A New York Bakery’s Israeli Roots
After a decade in Tel Aviv, European-trained baker Uri Scheft brings his Breads to Manhattan
When you step into Breads Bakery, which opened earlier this year off Union Square in Manhattan, you can see right away that it has a mixed heritage. The almond tarts and French sourdough harken back to northern Europe, while the challah and rugelach speak to a specifically Jewish palate.
This blend of backgrounds is only appropriate, since Breads Bakery is the brainchild of Uri Scheft, a Jewish baker with roots in Israel and Denmark, who opened his New York bakery after a decade of making baked goods in Tel Aviv.
Scheft’s love for baking can be traced back to Scandinavia: He was born in Israel in 1962 to Danish parents. “My mother was a kindergarten teacher who baked challah every Friday, and I was inspired by her baking skills,” he told me. “I was always interested in food and enjoyed making various types of food, for friends and myself.”
Since Scheft still had family in Denmark, his parents took him to visit as a child; when he was 11, the family moved there from Ra’anana. “I took an elective in school for baking, and the recipes just stuck with me,” he recalled. He returned to Israel and completed his army service and then began traveling the world. After earning a degree in biology from Tel Aviv University, he said, Scheft “woke up one morning and decided I wanted to go [back] to Denmark to study pastry.”
He took the last slot in the baking class at Ringsted Tekniske Skol—the baking school he traveled back to Denmark to attend. “From the first class, I knew that this was what I wanted to do,” said Scheft, who studied and became an apprentice for three years. “I was given the opportunity to learn from the top pastry and baking people, because of my persistence. I also had the opportunity to take various courses in Europe, especially in France.”
After perfecting his baking skills abroad, Scheft returned to Israel and in 2002 opened a bakery he named Lehamim—meaning “breads” in Hebrew—on Hashmona’im street in Tel Aviv, opposite the wholesale market that operated in the heart of the city for more than 50 years until it closed in 2006. The original Lehamim bakery, and the café inside it, are open 24 hours a day, closing only for Shabbat.
His bakery on Hashmona’im Street became so successful that Scheft opened two more branches in Tel Aviv: one at the market in the port of Tel Aviv, and the other at the Carmel Market, sticking to his penchant for opening his bakeries next to markets. He also wrote a cookbook called Bread at Home, which is currently being translated to English, and initiated workshops in which he teaches the art of home bread-baking.
“One of the great things about Lehamim is that it provides something for everybody, if it’s for the cab drivers who swarm the Hashmona’im branch at night to eat bourekas or the bourgeois women who come to buy challahs for Shabbat or cakes to entertain guests at home,” said Eran Laor, street-food critic for Israel’s Achbar Ha-Ir magazine. “Quite a few boutique-bakeries opened in Tel Aviv in the past few years, but as far as bakeries go, Lehamim is considered a local empire.”
After more than a decade of baking for Tel Aviv, Scheft decided it was time to expand overseas with his New York store. “Union Square was the perfect place for us,” he explained. “Being next to the Greenmarket is very appealing because it ensures that we have access to some of the freshest, locally grown, seasonal produce in New York. The Greenmarket also draws a crowd who cares about food. We believe that people who buy fresh produce at the market will very likely want to serve the freshest bread at their table.”
At his new location, Scheft bakes “100 percent rye breads” (“most places don’t make them,” he said), cheese-straws, olive/cheese sticks, and a range of loaves and pastries. His Israeli background is evident in the rugelach; he also wears his Danish influences on his sleeve, in his use of marzipan (in his almond croissants) or his love of rye bread.
At the moment the New York bakery is selling no more than 20 percent to 30 percent of the items from the Israeli shops’ menu but will slowly add more items, including cheesecakes and apple strudel. “We want to make sure that everything is really high quality and are taking it step by step,” said Scheft. “Running a business is not a competition—I don’t make just one bread. It’s about the daily evolution and making sure the taste is consistent every day and just as good, if not better than the day before.”
Whether they’re buying baked goods to go, or eating fresh sandwiches and soups in the seating area, guests can view the open kitchen at Breads Bakery, where everything is baked on premises. “One thing that my partner, Gadi Peleg, and I are very proud of is the fact that we are bringing the tradition of producing bread back to New York City,” said Scheft. “Most bakeries have moved their production facilities to Long Island City or Brooklyn, while we pay homage to the bread-making tradition of Manhattan.”
One of the new bakery’s biggest fans is food writer Gabriella Gershenson, senior editor at Saveur magazine, who lives in Manhattan. “I love Breads, which I knew as Lehamim from visits to Tel Aviv,” she told me. “I love that it’s a mash-up of different traditions of baking—Danish, Jewish, and French—and each style is executed with a high level of refinement. The pastries are buttery, flaky, and delicious, and the breads are up there with some of the city’s best.”
Gershenson’s favorite item on the menu is the sablé cookie: “I have a special place in my heart for a sablé cookie that they make, topped with a glossy layer of fruit jam and a ring of excellent quality marzipan.” But the Jewish items on the menu get good marks, too, she said: “Even though we are a great Jewish food town, I cannot think of more than one quality babka or rugelach off the top of my head apart from Uri’s.”
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