Nicole Baum, Marketing & Partnerships Manager at Gotham Greens.
We’ve often thought that if you love food you should just move to Brooklyn—the way a lover of Thoroughbreds should move to Kentucky or a lover of surf to California. Brooklyn Eats, the annual food and beverage trade show hosted by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, showed on June 27 just how sound that impulse would be by offering the borough’s full range of food possibilities, from serious farming to frivolous (but fabulous) ice cream and cupcakes.
“We are farmers that live in apartments. We see green fields where others see rooftops,” announces Gotham Greens’ website, baldly appealing to local patriotism—and so they should. Brooklyn’s rooftop farms and greenhouses are becoming one of the wonders of the urban world. Did anyone predict urban agriculture could be profitable before 2010, when the Brooklyn Grange opened its soil farm on the roof of a 43,000-square-foot building in Queens, and Gotham Greens built its commercial-scale greenhouse on the roof of a warehouse in North Brooklyn? Using hydroponic technology—nutrient-rich, reusable water instead of soil—Gotham Greens has since opened a greenhouse on the roof of the Whole Foods in Gowanus, and will soon operate a third in Jamaica, Queens.
“We concentrate on perishable crops,” says Nicole Baum, Marketing & Partnerships Manager at Gotham Greens, especially the lettuces that must be shipped long distances, from Latin America and California, and the herbs that are so treasured by today’s cooks. In place of long-distance transport, they simply carry the products down from the roof, converting “food miles to food footsteps,” says Gotham Greens co-founder Viraj Puri.
KBBK’s home brew master Will Donnelly explaining the importance of good ingredients.
Greens and freshness are recurring themes in Brooklyn, basic to the borough’s ongoing search for products promising good taste and good health, such as kombucha, a fermented drink of sweetened black that that is thought to have originated in ancient Manchuria, where it was called the “Immortal Health Elixir.” It spread to Russia in the late 19th or early 20th century, before traveling to Europe. It didn’t become popular in America until very recently and is even now probably restricted mainly to cool urban neighborhoods plus a few loyally ethnic ones. It’s said to confer immense health benefits, but these are unproven. Nonetheless, Kombucha Brooklyn (with the cute abbreviation of KBBK) says its pro-biotic tea “nourishes the mind and body,” specifying that its compounds detoxify, energize, support your immune system, clarify your skin, and elevate your mood. Indeed, ‘buch (as the hip say) has a kick that turned us into believers, improving our mood while connecting us with ancient traditions.
Brooklyn Cupcake founder Gina Madera with cousin Michele Caballero and sister Carmen Rodriguez.
America’s most straightforward mood elevator could be found around the corner, at Brooklyn Cupcake, given a Best of New York designation for being “made with love and care” by Daily News readers. Like so many Brooklyn food companies, BK Cupcake opened in a long-abandoned storefront in a transitional neighborhood—East Williamsburg—and stuck it out through tough times, eased somewhat by owners Gina Madera, Carmen Rodriguez and Michelle Caballero having grown up there. Using top ingredients like Madagascar Vanilla and Valrhona Chocolate, they make over 20 varieties of cupcakes including Red Velvet, Oreo Cheesecake, and Crazy Carrot. Building on their Puerto Rican and Italian roots to make flavors that “represent us,” they also developed Guava con Queso, Tiramisu, and Tres Leches. Their cupcakes are sold in New York’s Whole Foods Markets.
Damascus Bakeries family member Janet Mafoud showing their goods.
But while Brooklyn is identified with the new and the trendy (even the adorable), it has also done a remarkable job of holding onto some of its traditional food companies, such as Damascus Bakeries, which has been baking in Brooklyn since 1930. Now headed by the third generation of the Mafoud family, Damascus has expanded beyond its renowned pita bread to make a full line of artisanal flat breads. As Edible Brooklyn notes, “Damascus is not the hidden, handmade bread shop that time forgot. It is, instead, a global company, cited by the Bloomberg administration as a mainstay of the Navy Yard industrial district, which was not always a high-rent corridor.”
But that’s the new Brooklyn: perfectly happy to see its neighborhood-based, family-owned enterprises make the leap to global success.
Taste NY’s Brooklyn Pavilion
New York’s food businesses have recently learned the advantages of electing a food-loving governor to the state’s top executive office. Governor Andrew Cuomo not only happily (and publicly) eats New York State products and drinks New York State wine, beer, and spirits, he also set up the Taste NY initiative within the Empire State Development Corporation to promote New York State food. In early June, for example, Taste NY partnered with the New York State Brewers Association to put on the Craft New York Rare Beer Fest at the Brooklyn Brewery, showcasing remarkable breweries from around the state.
Brooklyn’s Crepini Crepe Team prepares its fusion of French crepes and Russian blinis.
At this year’s Summer Fancy Food Show, just closing at the Javits Convention Center, Taste NY had its own section that included a Brooklyn Pavilion. This is no minor feat because the Summer Fancy Food Show (in its 60th year) is North America’s largest specialty food and beverage event, with 2,400 exhibitors from 80 countries and regions displaying 180,000 products.
Michael Rogak and daughter Lauren, JoMart Chocolates.
JoMart Chocolates is the kind of enterprise Nora Ephron used to make movies about. It’s just so likable. Michael Rogak, who calls himself “son of a son of a candy maker,” says that his father and his father’s Cousin Joe started the company in 1946, after the “pain and suffering” of World War II, because they wanted to be in a business that celebrated the good things in life. And, indeed, JoMart Chocolates are sublime. Butter crunch, nut brittles, chocolate-covered marshmallows, as well as basic, delicious dark chocolate are all made in their factory in Madison, Brooklyn, near Marine Park. Basically a residential neighborhood, Madison is loyal to its chocolatier. As Sharon C posted on Yelp, “I’m so used to JoMart’s presence in the neighborhood that I didn’t think of it as special. But I just saw JoMart at the Brooklyn Eats show along with a bunch of full-of-themselves expensive chocolate makers. I tasted them all (dark only, vegan) and JoMart is better than most. If you’re in southern Brooklyn there’s no need to wish you lived in Park Slope or Williamsburg for great chocolate made by real, nice, Brooklyn people.”
Stephen Valand, co-owner and founder, Brooklyn BrewShop.
While JoMart is one of the most iconic of Brooklyn’s heritage food companies, the Brooklyn BrewShop may be the most iconic of the new. Capitalizing on the DIY movement that helped make Brooklyn famous, the BrewShop advises that making beer is not difficult: “It requires little space It will save you money and taste better than what you find in most stores.” For sure the Jalapeño Saison that Valand is drawing above is astonishingly good. And in keeping with Brooklyn as a global city equivalent to the best of them, the BrewShop has just published an excellent, international book of globally inspired recipes, Make Some Beer: Small-Batch Recipes from Brooklyn to Bamberg.
So move over Manhattan: Brooklyn is in the house.