BY AARON STELLA GAYDAR EDITOR It happened on the fairest of Thursdays that I had the pleasure of lunching with two of Brooklyn’s hottest new specialty bakery owners, Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. Lately, A-list celebrities have been helping to disseminate news of their revamped line of sugary, and not so sugary treats. Lewis and Poliafito’s Sweet and Salty Cake was recently featured on Martha Stewart; their brownies were featured on the Today show and selected as one of Oprah’s favorite things. And now, for the first time, the duo share some of their treasured secrets in BAKED: NEW FRONTIERS IN BAKING, a book that provides an inside look at Lewis and Poliafito’s cutting-edge concoctions as well as modern takes on old favorites. We lunched at El Vez—figured I might as well show them another of restaurateur Starr’s various creations, since New York City is now home to both a Morimoto and a Buddakan. Being the fabulous, worldly pair that they are, it was by no great effort on my part that we were able to touch on a number of topics in the course of the meal; and if Lewis’ and Poliafito’s Bakery is as sweet and charming as they are—well, let’s just say they are as sweet as apple pie with sharp cheddar cheese melted on top. And so, like most stories, this one begins in the middle.
Phawker: So, what puts you guys above the fierce competition in New York City?
Lewis: Well, I don’t know how it is in Philly. Renato and I kind of did a Philly expedition not to long ago: we went to Reading Terminal. I think we found a cupcake place there. NYC is kind of cupcake crazy. I guess a lot of the United States is cupcake crazy. We felt that, in NYC, the concentration is very much more the grandma’s type of aesthetic, especially in the way everything looks; the goods matched to the actual walls; just the design of the place; and we kind of went opposite to that. We show that a little in the photos in the book; everything being so neat and clean.
Phawker: Yeah, the photos in the books portray your bakery as being very metropolitan.
Lewis: Yeah, totally. And I mean, it’s stays whimsical and sort of quirky at the same time. I think something that also separated us was our location: being in Brooklyn, a part from the neighborhood that was gentrifying.
Poliafito: Yeah, it wasn’t essentially a very cool or hip place, I guess, but it’s certainly getting that way. Are you familiar at all Williamsburg in Brooklyn?
Phawker: No, no so much. But I can provide a place undergoing a similar phenomenon here in Philadelphia. I live in a sector of the city called Fishtown, which borders the outer rim of the gentrification donut. Northern Liberties is the most recently gentrified sector. Fishtown is next.
Poliafito: Yeah, that’s sounds similar. Williamsburg was one of those neighborhoods in Brooklyn that was just a dilapidated kind of area; and then the hipsters moved in and the area just kind of took off. And you know, Williamsburg is so easy to get to: it’s one stop out of Manhattan. So you know, it’s on the train line; there are no issues there. Red Hook, where our bakery is at, on the other hand, is extremely hard to get to.
Phawker: Have they ever considered expanding the subway lines?
Poliafito: They’ve been trying to do that for sixty years; and they usually start and stop shortly after.
Lewis: And with the economical climate we’re in, I don’t see them trying anything big like that for a while.
Phawker: So, the area that your bakery’s in, has it gone through gentrification, or currently being gentrified?
Poliafito: No, it’s yet to be gentrified. I mean, the elements are there—the seeds of gentrification.
Lewis: And I mean, what’s kind of the nice about it is, since there is no easy way to get out there, once people make it out there, it becomes more of a journey than just, you know, being there in the midst of everything else.
Phawker: So that, in a literal and figurative sense, sets you apart from the competition. But to your advantage, no less.
Lewis: (Laughter) Absolutely.
Phawker: I have some friends up in the Brooklyn area. I know they’d head up to your shop in a second. They’re big city explorers, and I know they’d love your shop. So I’ll go there with them sometime and see it for myself.
Lewis: Oh yeah. You have to come. It’ll be great!
Phawker: Ok, so, tell me about this Root Beer Bundt Cake.
Lewis: (Laughter) Oh my god, right. Everybody asks us about it.
Phawker: So tell me about it: inspiration, creation; the whole nine yards of Root Beer Bundt cake.
Lewis: Well, it’s a derivative of a cake we have at the bakery called the Coca Cola Cake. So, we just thought we’d mix it up a little bit for the book—it has a root beer base an all—and it’s a really great cake. It’s really accentuates the chocolate flavor of the Bundt. But you can really taste the root beer; you can really taste the Bundt. Oh by the way, we have brownies for you.
Phawker: No way!
Lewis: Yeah, but we left them in the car, so we’ll have to give them to you afterwards.
Phawer: I’ll go anywhere for them. Yeah, we can get them afterwards. Oh, that’s right! I’ll have to show you guys the gayborhood. It’s Philadelphia’s equivalent of LA’s Castor sector, or NYC’s Chelsea.
Lewis: Oh right. I saw the signs—the little rainbow slates below the streets signs.
Phawker: Yeah, Woody’s, probably the oldest gay bar on the east coast, is right down the street from here. But I have to tell you that it’s under new management. Woody himself no longer owns the club, but the new owners decided to keep its namesake because it is so famous.
Lewis: We’ve heard of Woody’s. (does a double-take) Really? It sold? What happened? Why the sell?
Phawker: Well, from my understanding, he wasn’t doing what he really wanted to do. The younger crowd started taking precedence over the gay scene here in Philadelphia, and, he couldn’t take all the Britney Spears, to be very frank about it. So, he sold off the club to the company that owns Bump, which is right down the street from Woody’s; they also own Pure, which is Philadelphia’s gay 2-4 club or “after hours” club.
Lewis: I just can’t believe Woody’s sold.
Phawker: Yeah, me too. He did, however, recently open another bar called Knock.
Lewis: Isn’t it older gentlemen, though?
Poliafito: That’s a nice way of putting it. (Unanimous Laughter)
Phawker: We have a place called the Venture Inn, but most people call it the Denture Inn. (Unanimous Laughter)
Lewis: Wow. It must be a lot of work going to the Denture Inn.
Poliafito: No kidding.
Phawker: But yes. Knock is somewhat for the older crowd, but young professionals frequent there as well so there’s usually a good mix always present. And It’s a classier place; Woody can play the music he wants; it’s the style of bar he would have liked to have kept Woody’s; but as I said, couldn’t with the changing times. So it all worked out for him in the end. It true, however, that he’s still living in a 70’s mentality, back when the LGBT community was forced into hiding from fear of persecution.
Lewis: It’s got to be hard: things change so rapidly.
Poliafito: Exactly. Things that change so fast like that are hard to get rid off—hard to put those things out of your mind.
Phawker: Totally. I mean most of these guys have crazy stories. This is sort of a tangent, but I’ve begun already to assemble a catalog of the gay veterans here in Philadelphia, meaning the older gays; one’s who have been here from the start; one’s who have done things not just for the gay community here but for America.
Lewis: Comparitively, Philly’s gay scene is pretty large, isn’t it?
Phawker: It is, but it’s really concentrated, to the point that some define it as restricted. I mean, we have a “gayborhood”, and there are some other lightly populated gay areas of the city, but this area here, the gayborhood, is the nexus.
Poliafito: Kind of like Chelsea.
Phawker: Exactly. And it’s a tight-knit community here, in the way that you can get in with a few people, and everyone knows you. Not like NYC…
Lewis: Where you can just disappear. It sounds like, here in Philly, you can get a name for yourself.
Phawker: And believe me, it’s hard to get rid of. (Unanimous Laughter). Anyways, oh my god, I keep straying from the subject. So tell me, is this cookbook a compendium of all your recipes from your bakery?
Lewis: Well, it’s mostly a greatest hits list. Definitely more customer request items, and items that are very personal to us, especially the tricolors.
Phawker: What are those?
Lewis: The rainbow cookies? They are the three-layered cookies; you usually find them in Italian bakeries. I’m sure there are places here in Philly where the most original recipes probably came from.
Phawker: Are they kind of spongy?
Poliafito: Yeah, they’re kind of like a little sponge cake with a chocolate top.
Lewis: They’re usually pretty awful, too. So we tried to clean them up.
Phawker: So, it’s seems you guys really value updated and modernizing old concepts, yet retaining the amount work that went into older models, so that the product keeps its integrity.
Poliafito: Yeah. We also really value customer service. I mean, NYC is not really a “customer service” city, per se, but we try to create a welcoming atmosphere: we try to root out any surly employees: they usually filter their way in, and then you just have to filter their way out.
Lewis: Yeah, and it’s also just about fresh handmade materials. Like I told you, we don’t bring anything in: it’s all made from scratch. No premixes. No nothing.
Phawker: It’s like you’ve modernized grandma’s bakery.
Lewis: Except there’s no grandma. It’s totally American: we’re very influenced by American deserts.
Poliafito: American deserts really aren’t showcased as much as European desserts are—except for the stupid cupcake, of course. And on that note, I think it’s important to say that an American bakery can be just as important as a French bakery. Because in my opinion, an American bakery can stand on it’s own.
Phawker: But no more grandma.
Lewis: No more grandma. And there’s nothing wrong with grandma. It’s just, grandma might not have always known what was best, or plainly what were the best ingredients.
Phawker: True. And although grandma might have been doing this for how many years…
Lewis: It doesn’t mean she was using local ingredient, or healthy ingredients.
Phawker: For all we know, grandma could have been putting a pound and a half of lard in her—oh I don’t know…
Lewis: For years in her recipes.
Poliafito: And we are big on altering older recipes.
Phawker: What’s a good example of that?
Poliafito: (Without missing a beat) Less sugar in cakes; more chocolate.
Lewis: Also, your typical cupcake place uses a sugar, butter-base icing. And it’s pretty awful: it tastes like powder sugar and butter. It doesn’t have that same creamy taste of a butter-cream icing.
Phawker: We have one place here in Philadelphia up in the Northern Liberties sector I was telling you about called Brown Bettys. It’s a cupcake specialty shop which uses the butter-cream icing recipe. And I believe that they make everything from scratch as well.
Lewis: That’s really the best way to do it. So yeah, that’s just one example; and like Renato said, we use deep, dark chocolate in place of milk chocolate, which has a lot more sugar.
[At this point in the conversation, the waitress has approached our table with our food. Both Poliafito and Lewis ordered chickened stuffed burritos, and I, the mahi mahi crispy tacos. Their burritos, as they so aptly remarked, were literally the size of little-league footballs, while the modest portions of my tacos falsely portrayed me as a dainty eater . So of course, they bemoaned their choice, seeing that it was in hefty portions—juicy, savory, voluptuous portions—and all the more tempting to devour, which we all know can be a problem for a girl trying to watch her figure. After they reconciled the gargantuan portions, Lewis nonchalantly conjectured that I, because of my trim waist, must not enjoy sweets much. To this—like so many other occasions—I had an anecdote at disposal]
Phawker: Well, for a good bit of my childhood, my parents kept me on a rather potent cocktail of ADD medication and antidepressants that killed my appetite. I mean, I barely ate anything during the day; however, at about 12 o’clock at night, after the medicine had worn off, I would wake up from hunger pangs; and eat a quart-sized can of chef Boyardee. So they devoted a whole cupboard to me, which was filled with every sweet known to mankind, and I would have to eat a bar everyday just to keep my weight up. So as you can probably guess by now, I developed a mild abhorrence for sweets. But then, years later, I started to going to the gym; and the two things I got from that was hair on my back (only a little toward the top of my neck and on the small of my back not a whole forest) and a new found love for sweets.
[And after this little anecdote, Lewis and Poliafito began inquiring further into my life, as I had feared would happen. I hate when that happens because I feel like I’m stealing the thunder. In any event, the conversation from there on own consisted of me regaling them with stories from my past, and chatting them up about Phawker. Oh, I did remember, however, to ask them what their drag names would be. You should never forget to ask someone their drag queen name, be it the president or the queen of England. Well, let it be known that Renato Polifito’s would be Renata Chance, and Matt Lewis’ is, tentatively, China Dishes (he’s still working on it). That’s all for now folks. Oh, and by the way: the brownies they gave me—well, let me put it to you this way. If I lived in any bearable walking distance from their bakery, I might as well kiss good by this trim little waist, and trade it in for a spare tired that’s gonna get so serious mileage.]