It's not every day that you stumble into a cafe that houses beautiful interior design, high-quality coffee, and imaginative baked goods from a Michelin-starred pastry chef, unless that cafe is Butler Bake Shop. This week, we chatted with two of the co-founders, Chef Ryan Butler and ex-advertising guru Hugo Murray about how they executed their vision for a coffee shop that would showcase Ryan's fine dining pastry background in a thoughtfully designed, casual atmosphere. From the industrial-chic custom brass tabletops to the hand-rolled breakfast empanadas sprinkled with dukkah, everything about Butler Bake Shop exudes the elevated flair of a French bistro, in a perfectly cozy neighborhood spot that feels just like home.
How did the concept for Butler Bake Shop first come about?
H: Ryan’s background is in pastry – he’s been the executive pastry chef at a lot of restaurants in New York City, like Piora, the Gramercy Park Hotel, Tocqueville, and Highlands, among others, so it’s always been a dream for Ryan. Rod and Ryan had been talking about this for a while – they’ve known each other for seven years since they were both working at the Highlands. My background is in advertising, but I’ve always wanted to do something in the hospitality space, so when a mutual friend introduced me to them it seemed like a natural fit. It was a “penny drop" kind of moment when Rod and I first met, and we immediately realized we had a lot in common in terms of vision for a place that we wanted to create.
R: I’ve always had a lot of concepts in my head, but this was one I really wanted to focus on: delivering the kind of product you could create in fine dining in a casual setting, without the stuffy service and plating. It was really dependent on finding the right space. I’m a New Yorker, and when I was younger, there weren’t nearly as many coffee shops or cafes, but I think the coffee culture has really come full circle from where it used to be. We knew we’d be baking and cooking top-notch products, so it was a given that we’d serve it in a coffee shop space with top-notch coffee.
Did you always know there would be savory aspects to the menu?
R: I knew I’d be using techniques from my background as a pastry chef to translate those same doughs into savory concepts. You can’t have sweets all the time – but you can have a savory baked good for lunch, and follow it up with something sweet. It’s a whole package here. Cooking for me is something I’ve done my whole life, so I transitioned to savory pretty easily, but the basis is all from my pastry background.
What’s your approach to creating the dishes here?
R: I take a holistic approach to all the food we serve here – it’s things that I like, and flavors that go together. I take relatively safe things and add one or two elements to challenge people, but it stays familiar and still feels comfortable. We don't fall into the category of a “homey” bakery or a French patisserie – we’re unique in that we just do what we want to do. There’s no right or wrong. I’m constantly trying to evolve and like making new things – I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we hand bake everything. It revolves around seasonality too. If apples are in season, it makes sense to make apple crumb cake. If it’s summer, and the markets are carrying strawberries, we’ll do a lighter version of that with strawberries and basil. It’s about working with what’s happening, and being hypersensitive to seasonality.
What are the most popular items on the menu?
R: The breakfast empanada is really popular. We make them by hand. A lot of research and development went into it – it looks relatively simple, but it’s actually a six-step process. I’ll probably never take off the Morning Glory muffins. They have a little bit of everything, with coconut, pineapple, carrots… a little homey, but then they challenge you a bit with a savory icing and reduction that’s sour from passionfruit.
What are everyone’s roles on the team?
H: Ryan is the executive chef, responsible for the menu and bringing that to life, and he manages the kitchen team. Rod is the director of operations – he looks after staffing, finances, inventory. I handle an odd selection of roles from the fit out and interior design, branding and marketing, and events and catering. So we each have our own roles but we also do a really good job as a team in terms of consulting each other on everything, from menu changes to the design. The kitchen layout was the most collaborative part of the design since all three of us work behind it, and because it’s such a small space that we needed to make sure everything fit and worked seamlessly.
How did you curate the look of the space?
H: As Ryan mentioned, Ryan’s goal was to bring techniques from the world of fine dining into a casual setting. I tried to do the same with the design – to create a beautiful space that looked like a French bistro, with the rattan chairs and brass tabletops, but still felt approachable and casual. The chairs are actually vintage, from a French bistro back in the ‘60s – we got them off of Etsy. I also really like nautical design and love boats, and the brass used inside of them. So our color palette and brass highlights were inspired by that – a friend of mine in Bed-Stuy helped make the tabletops. All these banquets have storage under them for our printed cups, the way you’d see on a yacht.
R: As for the plates, Hugo and I spent a day looking for ceramics that would be cohesive with the whole look of our space, and the food. The pastries are beautiful by themselves but when you serve them on the right kind of plate, they really pop right off of it. With a standalone little muffin or slice of cake, you have to have that pop effect. So we went to the restaurant supply stores, but everything we saw we’d already seen in other restaurants. And of all places, we ended up sourcing ours from CB2 - we managed to snag a limited edition set.
How would you describe the atmosphere here?
R: It really changes on a daily basis. Some days, we see a lot of fashion people having brunch here. Other days, we have tech people grabbing lunch. And then there are days where we just have our neighborhood regulars – we have a great amount of people who support us and come in several times a day. We get a lot of tourists from Europe too. The vibe is definitely “New Brooklyn”, but it’s just cool and casual. I think we’ve created what we set out to do – a casual setting with a unique food program and beautiful coffee. I see a lot of regulars bring in new guests and spread the word about it, because they’re so comfortable here. We’ve worked so hard to create all that, and I’m really humble and proud of what we’ve done so far. That’s why we chose this area – to impart a really nice, unique product for people in the neighborhood, especially since we all live around here.
Can you share any tips to culivate our readers?
R: Try to form your own opinion about food based on your own dining experiences. A lot of people read Yelp, Google and all these food blogs, and will have an opinion about something before they’ve even tried it. I don’t think that’s the right way to be. Just form your own opinion, and don’t rely on the Internet so much.
H: Try new places when you can. It’s easy to fall into the trap of going to familiar spots when you go out with friends, but I always try to go to new places to support them in their infancy. I keep a bucket list of places to try on my phone, so that whenever someone asks to meet for coffee or for dinner, I hit that list. I especially like trying places that’s pushing boundaries, and breaking the mold from nouveau American cuisine. Ryan introduced me to this Taiwanese place in East Williamsburg called Win Son - I’m obsessed. I find it really refreshing, and I can’t think of any other place that’s like it. I would say it’s probably fresher and more flavorful than other Taiwanese I’ve had in the city.
What’s been your proudest moment since opening the doors?
R: It’s ongoing. I’ve had a lot of people I’ve worked with in the past come in and say things like, “you should’ve done this years ago”, “I’m so proud of you”, “you finally did it”… it’s really humbling and refreshing to hear all those words.
H: After three months, when we took our partners out to Olmsted for our holiday dinner – I finally got to take a step back and think about all that we’d done. It’s very easy when you’re stuck in the daily grind, especially in my role, where I’m so focused on just solving problems on a daily basis. It was nice to step outside that role and have a bird’s eye view to reflect on how far we’ve come.
Kitchen Snapshot – Ryan Butler
Go-to homemade meal for guests: my mother is an Italian-American from Brooklyn, so spaghetti and meatballs with red sauce has always been a big thing for me. It’s such a comfort food. On Sunday nights, we’ll have a few people over and enjoy some really nice red wine, with red sauce and just hang out. Another one is “potlikker noodles”, which my wife introduced me to. It’s a pork and ham hock stock served with egg noodles and collard greens, and Frank’s hot sauce. It’s super delicious.
Culinary quirk: My meals need to be in progression. I have to have a drink, then something savory, something sweet, then something hot.
Can't live without: a large sharp serrated slicer. It's like having a ruler and a knife all in one.
A kitchen tool I own but never use: a Japanese chicken boning knife (I hope my wife's not reading this!).
Kitchen Snapshot – Hugo Murray
Go-to homemade meal for guests: David Chang’s bo ssam, although the actual cooking credit goes to my wife – I’m the sous chef for this recipe. It’s the same amount of work whether you’re feeding 3 or 30 people. It’s a fun, casual kind of dish to share, because you eat it with your hands. The sauces are incredible.
Culinary quirk: I can't chop veggies without listening to music.
Can't live without: a good sharp chef's knife.
A kitchen tool I own but never use: a garlic mincer. By the time I've got the skins off, I'm ready to have at it with the aforementioned sharp knife.
Photography by Anne Z. Chen unless otherwise specified.