is also not their right to tell me where and how I should enjoy whatever it is I'm having.
And I recognize these are all hugely first world concerns, right? But in a way, no. Because I do think that they are metaphors for other things. For larger issues that we can encounter.
So I didn't mind the pair of donuts. And I loved that I had one to share with someone if I wanted to.
Maury: When you asked for the coffee, to go, this is a real question. I don't know the answer. Do you remember what the answer was? How like, exactly do you remember exactly what they said?
Helga: I believe they said, "I'm sorry we don't make coffee to go"
Maury: Hmm, to me that would be- that's an honest answer. And when I first asked that same question, I was told they didn't have cups.
Helga: So they've been working on that.
Maury: Somebody maybe. Yeah. Or maybe there's just some, more or less, there's a more honest agent of the person who spoke to you as opposed to the person who spoke to me.
Helga: Hmm. What have you been doing?
Maury: I started a chocolate company. And I've been making hot chocolate on Bleecker street in New York City. And I've been trying to find my equilibrium.
Helga: Yeah. Can you say something about that?
Maury: You know, it's a remarkable moment in my life still. You know, like the cyclone graphic and Wizard of Oz where, you know, here's the twister and everybody is floating through it. And, you know, it's that.
I went a long, long, long, long time and journey to not land where I landed. And I'm just moving into the other side of it. So when I say I'm trying to find my equilibrium, I'm just still like looking around, like feeling this new like turf.
And the lights are just coming back on. And just trying to feel who and where I am, what I am now. That's the short answer.
Helga: I was in the first city bakery over there on 16th St.
Maury: Seventeenth Street. Yes, you were. For me, anybody who was part of that was, it's like the equivalent of someone being part of my birth stone. Like touchstone.
Helga: And I realize that I've, I've only ever known you as a person who feeds people.
Helga: What were you doing before you were feeding people?
Maury: I was a television producer and director at ABC sports. Look at that. Look at that. You don't know that.
Helga: I don't know that.
Maury: That's so interesting. Yeah. You know that's so interesting because I was thinking about when I read the notes for coming here and you know, and it says, "Ask, you know, you, it's a conversation. You can ask Helga a question." And so I started thinking about what I don't know.
And even though what I know we know about each other and how we've existed is something that I love. So, I've never felt the need to, you know, what else? You know.
But I grew up in Baltimore. In the suburbs of Baltimore. I was a sports crazy kid. I played the drums. Jazz. So the playlist that you heard at City Bakery all those years later actually goes back to, those drum lessons.
And what I wanted to do was something in sports broadcasting. But I didn't think I wanted to be in front of the camera and I decided I wanted to be a producer and/or director.
I started working for ABC Sports as a gopher for $35 a day. And I got hired by ABC when I was a kid. Graduating school came to New York. You know, the quickest path. I did it, I did that for five years.
You know who Howard Cosell was?
Helga: I can't think about Howard Cosell without thinking about Muhammad Ali wanting to snatch his toupee from his head.
Helga: You worked with Howard Cosell?
Maury: Howard Cosell was my one and only boss. To this minute. He was a pioneer for sports broadcasting. Howard hired me and I worked with Howard seven days a week for five years. I was very close with them. Kind of a father- like situation dynamic.
Helga: When you make food, you also make community. And so, talk a little bit about the community that you came from and the community that you, you made both in your life as a broadcaster and for sure in your life as owner of City Bakery?
Maury: It's such a lovely question. I mean, community is the great byproduct of what I created by wanting to bake it. It is the great unforeseen beauty in what I did. And I think it would be so easy to talk about that in some kind of cliched way. But, you were part of that. You know it intimately.
I think that for the food world you can be popular. You can be well known and be famous. You can be whatever. And because of the way you ask the question? I think there's something about being from Baltimore or you know, if you grew up a sports crazy kid in Baltimore, you hate the Yankees.
So, I would say you're an outsider. Because New York is like the Evil Empire. I've maybe thought about this in little tiny fragments, but not, no one's ever asked me the way you just asked me. But I think that there's something about being an outsider to New York that helped me create a lot of what the sum of City Bakeries parts were.
I was a TV guy. I was in a different creative discipline and I moved into food as an outsider, you know. I went to learn how to bake in France. I was American in France who didn't speak French. I was a Baker in New York who had never baked before. I was a business owner in Union Square who had never run a business before.
There was a lot about being- coming to it sideways, that I think led to what became the sum of City Bakery.
Helga: Did your people think you were crazy to leave?
Maury: Crazy. Crazy, crazy.
Helga: I didn't even have to finish the question.
Maury: Crazy. Crazy. I was called names by family members. Not pretty names. Yeah. Nuts. Yeah. Crazy. Yeah.
Helga: And who makes up that family? Who were those family?
Maury: So, my mother was a nurse. My father was a furniture salesman. My mother's still alive. My father died a few years ago. So lower middle-class Jews in the suburbs of Baltimore.
My parents, you know, worked, as hard as they worked and as well as they worked to give myself and my two brothers, you know, every best opportunity. And what happens is then I moved to New York and I get this dream job at ABC. And as the youngest in my family, you know, I'm accomplishing something that's really meaningful.
And then I say, one day, "I'm gonna step over here and I think I'm going to try baking." And you know, that's an earthquake in that, in that. So, there's one kind of funny, but just perfect take on it. Which is that my grandfather was a bread baker.
So my grandfather came here when he was 13 from Poland, and he worked for a bunch of bakeries for his entire life. And that's, you know, that was his version of, you know, the American dream.
And he was a little guy, like five one. And he was strong and stubborn. So he had two children. My mother and my uncle. And when my uncle who was as boastful and proud of his "television producing, directing, Howard Cosell-affiliated" nephew, announced that he was going to leave that to go bake. You know, he said, "If your grandfather only knew that he had schlepped those bags of flour up and down steps for 48 years..."
So, you know, it just, it was a surprise, surprise to say the least.
Helga: I think for a lot of people, if they hear that kind of thing from their families, from people they love, from significant others, from their people, their tribe, their community, right? It's very easy to say, "Okay, I won't go." The risk is so big.
How is it that you feel you were still able to stick with your decision to go to Paris and learn to bake? And not speaking the language and not really with any prospects of what you might do after that?
So it wasn't a vacation you were on. You weren't going to find yourself or to explore or just try something. Take a leave of absence from work for six months and then go back. You were leaving your life and in some ways you were losing your tribe, too.
Maury: I was leaving my life for sure. You know, I thought when I worked in television that I was really good but not great. And I think that my strongest sense of myself was that I was really creative.
I got trapped in the sort of collaborative process of making television just enough in a negative way that I think that without even saying it to myself, part of me felt really strongly that I wanted to work on my own. I wanted to be creative on my own.
You know, I left my world and I sort of cast myself out. I didn't go there thinking I'm going to bake at all. Not at all. It was a complete absolute revelation.
I took a lousy six day pastry course for fun. And I just thought, "Oh my God. This is like its own world." And I thought, I'm just going to try this. Like this is-this is its own world.
So there was some liberation to that. And I went there and then I turned out to be good at it. And I just said this to somebody the other day because I just had this- I went to Paris in 1986.
And literally two weeks ago, the first time I thought about my first job in a little tiny pastry shop in the Ninth Arrondissement in Paris was being given 360 eggs to separate. And it was me, three other people in this kitchen and I was like this alien that dropped in like from outer space into their kitchens.
It was two French guys. They were really, really good. They spoke no English. I spoke no French. I had learned verbs like "to pour", "to mix", "to whisk". So my French vocabulary existed within like a six foot radius in a pastry kitchen. That was it.
I remember thinking like, "Oh my God, like they have no idea." Like I'm this TV producer and director and I'm cracking these eggs and I'm wearing an apron and I'm in France and this is all so bizarre. And it was so completely just- a different world.
And then I just remember thinking, "You know what? I think I like this." And then it turns out you can separate 360 eggs really poorly or really well.
Helga: I remember that you and I started to talk specifically or more- we started to talk more, once you asked me what I did. And I told you that I was a performer. And you kind of looked at me and you smiled. And you said that City Bakery has some of the coolest people you don't know.
And that was when we first began our rehearsals for Einstein on The Beach. And we were going to open at BAM, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music here in New York. And I had one comp and I said, "I'm going to offer Maury my ticket" Because it felt like, if you wanted to see, in part what I do, that that that's kind of a a crash course.
And so I gave you the ticket and you came. And I want you to tell me a little bit about your experience. My being a person in your community who just kinda came in. And we were always friendly, but I was silent pretty much, right?
Maury: There's so much meaning to how that happened. And I actually, I really do, I love that you remember that I said, you know, what I said about like the non-famous, famous people. Because that really is something that is one of the virtues and specialness of City Bakery.
It's so important. To me that City Bakery sort of was anti-celebrity is important.
I opened a bakery that created an incredible community. And the thing that I didn't know, was this unbelievable moment that when I went to Einstein on the Beach you were one of the two people sitting in the chair when it starts. Sitting on that stage. And I didn't know that. I had no idea. And I was thunderstruck by that. I will never forget laying eyes on it being you in that chair when it starts.
Helga: And then after that you decided that you were going to feed me. And I'm not saying it was this for that or anything like that.
Maury: But, it was something that I felt I could do. A way to say thank you.
Helga: But, what's so interesting about it too, was my inability to receive it. So, what you said to me was, "Come here and get your food for the day." And I was already doing that. Right?
And I had already had the experience for so many years of your food. And so, imagine how crazy it was for me to go. And not be able to receive. Because I hadn't ever seen a lot of black people in City Bakery. And I was worried that I would walk in, I would have this huge thing of food, and I would be ready to leave. And that people would look at me and think that I was stealing, right?
Helga: And that's also the world that we live in. And so any time that I came, it was always about calling someone and having your manager come downstairs to meet me. And then she would walk with me over to the register. And they would put the sticker on and then I would walk out. And it could all be fine that way, but that it had to be orchestrated.
Yeah. Because t you came and you saw me in this beast of a New York moment, which was Einstein on the Beach. And yet, as an African American woman in a certain kind of establishment, I had all the paranoia and worry of an African American person anywhere on this planet. Who is worried about the eyes that see them other than they are.
Maury: Yeah. You know, so the good news is that, you know, the staff would have botched that for, you know, a hundred white people too. I mean, they just sucked at that. Just, they just sucked at that. And that was all, there was always. Believe me. There was such equal opportunity, you suck at that.
We weren't, it just, it wasn't a disciplined enough regimen that it worked. So, it makes me miserable hearing you say it. But honestly, I'm here to tell you a hundred white people, we sucked at that too.
Helga: But then the question at the end of the day, or at the end of this day shall we say, or this moment is, who feeds Maury?
Maury: My last few years were so difficult and I'm trying to find a solution to just like, nasty financial issues that were very fixable and manageable. But to have other people in the process who were either dishonest or, outright, you know, terrible people.
The idea of what feeds me and who feeds me, you know, I've just tried to keep my mind together and my heart together. Cause it was a completely heartbreaking, hurtful time.
And I've learned that I get fed by my creativity. That being creative is my best sustenance. You know, there hasn't been a lot of money. So like you like get thrown against a wall. And what there is to spend on food and decisions and thoughts about every single bite. I've sort of stepped out of the world of what's incredibly cool about New York, if you have money to spend.
And I've always eaten, I mean, I love good food. But who feeds me right now, is I'm still, I think, just in that process of learning who and where. So, it's part of my finding new turf and new equal and finding my equilibrium in every way.
Part of the pain, and this was like acute pain for the last couple of years of the bakery, and especially the last six months was being in that space when people had no idea what was coming and what was going down.
And mostly people had no idea of, I'm just going to say the suffering that I was up against. And so, I was trying to walk through that and not portray myself or the situation. And be good to people who were good to me. And these were customers who cared about me and were complimentary and brought great affection. And that was really compromising. That was really, really, really difficult.
And I'll always remember, you know, I said next to nothing to most, to nearly everybody. There were, I mean, like literally just a handful of people who I had said, you know, "It's a tough time. It's a tough time." That might've become my, "It's a tough time. It's not what you think."
I just remember seeing you on the sidewalk and, I forget exactly what I said to you, but what I said to you was the total unvarnished truth. And I said, "This thing is ending soon." And I just remember I saw you and I told you the truth right away.
And I felt- I love that I did that. And there's great meaning in that, about you. And I think you.
Helga: Thank you.
Maury: Thanks for wanting me here.
Helga: And that was my conversation with Maury Rubin. I'm Helga Davis.
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