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Uprising

First published in the November-December 2012 edition of Edible Manhattan

Comment | November 6, 2012 | By | Photographs by Moya McAllister

Eighteen years ago I wrote a piece on the best bread in town and had to scramble to come up with a dozen bakers, not even a baker’s dozen. And half of those were selling loaves they’d pulled out of ovens upstate or over in Long Island City. Bread was just starting to become an obsession in Manhattan then, after dreary decades when the only choice in restaurants was usually between cottony white and white cotton.

Half of those businesses no longer exist but even if they did my favorite would remain the one I described as the candy store of bread bakeries: Amy’s Bread, which back then was a single tiny shop in Hell’s Kitchen. Amy Scherber was not only one of the pioneers in artisanal breads but also the baker who pushed the concept furthest.

She introduced sturdy, chewy, flavorful breads with natural starters when most bakers were reaching for industrial yeast. Her baguettes were Paris-perfect, her fougasse Nice-worthy, her sourdoughs flecked with fresh rosemary or black olives, taking dinner rolls to a whole other level. Mostly she made serious bread that was fun to eat: semolina with fennel and golden raisins, Parmesan twists, even chocolate-cherry bread.

Scherber was a game changer in the days before Sullivan Street, Balthazar, Pain Quotidien and Tribeca Oven fired up their ovens. When she opened in 1992, there were mostly Ecce Panis, TomCat, E.A.T. and Bread Alone baking ambitious breads.

“Bread just used to be sad,” she recalls. “What was needed was good sourdough with crumb.”

Scherber’s story is classic Manhattan—complete with real estate, celebrity chefs, romance and more real estate. She moved here from the Midwest to work in marketing but wound up being seduced by the opportunities in food in the 1980s, when trailblazers like Dean & Deluca and the Silver Palate were glamorizing “grocery” shopping and takeout. In 1987 she enrolled at the New York Restaurant School, then went straight to a gig at Bouley, David Bouley’s exquisite and innovative American-French restaurant in Tribeca.

“It was a great thing to have my first job in a restaurant where every detail mattered,” she says. “People received treats through the meal; every dish had details. I really learned about flavor.” As garde manger, she also worked in close quarters with Ray Bradley—then a chef, now the famous farmer—who could foresee her success. “She was very focused,” he said. “She knew what she wanted. And she did it.”

Working at Bouley also put her in touch with her inner baker, one more attuned to savory than sweet. Everyone knows the comfort of sugar is too often followed by a crash. “I like a dessert now and then but felt that bread was a food I loved and could eat without feeling a sugar rush. The rhythm and timing of bread suited me better as well. The tactile quality of bread is something I love and connect with.”

So she went to France to learn more about bread and starters and came back to land a job baking for Tom Colicchio (he was still Thomas then) at Mondrian on East 59th Street. “He had ideas; his palate was evolved. He was a great mentor. He had a vision for a dish, what it should taste like.”

Colicchio also let her sell her breads from a counter in the restaurant, if you can imagine those long-ago days when there wasn’t a Grandaisy or Pain Quotidien on every corner and crust-and-crumb junkies had to get their fix with inside information. But after 2½ years, as Ray Bradley could have predicted, she decided to knead off on her own. She had a vision of a perfect little bakery to serve her own neighborhood, and in 1992 she found a tiny storefront on Ninth Avenue, then rather like Bushwick is today. (“You’d shut all the gates at night and hope nothing happened.”)

Her top chef was not happy when she left, Scherber says, but he signed up Mondrian as one of her first wholesale customers. And wholesale was key to building the business. Soon her breads were in top-end restaurants (but don’t blame her entirely for the phenomenon of the server with the basket of 10 choices interrupting your conversation to ask you to choose).

Today you can find her breads in restaurants including Le Cirque, Remi, Keen’s, the Odeon, Union Square Café and the River Café and also at Zabar’s, Fairway, Whole Foods and other stores; she has 200 wholesale accounts in all.

At first all the bread was made in that hobbit-sized Hell’s Kitchen shop, but in 1996 she expanded to the Chelsea Market, a brave decision when the neighborhood there was borderline scary. Today the place feels like a mall, but it was designed to be food central, with many tenants occupying both production and retail space, where her bakers could shape and knead loaves on view behind glass walls like flour-dusted performance artists.

The Hell’s Kitchen shop remains the beating heart of the business, with a tiny office and a secret backyard garden with walls covered in ivy. It’s closest to her home, and it’s still focused on the neighborhood, which could be why it remains the busiest. Hell’s Kitchen may be losing its gritty edges, but the new residents have an even bigger appetite for coffee and cake than the old did. “We used to close at 7, but now it’s 11.” She also recently converted the cake-baking side of the shop into a sort of express lane to alleviate the long lines.

Scherber’s one misstep was the Upper East Side outpost she opened in 2001, on Lexington Avenue in the 70s. “I was there for four years and never broke even,” she admits. The low-rise neighborhood does not have a dense population, and on weekends it was empty. “I was going to close when Rob Kaufelt [of Murray’s Cheese on Bleecker] said, ‘What about opening across from me?’ And we were busy from Day One.”

Kaufelt had been carrying her bread in his shop at the corner of Cornelia Street since the mid-’90s. “We got to know one another during that whole food scene percolating then that makes us old-timers now—Mario Batali at Po, Rebecca Charles at Pearl, David Page at Home just on my block alone,” he says. And Kaufelt got to know her better when he was considering moving cheese aging caves to Chelsea Market. “When I was about to lose my lease at the corner location, I had an opportunity to buy the space I’m in now from the developer. I borrowed the money to do it, and whacked up the space, giving one to the Lobster Place and the corner to Amy’s for a café.” (Kaufelt has since expanded his shop into the Lobster Place space.)

As Scherber says: “People there are loyal and proud; they come back every day.”

With three shops today, the business that started with five employees now has a staff of about 190, from 29 countries including this one: Cameroon to Trinidad and Tobago. They make about 6,700 pounds of baked products a day, shaped into loaves, dinner rolls, twists, sandwich rolls and pan loaves. Scherber’s breads come in more than 25 types and on a typical day will be turned into at least 132 shapes or products. Her latest include a pain de mie, a dense, chewy spelt loaf with flaxseeds and German-style rolls filled and encrusted with pumpkin and other seeds. In the last year she has also added Danish with various fillings and new scones (walnut-cinnamon, orange-currant) and muffins (coconut, jalapeño-corn).

But while the variety is vast, the line is legendary for its consistency. The baguette you buy today will be the same tomorrow, the semolina loaf the same height and crustiness, which she credits to her staff. Many employees have been with her more than a decade, and it shows. They start mixing dough at 4 or 5am, shape in the afternoon and bake overnight. Breads bound for restaurants are baked at 6 am, 9:30 am and noon. “At no hour of the day are there not at least 15 people working on bread,” she says.

Sandwiches were a natural outgrowth, and hers are models of precision and balanced flavors and textures: black olive ficelle with mozzarella and tomato; grilled Cheddar and tomato with chipotle sauce; Brie and apple on whole wheat. Layer cakes were also added to the Amy’s repertoire, which also includes cookies (cashew bars are particularly addictive).

Her sales are split 45–55 between retail and wholesale, although that varies. “If Wall Street is up, wholesale goes up,” she says. “If people are gloomy and sad and don’t want to go to restaurants but want to treat themselves to an affordable sandwich or a treat with great quality, that’s when retail thrives.”

Now is her busiest season: “Through the holidays, everyone eats; no one cares about money.”

But before you set out to emulate her, do the bread math. “People think the ingredients are cheap, but olives and rosemary are expensive, plus there’s the labor. With a baguette, there’s perceived value and people will only pay $2 to $3. But for a muffin, they’ll pay $2.50 to $3, or a scone for $4 or $5.”

All this is a long way, but actually a short leap, from the career this Minnesota native came to Manhattan to pursue after graduating Saint Olaf College with a dual degree in economics and psychology (the former helps on the business side of her business, the latter on “the morale and people side”).

Like any Manhattanite, even one who arrived yesterday, Scherber realizes she landed here not a second too soon. “You could not do this today,” she says. “By the time you have enough space to make the bread, you couldn’t charge enough for it [to cover your rent].” And if you could find affordable space, even in Harlem, it would be available on only a five-year lease, with a tear-down clause. This borough is going places, mostly skyward. Every inch in Manhattan is priceless when banks and Duane Reades and condo developers are happy to outbid the new generation of industry in the city: food.

And so her baking is now done in Long Island City while she retains her three small shops here on the Big Island. Her new bakery, with 30,000 feet on two levels, nearly four times what she had in the Chelsea Market alone, has joined others including Pain Quotidien, TomCat and Pain d’Avignon in an industrial stretch there very suited to baking, best done on a ground floor. At the Chelsea Market she outgrew, and was priced out of, she has cut back to one-third of the space to retain both a shop and a demo kitchen where savories will be made.

Her bakery may be moving but Scherber herself is staying put in the West 50s, home since 1985. She lives with Troy Rohne, another Minnesotan who came to Manhattan to do one thing but wound up in dough. In his case it was acting, but he worked at Amy’s, then went into the fashion industry and came back to marry her and become sales manager for the bakeries.

“He knows every health inspector, every chef,” she says. “He’s a great part of the business because he understands” what restaurants need. Their 8-year-old son Harry goes to school in the neighborhood. (For collectors of chef trivia: She was once married to Kerry Heffernan, formerly of Eleven Madison Park, now of South Gate.)

Besides baking, her passion is gardening now that she and her husband have a country home in Connecticut, where she grows vegetables. “Learning about gardening is like learning about bread baking,” she says. “You have to be very observant; you have to work with your hands. It’s the attentiveness you have to have as a baker.”

That attentiveness is most needed with the latest hot bread in Manhattan restaurants. Less than 20 years after Scherber helped elevate the breadbasket to a serious art form, what’s in the biggest demand? Hamburger buns. Every Tom, Daniel and Harry’s Cafe now has burgers on the menu, and a baker known for sophisticated, nuanced breads has adapted challah dough to tuck them in.

 Regina Schrambling graduated from the New York Restaurant School four years before Amy Scherber but found writing easier on the feet and now blogs and tweets as Gastropoda.

About Regina Schrambling

Regina Schrambling is a longtime food writer who left an editing job at the NYT to train at the New York Restaurant School, freelanced for magazines for 15 years, returned to the NYT for 46 months as deputy editor of the Dining section and then happily returned to freelancing. Her cat eats extremely well.

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