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Common Bond's sweet secrets: A behind the curtain look at Houston's ultra-hyped new bakery

1 Common Bond May 2014 interior with crowd
A look into the Common Bond dining room and pastry counter. Photo by Eric Sandler
12 Common Bond May 2014 croissant slice
The croissants are both taller and lighter than any other Houston bakery.  Photo by Eric Sandler
11 Common Bond May 2014 bread assortment
From front to back: sticky bun, kouign amann, chocolate croissant, plain croissant. Photo by Eric Sandler
18 Common Bond May 2014 Roy Shvartzapel
Roy Shvartzapel next to one of the two, massive proofer-retarders in the Common Bond kitchen. Photo by Eric Sandler
19 Common Bond May 2014 kitchen equipment 3
This water cutter can create extremely precise shapes.  Photo by Eric Sandler
9 Common Bond May 2014 biscuits with gravy
Biscuits with housemade bacon gravy.  Photo by Eric Sandler
8 Common Bond May 2014 scrambled eggs
Soft scramble with pea risotto and baguette.  Photo by Eric Sandler
5 Common Bond May 2014 breads under counter
The Common Bond pastry case.  Photo by Eric Sandler
17 Common Bond May 2014 baking racks
German bread oven. Photo by Eric Sandler
16 Common Bond May 2014 kitchen equipment 2
A special mixer lifts the bread dough to prevent it from heating.  Photo by Eric Sandler
1 Common Bond May 2014 interior with crowd
12 Common Bond May 2014 croissant slice
11 Common Bond May 2014 bread assortment
18 Common Bond May 2014 Roy Shvartzapel
19 Common Bond May 2014 kitchen equipment 3
9 Common Bond May 2014 biscuits with gravy
8 Common Bond May 2014 scrambled eggs
5 Common Bond May 2014 breads under counter
17 Common Bond May 2014 baking racks
16 Common Bond May 2014 kitchen equipment 2

Common Bond is here. Finally. A project that begin in February 2013 has been brought to life at the corner of Westheimer and Dunlavy in a space built from the ground up specifically for the much buzzed-over new bakery and cafe.

CultureMap caught up with chef/owner Roy Shvartzapel at 8 a.m. Thursday morning during the second day of Common Bond's soft-opening breakfast service. Before giving me a taste of the menu, Shvartzapel spoke about the process of recruiting his talented team, the philosophy and equipment that sets Common Bond apart and his hopes for the project.

But first, before any of that, let's talk about the one aspect of Common Bond that's been slightly controversial — Shvartzapel's stated aspiration to operate "the best bakery in America." 

Here's his response:

For whatever reason when that quote came out, it got responses, or people interpreted that with a discourse that I still really don’t understand. It was somehow taken out of context in that I am opening the best bakery in America. That’s not what was said. It was posed as a question of goal-orientation.

We hope to one day be acknowledged as that. If that sounds strange to someone, it’s tough for me to respond to that. I just don’t know how to operate any other way. I don’t know how to wake up and say, ‘Hey guys, why don’t we aim for somewhere in the middle of the pack? Let’s aim for the 47th spot on the list.’ I don’t live that way.

Whether or not we’ll ever reach that, I don’t know. It’s a lofty goal to try to reach, super lofty. Maybe even unattainable. But, it gets me going. That sort of challenge. Shooting for somewhere in the middle or right below the top, it’s just not the person that I am.

With regards to the whole best bakery thing, it’s plain and simple just a goal. That’s all that it is. It’s not for anyone within the company to determine that. It’s for the public.

With that out of the way, let's turn to the no expenses spared build out that separates Common Bond from other similar concepts. "I decided when I opened this place I wanted to, from a technological perspective, allow my staff to worry about one thing and one thing only. The craft of baking and the craft of production. We applied that to all things," Shvartzapel says.

That means two, massive proofer-retarders sourced from the Netherlands that the chef calls "the Rolls Royce of this particular genre of equipment. Not because they’re the most expensive. They’re just the best built."

The kitchen has German-made ovens for both pastries and breads that are world-class pieces of equipment. A combi-oven doubles as both a cold and hot smoker so that the restaurant can make its own bacon and sausage. A special mixer lifts bread dough to prevent it from heating during the mixing process.

 "Everything we serve, we make. If we don’t make it, we’re not serving it . . . That's the type of staff that we have." 

Want a cake cut in the shape of the numbers of a person's age for his or her birthday? They have the exact tool for the job — one of only 11 water cutters in America — that the staff will use to make precisely shaped cakes and other pastries. Naturally, the tool is located inside Common Bond's climate-controlled pastry room that's separated from the kitchen's heat to produce more consistent (and more consistently delicious) products. 

Shvartzapel offers a simple explanation for all the technology. "Every piece of equipment purchase we made, that decision begins and ends with: How does this benefit us in production? What does this do to our labor cost . . . Wherever we can employ something to enable us to grow and make us more efficient, we’ve done it."

That technology has been placed in the hands of chefs whose pedigrees are littered with stints at Michelin starred restaurants like Cyrus, Per Se and Bouchon. That gives the team of chefs a certain philosophy when it comes to developing items for the cafe menu and retail bakery. 

"Everything we serve, we make," Shvartzapel says. "If we don’t make it, we’re not serving it . . . That's the type of staff that we have back there. None of us would ever be like 'Oh, let’s make a breakfast sandwich and buy some sausage.' "

Other than Shvartzaepel, a native Houstonian and University of Houston alum who hadn't lived here in 10 years before returning to launch Common Bond, none of the principle chefs had lived in Houston prior to signing on to the project. To his delight, the team has found much to like about the city, and Shvartzapel doesn't think they'll be tempted to return to either New York or California.

"They actually are at a point where they enjoy living here. The cost of living, how far the dollar goes, how comfortable living here is, how relative to other major, major cities the stress level is not pounding . . ." he says. "It’s been such a relief to know that that’s not a problem that the Common Bond team is going to have to deal with."

All the equipment and all the talent have been brought together in service of one goal — to elevate the experience of casual dining in a way that's never been done in Houston. Or, as Shvartzapel puts it, "Let's reimagine what it means to say 'cafe-bakery.'"

"It shouldn’t matter whether someone’s paying $300 for the tasting menu at Name Your Three Michelin Star Restaurant Dot Com, or you’re going to the cafe down the street. 'Why not make a memorable sandwich?' is kind of our approach everyday", Shvartzapel says. "Now, whether we achieve the goals of making memorable sandwiches that people walk out of here and say 'Wow, that was a truly special sandwich,' I don’t know.

"I know we come in here every day and that’s what lights our fire. Again, it is a lofty goal to try to meet, but welcome to the team we have here. We’re kind of fanatical in all things we do."

If the results of that fanaticism are as delicious as the dishes pictured above, Houstonians are about to become Common Bond zealots

Common Bond opens full time this Tuesday, May 20. Its hours are Tuesdays through Sundays, 7 a.m. to midnight. 

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