Art of Food's Meet The Chef: Keith Cohen, Chef at Orwasher's Bakery

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How did Orwasher's begin?

It was started by Hungarian immigrants in 1916. There was a bakery at 78th street, and Abraham Orwasher took it over. But there were a lot of bakeries in the city at that time. The difference is, Orwasher's outlasted everyone else.

How did you get into the bakery business?

It was an accident. I was waiting tables and living in Brooklyn Heights. Someone I knew at a placement agency knew someone at the original bakery I started at. It paid a little more money than waiting tables, and I had the aspiration of going to law school, which never transpired. I ended up doing that for 14 years. Then, there was a divergence in direction—that bakery was turning towards frozen goods and I wanted to stay in the fresh business. There was an opportunity to take over an iconic brand that needed a lot of TLC. The way I saw it was like a classic car: it was a complete rebuild.

Can you tell us a little about the baking process here?

When it comes down to baking, there is something about it that is even more spiritual than cooking. You're creating a living item: the yeast, and the dough, and the starters. There's a lot finesse and artistry that goes into what we do here. Mixing is an art. Handling bread in and out of the oven, that is an art form. The right angle at which the baguette is scored. We had a baker come in from France to fine-tune everything we do here.

What's your favorite thing to cook or bake at home?

I really like cooking marinara sauce. It's a 4 or 5 hour process for me, and it's always a lot of fun. It all started when I was really young, I told my mom I didn't like what she had cooked for me. She said “okay,” very calmly, and I thought she would make me something else. Instead, she threw my plate in the garbage and told me to learn how to cook for myself. So marinara sauce was one of the first things I made. It was a disaster. For whatever reason, I swore the recipe said bay leaf and not basil. I was ten. I put three in, and the sauce was so bitter. I remember using up all of the sugar in the house trying to cut it.

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