Building a better bakery

From the Sea of Galilee to Crestwood: How Martine’s, one of Westchester County’s most delectable bakeries, took shape.

Yuval Golan knows coffee. He’s been making it since he was 13 years old, when he left school in Nahariyah, Israel, to work in his father’s restaurant. “All my friends went to the beach in summer. They’d come and call up at me where I was working on the second floor, shouting  ‘Come to the beach!’ I said, ‘I can’t. I have to work.’” The young teenager was so short, he had to stand on a stool to reach the levers of the espresso machine. 

Next stop was the army. His mother died of cancer when she was 42, in 1986, the year his sister, Tal Campana — after her own army stint — came to the United States.

I am sitting with them both in the pocket-sized, cramped office beneath Martine’s Fine Bake Shoppe and café in the Crestwood section of Yonkers, learning about their remarkable bakery and patisserie, which produces some of the best cakes and pastries in the region. In the bustling kitchen on the other side of the wall, meanwhile, the flour is flying and an army of talented cake and pastry makers is hard at work — mixing, blending, rolling, layering, piping and otherwise decorating the vast array of scrumptious cakes and pastries for which this artisanal bakery has become justly famous. Organized chaos is how the furious activity is best described.

“I wasn’t supposed to stay (in the U.S.), but days become months and months became years,” says Tal.

Back home, meanwhile, Yuval had left the army and enrolled in culinary school in Kineret in northern Israel, a period of his life he looks back on with great delight — “the kitchen was right on the Sea of Galilee” — and where he gained his patisserie credentials. He moved on to the Palm Beach Hotel in historic Acre, near Haifa, for a year as pastry chef and would come to the States periodically to visit his sister, now ensconced in Westchester County. 

After hearing about an Israeli restaurant opening on the Upper East Side that needed a chef, he seized the opportunity and the die was cast. He would remain in the United States, where long stretches at the restaurant in question, the Upper East Side’s Nagila Grill, bookended a two-year stint at a place in the West Village serving falafels (chickpea and bean fritters) and shawarmas — a Middle Eastern dish of seasoned, marinated, grilled meats and pickled vegetables on pita bread.

But a patisserie was never far from his thoughts or his sister’s. He and Tal were always talking about opening a small café and bakery, serving high-quality, European-style pastries and delectable sandwiches of their own, but they could never find a site that matched their budget. It was now 2007, just before the recession, and prices were sky-high. “Every time we went to look at somewhere, it was insane. How many cups of coffee would we have to sell a day just to pay the rent,” Yuval says they asked themselves constantly.

Then, one day, as Tal waited to pick up her kids outside Our Lady of Fatima in Scarsdale, opportunity knocked. “A dad — actually an Eastchester cop — whose kids went to the same school and who knew my baking from school bake sales, said to me, ‘Tal, I have a bakery with your name on it.’ ‘Really, I asked?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. It’s on Fisher Avenue …. You should go take a look at it.’”

“It” was the former Crestwood Bakery, which had been shuttered for many years. Tal did a drive-by and then told her brother to go and check the place out, which he did. He found a place that was virtually derelict, the windows covered with old newspaper, the walls a hideous red and the basement rank, full of junk accumulated over 50 years. Yuval picks up the story. “I asked the landlord to leave me alone for an hour and I sat on a stool and tried to picture what we could do. We had no money, no finance, no credit — nothing. When he came back after an hour I held out my hand and said, ‘OK, we have a deal.’”

Everybody told them they were crazy, but they didn’t see it that way. Adds Yuval:  “I didn’t see the mess, I didn’t see the red walls. I saw the opportunity.” 

The pair started to renovate by themselves, a project that eventually saw the entire family — including Tal’s husband, her daughter Martine (for whom they named the bake shop,) her aunt, in-laws and Yuval’s son — all pitching in. The only professionals they took on were an electrician and a plumber. Yuval did the tile, Tal did the grout. “I was high for a week on the glue,” she remembers with a grin.

Four months later, in October 2008, they opened. “He was the baker in the back, I was the counter girl in the front,” says Tal. Yuval adds: “We had one oven and two mixers — and one of the mixers was broken. Every day I had to bring different tools in to fix it. We paid cash for everything and each day was a struggle. For the first year I worked a 20-hour day and slept at  the property on a mattress.” With no credit for wholesale, they bought all their milk and eggs from the supermarket.”  

But starting with just a few products — including their now famous triple chocolate and chocolate mousse cakes — and a burning will to succeed, success came relatively quickly. At first, people were always asking for cannoli. “What kind of a bakery are you, anyway?” they would ask Tal out front. “‘We’re everything.’ I told them,” Tal says. “‘But we really wanted to bring something new — good quality, great chocolate, always Valrhona, tiramisu, the best cakes. (Soon we were doing) a wonderful apple danish, cheese danish, cheesecake, Jerusalem squares. Oh, and the babka, of course.”

Ah, that extraordinary babka — the Eastern European specialty confection synonymous with Martine’s. Endorsed — make that immortalized — by Jerry Seinfeld when he and Ricky Gervais bought a chocolate babka (they also make a cinnamon version) while filming a segment of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” back in 2018, Martine’s now ships its babkas all over the country. Yuval says he was taught the art by a German named Uri in Israel and, after sharing a few slices with the brother and sister along with a cup of Martine’s coffee, I can attest there is nothing quite like it for freshness, richness and depth of flavor.

Uri also taught Yuval economy. “‘Don’t make too much and be sure to sell everything fresh,’ he would tell me.” This has become something of a mantra for the pair, a central tenet of the business. “That’s why we never, never sell anything old,” reiterates Tal, thumping her fist on the desk for emphasis, so that you’d better believe her. “Anything we have left over, we always either donate it (to homeless shelters, including one in White Plains) or we throw it out.”

They are keen travelers and compulsive, constant tasters, always looking for new ideas and inspiration. New cakes or patisserie start with a drawing. Then, Yuval builds up the prototype with layers to a specific height, with weight, balance, texture, flavor and color always in mind. Plus, of course, there must be compatibility (or contrast) with other products in the repertoire. 

Today that repertoire comprises between 300 and 400 individual items at any one time, including  14 flavors of French macaroons, up to 20 kinds of cakes, 16 types of cookies and around 25 individual pastries, along with additional viennoiseries (morning pastries), salads, yogurts, sandwiches and soups, all to eat in or take out. The only actual breads they bake, however, are a classic French baguette and challah. (“A very good challah,” says Yuval, referring to the traditional Jewish plaited loaf. “We do that for the soul.”)

Martine’s Scarsdale shop opened in 2011 and was an immediate success and although there are no specific plans for expansion, readers may care to watch this space. It has, in any event, already been quite a journey, says Tal, what with a major recession and now Covid posing existential threats to the business. Brother and sister adapted quickly to the pandemic, however, upgrading their online and delivery service and keeping staff working shifts so they didn’t have to lay off a single person.

“My father always said, no matter what, people will always come for a coffee, a sandwich and a piece of cake,” muses Yuval philosophically. “People will always have money for medicine and something sweet.” 

And, we might add, there can scarcely be better medicine than a Martine’s treat.

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