Sometimes our Special Sauce guests are just so idiosyncratic, so entertaining, so thoughtful, and so zany, I find myself alternately laughing and near tears for an hour and a half straight. That’s what happened when I had Matt and Allison Robicelli on the podcast.
Allison is a longtime baker, cook, and James Beard- nominated food writer; Matt is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute who has cooked at City Bakery and Lutèce. Together, they opened the acclaimed bakery Robicelli’s in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (which closed in 2015), and wrote a cookbook, Robicelli’s: A Love Story, With Cupcakes. But before all of that- before they ever met, in fact- each of them faced life-changing events that indirectly led them to pursue their culinary interests professionally: Allison was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Matt was a paramedic who suffered injuries while responding at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Neither had even reached their 21st birthday at the time, which helped them bond when they finally met. “I think one of the reasons we got along so well was because after I survived cancer, it’s really hard to relate to somebody who’s 22 and didn’t go through that,” Allison says.
Nowadays, Matt and Allison run a culinary consulting business, co-own a couple of New York food businesses, and host their own podcast, The Robicelli Argument Clinic, whose name is self-explanatory: “We just quibble a lot, and we argue,” Allison says. “We’ve been together for 14 years, and somebody was like, that’s entertaining. Cut to tape. That was it. So we decided to do a podcast of just- we have these ridiculous arguments, just any kind of food topic. We just want to have more fun.”
I asked my standard question about what life was like at Matt and Allison’s respective family tables when they were growing up. Allison dispelled the stereotype that everyone has warm and fuzzy memories of their childhood dinners: “I remember a lot of yelling [in my family], I remember putting a TV there because that would shut everybody up…. Food can bring up all the memories. It can bring up all of the feelings. It’s complicated just like we are. I think that’s the kind of beauty about it.”
Family meals don’t have to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, Allison contends: “There’s all these beautiful stories on the internet about the family table, and not everybody had it. You know what? That’s okay. If your family dinner was eating McDonald’s in the car alone- that’s fine.” The table that the Robicellis share nowadays includes their two preteen boys, Toby and Atticus, and that makes mealtimes predictably challenging. “The pickiest eaters I’ve ever met,” Allison calls them. “They drive me insane.”
In keeping with their own podcast style, my conversation with the Robicellis turned out to be a series of wacky and wise, well, arguments, and you’ll have to listen to this episode and the one that follows to enjoy them. Matt and Allison are two wonderfully human interviewees, and great company. My guess is that they’ll make you laugh as hard as I laughed, and they might make you cry as well.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Allison Robicelli: We’ll tell all the people who liked our cakes that they’re available in cupcake forms. They’ll come in for a bite, but then they’ll order sandwiches and all that stuff. Didn’t think that was the thing that’s going to take off, and suddenly it explodes.
Matt Robicelli: We didn’t like cupcakes and we-
AR: Still don’t.
MR: We decided to market it as competition between me and her. We made these things called battle boxes and they-
AR: God, this takes me back, 10 years ago.
MR: They had one a flavor each of us would make, and then we’d have the community vote. We did this for a couple of weeks until people are like, we really don’t want to vote anymore. Can we just have the cupcakes?
EL: Today, in the house, it is my distinct pleasure to welcome some of the Serious Eats’ oldest friends, food provocateurs and activists, cupcake Mavens, cookbook authors, general pains in the ass, intentionally so, I might add.
AR: I’m just so good at it. It’s in my blood.
EL: Allison and Matt Robicelli, they are the founders of Robicelli Studios in Baltimore, Maryland, which is, far as I could tell, means they’ll do anything you want them to do.
MR: Well, if you need us to do something, I’ll get it done.
EL: All right. There you go, there you go.
AR: I’m a song and dance man, and kid.
EL: Welcome to Special Sauce, both of you. It’s a pleasure to have you here.
EL: Allison, tell us about life at your family table, growing up.
AR: We just did a podcast episode about this, what like two weeks ago?
MR: It was very simple.
EL: Oh yeah. First of all, we should say that Allison and Matt have their own podcast, which is called-
AR: The Robicelli Argument Clinic.
MR: It’s pretty much, it’s Allison and I, and our two other stars. We have a 19 year old kid from South West Baltimore who is on the show.
AR: Pretty much lives with us.
MR: Yeah. Well, he’s the Urkel.
MR: Then we also have Evan, who is our producer, and a cat who likes to delete stuff, periodically.
AR: Yeah, we always called Noah our Fonz or our Urkel. We have that wacky neighbor boy who’s 19 and he’s two blocks away, and he comes over on his skateboard in the morning and he hangs out all day. Then he goes to school, then he comes back and then he leaves at like 11:00 at night.
EL: I love it.
AR: I don’t even remember how he started coming to our house, but he’s our sidekick and we’re guessing on another podcast. Pardon me. I remember yelling-
MR: I mean, I met-
AR: I’m talking. You should know better about talking on top of each other by this point. We’ve been doing this for like 10 episodes. We just quibble a lot and we argue. We’ve been together for 14 years, and somebody was like, that’s entertaining. Cut to tape. That was it. So we decided to do a podcast of just, we have these ridiculous arguments, just any kind of food topic. We just want to have more fun.
EL: I like an argument based podcast.
MR: Well, yeah. It’s like I’m wasting all this material on stuff I could be sharing with everybody when we have these stupid fights in the car, sometimes.
AR: So many stupid fights. Remember that time you started shaving in the car for no good reason? You took a razor out of the glove compartment and started shaving yourself.
MR: I don’t remember that.
AR: Oh, I remember that. I remember that because Dave Martin was in the backseat and I just … We run on Roosevelt island. I was like, why are you shaving?
MR: No. There was a razor in the glove compartment and then I started to, I remember that, I started to shave just because it was funny.
AR: No, you didn’t shave because you were funny. Why there was a razor in the glove compartment, we will never know, and you just started shaving.
EL: Wait, are we talking an electric razor?
MR: No. It was a regular Bic razor.
AR: It was a cheap one, too, like a 99 Cent Store, no-brand razor, totally dry shaving. I think you were shaving your lips. I have so many questions and I’ve never pursued them. That happened six years ago. It’s like, I’m done.
EL: I think we need to leave that aside. First, tell us about life at your family table, Allison.
AR: What’s funny, which we had figured out on the podcast, was like we all have these ideas of the family table. When we discuss it, you’re always expecting these warm stories, and your grandma coming out and feeding you. I think a lot of us kind of conflated it with some Norman Rockwell paintings. When you sit down and you’re really thinking about the family table, I remember a lot of yelling, I remember putting a TV there because that would shut everybody up.
EL: This was where you grew up?
AR: Yeah. Where I grew up. You put the rose colored glasses on because you only want to remember the kind of good things, but then when you get really granular and you remember there was a lot of stress. I realized this now because we have two boys who are just about 11 to 12, and they are so super picky, the pickiest eaters I’ve ever met. They’re also picky for opposite things. Toby loves cheese. Atticus won’t touch it. Atticus likes meat. Toby won’t touch it. They both like different vegetables. They drive me insane. I was actually fighting with my son over text on the subway over here. I was like, listen, think about the one thing that you love most in the world, and then think about that teacher you have that tells you all your work is garbage. This is how I feel every night.
AR: He’s out of town the other night and I was like, listen, I’m ordering him because I’m going to cook, and neither of them going to eat it, and I’m going to throw it in the garbage, and I’m going to be sad.
MR: By the way, did you take the garbage out Tuesday?
AR: Yes, I did. Recycling goes out tonight, right?
MR: Awesome. Yeah.
EL: Wait. Was your mother a good cook?
AR: My mom’s a great cook.
MR: She was a good cook. She was a great cook.
AR: Yeah. She was a great cook.
EL: This was in Brooklyn?
AR: In Brooklyn. My Grandmother, I probably remember her as a better cook than she was. She was a child of the depression, a child of Sicilian immigrants, working class. My family never had a lot of money and you’ve got to feed 20 people on a Sunday after church with 17 bucks, and somehow you make it happen.
EL: We make some Sunday gravy and a hell of a lot of pasta.
AR: Yup. Yup. Kind of crazy. When we moved to Baltimore and everybody’s obsessed with crabs there for some reason. When I ate crabs growing up, I only put them in tomato sauce because you could take four crabs and feed 30 people right on a pot of sauce.
AR: So yeah. I don’t understand the attachment to little things. I’m like, you’re wasting so much of the animal. You need the shells. I just heard something for taste about using leek greens because I hate throwing out food, I just hate it. I’m like, I don’t have all this money. I’m a food writer. I get paid, maybe.
EL: Exactly. But you had fond memories, would you say, overall? Mixed?
AR: Some days, yes. Some days, no.
EL: Got it.
AR: I mean, I kind of love the fact that food isn’t always a constant. Food can bring up all the memories. It can bring up all of the feelings. It’s complicated just like we are.
AR: I think that’s the kind of beauty about it. I mean, we can’t look at it through rose colored glasses. There’s moments where, I mean, we eat just because we’re sad, or we eat because we’re just looking for something to do with our hands. It’s such a complicated thing. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing. I don’t want people to feel… There’s all these beautiful stories on the internet about the family table and not everybody had it. You know what? That’s okay. If your family dinner was eating McDonald’s in the car alone. That’s fine.
EL: I used to say, I was one of four boys, and my family, the dinner was incredible. Right? Because there were six of us.
AR: Jesus. Wait. Four boys?
AR: God help you.
EL: It was like speaker’s corner at Hyde Park. You had to sing for your supper about some obscure leftist political thing that was going on. Because we were all red diaper babies and my parents were both communists. I just wrote a memoir. So this is all very fresh.
AR: A fresh commie, by Ed Levine.
EL: Yeah, exactly. What about you Matt? What was like at the Robicelli family table?
MR: Well, my dad was on the road a lot, so he really wasn’t home, so it was pretty much my brother and I and my mom.
AR: He was a singer.
MR: My Dad was a singer.
EL: A Singer? Like a lounge singer?
MR: No, like an opera singer.
EL: Oh, okay.
AR: Yeah, and musical theater and stuff.
MR: Did a lot of traveling doing shows.
EL: He was legit?
MR: Oh yeah, yeah. Oh yeah. He’s the one claim to fame that has college accepts. They’ve produced nothing but my father, which I’m like, good job guys, aim low. My mom was very interested in the crock pot.
AR: Well, his mom also, she was raising two boys, essentially on her own, and going to night school to get her master’s degree in nursing, and working full-time.
MR: Oh, were you there? No.
AR: No. I’ve been with you 14 years. I’ve heard the story a lot.
MR: All right. Well, you can just shut your mouth because I let you speak.
AR: I’m telling the story better than you. Try harder.
EL: Go ahead.
MR: All right, well, my mom would always, it was always the same thing. It was always some sort of either Midwestern casserole or it was her magic recipe of the chicken in the crock pot. Sometimes still in the original bag.
EL: With the chicken with the skin that was uncooked.
MR: Oh my God, or is not crispy?
AR: Threw some french onion soup packet on there?
MR: No, she didn’t do that. Well, my mom was also really into healthy food for me and my brother.
AR: Cottage cheese?
MR: I was thinking back to the other day, I was like, Mommy’s lot of nutritional yeast. God, how expensive was that in the ’80s and where did she find that?
AR: Your mom was the hipster-
MR: Now I picture her in some black market trying to purchase nutritional yeast in the back alley of Mott street.
AR: There was that and wheat germ. Remember, what germ was on everything.
MR: Wheat germ was another one. We used to eat a lot of that, but my mom would make that for my brother and I, but then she’d double fist brownies in the kitchen.
AR: She had two boys.
MR: We talked about this on our podcast, but-
AR: Just keep mentioning that we talked about this already and Ed wasn’t there, and Ed didn’t listen to the episode.
MR: No. That’s how you start a segue in radio, sweetheart.
AR: Oh, okay.
EL: The name of the podcast is, of course-
AR: The Robicelli Argument Clinic. You got it wrong.
EL: Everybody should know that by now.
AR: I know. It’s been 10 weeks.
EL: In this case, 10 minutes.
MR: It’s been 10 minutes, and started episode four. You can go back to the earlier episodes once you’ve committed to us.
MR: But yeah. My mom, I feel that she just guilt ate brownies. She used the same cookbook. She could bake, she couldn’t cook. Our casseroles were either ground beef mixed with French green beans, some cream of soup mix, and then a Grands biscuits, or Bisquick on top of the baking sheet. Bake it.
AR: Yeah. We both grew up in Brooklyn. My family, my mother was Norwegian. My father was Sicilian from Bensonhurst. When you have Sicilian people, your family just takes over everything else like a cancer. I grew up with a lot of Italian food. My mom was always experimenting with stuff she saw on food and wine, a little bit more Internet. I grew up in a block where everybody spoke different languages. I grew up with all these cuisines. My best friend’s first generation Chinese, and I’d go to his house. His mom is like my mom and you get to grow up with all these things. They’re like Min’s parents and Sarah’s parents. Their grandmothers couldn’t speak English, but they could feed you Kimchi, and you kind of got that.
AR: Matt’s family-
MR: Were white.
AR: … Is from the Midwest.
MR: On my dad’s side, were white, and then on my mother’s side were South Baptist white.
AR: Yeah. His family, he moved from-
EL: Two shades of white.
AR: Two shades of white.
MR: It’s like eggshell and white.
AR: They came from the Midwest and I was not familiar with Midwest cooking growing up. I could eat stuff from Jamaica. I could eat stuff from Kazakhstan. That’s normal to me.
EL: But you couldn’t eat hot dish.
AR: No idea what that was.
MR: No. Well, we called them casseroles in Iowa. They called them hot dishes in Minnesota. But my favorite thing was every time I’d watch my mom make a casserole, it was like the pre version of what we have now as Chopped. I’m like, mom, what are you going to do with this pickle, two potatoes and a package of hot dogs?
AR: Make it work.
MR: I will give you the recipe later, but it is one of the greatest dishes you’ll ever eat.
AR: That’s how it all comes out. Like that leek dish I bought, or I just wrote about. You go into the fridge, and you’re like, what do I have? When I first started in the business in 2002, most of my job was family meal. Everybody liked to eat well, and I love that. I love going into the kitchen and be like, okay, what’s going bad? What can I do with this? It wasn’t necessarily finding a recipe or working things in like, I’ll substitute this or that. You’re like, this is what I have. So let me be creative. I Mean, we do dishes that I guess they don’t even really have a pedigree. You can’t say it’s a soup or a casserole or this or that. It’s just its own thing.
MR: You can’t tell if it’s a soup or a casserole?
AR: You don’t know.
MR: That’s a pretty big line.
AR: Remember the rice thing I made?
EL: It’s farm to table, Robicelli.
AR: Yeah. It’s like the leek thing I made is like a risotto, but then 10 minutes later, kind of like a pie. Then if it was like earlier, it would have been a soup. Rice sucks shit up.
MR: That’s true.
EL: Wait. You took your diva self, Allison, to BU’s dramatic arts conservatory. Right?
AR: Yes, it did.
EL: All was hunky-dory until something happened five days before your 21st birthday.
AR: I got cancer. It was great. Yeah, no. It was five days before my 21st birthday. I remember it vividly. It was a Friday, and I knew that something was wrong with me for a while and I kept going to all these doctors. I just felt lousy, I was getting night sweats. Cancer didn’t really pop into my mind, but it was really aggravating not knowing what I had. Then when they told me what I had, I was like, huh? I’m like, okay. They were like, you’re taking this really well. I was like, well, when you know what it is, you could do something. I’ve probably been dying for over a year.
EL: It was stage four.
AR: Stage four. My birthday is August 1st and they said maybe until Christmas, I had.
AR: It had spread to my bone marrow. It was all over me, but I responded-
MR: Hey, oh.
AR: Hey, Oh. I got real up close with that shit.
MR: Kind of boyfriend you don’t want.
AR: The cancerish one?
MR: Yeah. The one that’s cancer.
AR: The one that’s cancer. So yeah. I started chemo in October and it was terrible. I thought I was going to get super skinny, but I blew up like a balloon because of prednisone. I went completely bald but still had to shave my legs, which is such bullshit.
MR: You don’t shave your legs.
AR: Well, I am married now, I don’t have to, but back then I would occasionally try.
MR: No. You never tried.
AR: No. I met you. We moved in together in like three weeks, and then I stopped trying. You were there. I had your furniture. Where were you going?
MR: Good. I was going to put this to bed right now. She’ll go, oh crap. I got to wear a skirt. Got to shave my legs now.
AR: No. I bought jumpsuits. Never again. No more skirts.
MR: Yeah. Now she looks like a 1980s flight dancer.
AR: You love that. You love that.
AR: I don’t want to go places I have to dress up.
EL: All right. All right.
AR: Anyway, cancer, terrible. Don’t get it, if you can. If you can avoid it, just sidestep the whole cancer thing.
EL: That’s not big news, I don’t think. I mean, you were 21 years old. How horrible must that have been? Obviously, you made it through, but when people were telling you that you weren’t going to.
AR: It messes up your entire perception of everything. All my friends are starting senior year at college, I am not. I am still trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. Now I’m like, oh, that might not happen. It’s kind of weird when you are that close to death, I had this peace come over me just randomly, just had this crazy peace come over me one night. It was this kind of understanding like if I lived or if I died, I was still going to be okay. It’s so supernatural and bizarre, and there’s no way to explain this unless you’ve been through it. If you’ve mentioned this to someone who’s been through it, they get it immediately. I was like, okay. I’m like, we’re going to do this. People would say, oh, you’re so brave. No, I’m not brave. I didn’t go to the cancer store and be like, give me the cancer so no one else could get it. No. I got a shitty hand.
EL: Did you have chemo and the whole bit?
AR: Yeah. Yeah. I had a chemo port put in my chest and had a catheter in my heart. I had bone marrow biopsies, which back then, you didn’t get anesthesia for, which was great. My bones were real hard because I was young and supple.
AR: Spinal tap. I still get phantom pains from the spinal tap all these years later. You just realize, you just got to do it. That’s just fricking life and you got to be who you are and just keep fighting and make lots of jokes. Because if you don’t laugh, everything will kill you in the world. Everything.
EL: Yeah. Matt, you also dealt with your own intense life experiences at a very young age, right?
EL: You were a fire Department paramedic?
MR: I was a paramedic on 9/11 so I got hurt on that day.
EL: You were at Ground Zero on 9/11. Right?
EL: Tell us exactly what happened because it’s not a fun story.
MR: No, it’s not really a great story to tell.
AR: I’ll hold you tonight. I’ll hold you. I love you.
MR: It’s not a good time.
AR: What is not a good time?
MR: I don’t know. All snuck up time. It was a really shitty day. I mean, everyone knows that, but being down there and working. Because I got hurt later in the day when World Trade Seven was coming down and we were just looking for people at that point and looking for patients, because at the point when World Trade Seven was coming down, there was nothing else.
MR: I mean, I don’t understand why the mayor kept oil drums on the 13th floor of a building that was on fire for OEM.
AR: How are you going to get them out that quick? If you have all these oil drums, you’re not-
MR: I don’t think anybody was in the building at that point.
AR: Everyone had evacuated.
MR: Everything was gone, but we were looking for people because at that point, a lot of the aid stations that were set up, they’re really just mostly people with stuff in their eyes and smoke inhalation. Most of the people that were really there were dead. When that building came down, we all ran again for our lives and it got pretty intense. I kind of look at it as it was like a video game, but you’re there. I mean, I wasn’t important at that point, other people were more important than I was.
EL: Well, whether you were important or not doesn’t really address confronting that reality at that moment, which must’ve been so intense.
AR: He was 20.
EL: You were 20?
MR: I was only 20. I wasn’t even 21 yet.
AR: I think one of the reasons we got along so well was because after I survived cancer, it’s really hard to relate to somebody who’s 22 and didn’t go through that.
AR: At the time, I was told that I was most likely infertile and that I was going to develop leukemia in my early 30s, so I would likely be on borrowed time. The chemo that they had given me, I responded miraculously to it, but they did not know a lot about the side effects or the longterm prognosis.
EL: Yeah, and in your case-
MR: Now, she’s got this elephant tail, and under that hair, those ears are actually prosthetics. Her real ears fell off. She actually has seal ears.
AR: I actually have them in my wallet if you want to look at them later.
EL: You also, look at what’s going on with Jon Stewart now trying to get the compensation funds. People are dealing with this now, 18 years later, and you don’t even know what you’re going to be confronting.
AR: Well, I do.
MR: She does. It’s been pretty shitty the last couple of years.
AR: Well, when we met each other, I was really upfront. I was like, listen, I can’t have children. I might not live more than 10 years. He was also in a bad place. He was like, we don’t know. I mean, we were-
MR: We pretty much both thought we both were going to die way before now.
AR: Yeah. We just didn’t know.
MR: Now, we’re just riding it out.
AR: Yeah. We both understood that kind of crazy existential level of uncertainty. The idea of when you’re 24 when we met, you’re promising somebody the rest of your life, that’s insane. You’re 24 and you can’t picture being 80 and changing each other or the fact that one of you was going to watch the other die. The better for worst part, the better part is so good, but there’s a lot of worse. Our marriage and every marriage is a job. It is your full-time job and we work at it.
AR: With him, he’s always had these health issues. He’s had all sorts of random stuff and we didn’t know what it was and he wasn’t down there that long, so we didn’t know what was going to happen. A couple of years ago when he randomly got super sick and went into organ failure and doctors still couldn’t figure it out. We found out that guy is down there on that day, suddenly 10 years later, autoimmune diseases started spiking.
AR: They don’t know why.
MR: That was great though. I finally started going to-
AR: There’s so many doctors.
MR: What are they called?
MR: Rheumatologists. There we go. I see so many doctors now.
AR: I don’t think we got 14 now, 15?
MR: Her name is Kathy. I don’t call her by her job description.
AR: We’re so familiar with these people at this point.
EL: Everyone knows her as Kathy.
MR: Yeah, she’s a great rheumatologists for John Hopkins.
AR: I mean, but it’s the uncertainly of life. We’ve always known this. There’s no answers to this. I mean, we still don’t know what he has. It wasn’t until he got sick in the hospital right before we were going to move the bakery to Baltimore and he first had what we thought was a chest cold. It turns out he had something called pericarditis, which is where-
EL: It’s inflammation, right?
AR: Yeah. There’s a sac around your heart that protects it and his got inflamed and started filling up with fluid, which got infected, that spread to his lungs. We didn’t even think when he went in, because I remember you had piss me off so bad and I was like, just go with the fucking hospital, really, so I couldn’t see you. Then he calls me, he’s like, “I’m in the cardiac ICU.” I was like, “What the hell happened?” This is actually kind of a funny story because I still feel like we’re really nobodies. When anybody recognizes me or says, oh, how’s it feel to be whatever? I was like, listen, my life is-
MR: I’m going to tell this part.
AR: Yeah. This is a good one.
MR: I’m sitting on the table, they’re going to give me an angiogram. He’s like, I want to see to make sure there’s no blockage. She was gone. I’ll make sure you’re not having a heart attack.
AR: That’s where they take-
MR: They take a tube, they stick it in your groin, they shove it up into your heart and blah, blah, blah.
AR: All the way through.
MR: They have to shave you for this procedure, but they were going to do it-
EL: And you said, I happen to have a razor in my car. No, I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.
MR: I had it in my pocket.
MR: So this guy goes, he’s shaving me, and then he looks up, he goes, “Hey, you’re Matt Robicelli.” I was like, “Yeah.” He goes, “My wife loves going to your bakery all the time.” I’m like, “Great. Now you can explain what my junk looks like to her now.”
AR: I mean, that just made the whole experience to me. It was like, yeah, I was scared, but that happened, so I held onto that.
MR: So they can go through your groin or your wrist. He didn’t check my wrist yet, and then he checks my wrist and goes, oh, we’re just going to go with the wrist.
AR: He shaved you for nothing, he shaved you for nothing. Just for that moment.
MR: I see how the medical fields work now.
AR: I was hysterical and Matt’s like, this isn’t funny. I’m like, it’s totally funny, and you’re going to laugh about this one day when we’re on a podcast.
EL: How did everything lead to the bakery and cupcakes and you guys getting involved in food?
AR: Falling upward. Accidents.
MR: There’s a word that I explain that when we did it’s called stumble.
EL: Yeah, stumble. Which could be the name of your second podcast.
MR: It could because we-
EL: The Robicelli’s Stumble.
AR: It’s a dance move.
MR: It’s a dance move and the way of life.
AR: Yeah. Well, I think again, because we got sick or bad things happen so early, that phrase, you make plans and God laughs, and it’s totally true. Again, with that and my ADD, I don’t see things ever linearly. Is that a word? Linearly?
EL: I think so.
AR: I kind of see things in spiderwebs and potential situations and what could happen. It’s a lot about learning how to react and think on your feet. Everything could be going great and then suddenly you get smacked across the face with some horrible shit, and you don’t have time to sit there and reevaluate.
AR: I hated working in fine dining. I worked in fine dining for a very short time. The idea of like, I am busting my ass and fighting with people to work 12 hours a day-
EL: For $12 an hour.
AR: $12 an hour, man. I mean, when I broke down the hours when you’re break down all the overtime, I was making like seven. I’m like, and I’m doing this to feed rich people. I’m like, and that is bullshit to me, that’s total bullshit. It’s great that you can mince your onions super small and you have great discipline, but you’re poor because you want to cook for rich people. I couldn’t stand that. I grew up in New York, so I have a very low douche bag tolerance. Then, I didn’t think I was going to fall in love at 24. I didn’t think I’d be married at 25, or a mom at 26. We knew that we wanted to do something kind of normal. So we’re like, okay, let’s push ourselves career wise, more into catering and gourmet and sourcing food and opening up a cheese shop. We had planned to do that and we opened up a Robicelli’s Gourmet Market. Toby was six weeks old when we opened, and Atticus was 18 month old. Two days before the opening, one of my best friends of 20 years committed suicide. We opened Friday. Friday was great. Monday was the stock market crash of 2008. Three weeks later, Atticus, 18 months old, gets a lung infection, ends up in the pediatric ICU for three weeks in October. We’re struggling because our business plan is worthless because the stock market crash.
MR: December, my mom gets hit by a car left for dead, has massive brains surgery.
EL: Jesus Christ. This is like Queen For a Day.
AR: This was four months. You kind of just learn how to react. We sit there the next spring, and I’m trying to figure out how we save this business because we were supposed to be mostly doing cheese, catering, and sandwiches.
EL: In Brooklyn?
AR: In Brooklyn, but a lot of the contacts that we had were at Lehman Brothers. They were at Bear Stearn’s Corporate Catering, all the stuff we had set up out the window. Everyone in our neighborhood, people were losing their jobs left and right. It’s big civil service neighborhood and they cut all the overtime for civil service people, and it was just shitty and we’re drowning. Just everything in the world is going wrong. I’m like, what the hell do we do? Our previous jobs were in pastry and in cakes and stuff and I was like, well, let’s make cakes. He’s like, who’s going to go buy all these cakes every day? We didn’t have the equipment. We had a little kitchen aid. I was like, listen, let’s make cupcakes. We’ll tell all the people who liked our cakes that they’re available and cupcake form. So they’ll come in for a bite, but then they’ll order sandwiches and all that stuff. Didn’t think that was the thing that’s going to take off and suddenly it explodes. We’re like, okay, let’s just adapt.
EL: Cupcake couple.
AR: Yeah. We don’t even like cupcakes.
MR: We didn’t like cupcakes.
AR: Still don’t.
MR: We decided to market it as a competition between me and her. We made these things called battle boxes.
AR: God, this takes me back 10 years ago.
MR: They had one a flavor each of us would make, and then we’d have the community vote.
AR: I forgot about this.
MR: We did this for a couple of weeks until people are like, we really don’t want to vote anymore. Could we just have the cupcakes?
AR: Yeah. We just thought it was a gimmick, and we’re like, okay, so let’s just keep making that. Then we’re making the pastries and that’s going well.
MR: This is with one six quart kitchen aid. We started doing thousands of cupcakes with a six quart kitchen aid.
AR: I would be home during the day taking care of the babies, because remember I’ve got two kids under two years old. Then he would come home, I’d go in the kitchen, I’d be there until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning with a single mixer.
AR: While this is happening, like yeah, cupcakes are great, but I’ve got all this debt and equipment upstairs and staff and everything for totally different type of store. We just couldn’t make it work. Eventually, we just were like, this all fell apart. We can’t keep doing this, we’re going to get a divorce, we’re miserable, were lousy. We’re like, well let’s just evolve. I’m like, we have all this press for the cupcakes. We had this idea where like, okay, you’re going to go back to work and I will keep baking and we’re going to move forward with this with some other people. I remember Matt actually had a job interview.
MR: I went on a job interview to go work for company.
AR: It was-.
MR: Yeah, and the woman who was giving me my interview says, well, I’m not going to give you the job. I was like, why? She’s like, well, you make the best cupcakes I’ve ever had and that’s what you need to be doing with your life. I was like, no, I really would like a paycheck. I’d like to pay my bills and have a home.
AR: We were just hustling. We relaunched the business with like $30 we had quarters in a piggy bank, and went to Costco, and we were baking in the back of my friend’s bar. We were driving around in my 2000 Honda Civic with the babies in the back and just kind of making it happen. It was like, okay, well we’re going to survive now in this post apocalyptic, post economic apocalyptic thing. You just think on your feet. You just adapt.
EL: And it lasted a few years. Right?
AR: Quite a number of years. We left Brooklyn, when? We moved on my 36th birthday, and we had had a bakery in Brooklyn. We had one downtown, we were wholesaling, we’re doing all this stuff, and we were just really tired. We wanted a business partner and we never found one, and it’s just the two of us. Something people always forget about about Robicelli’s, you’ll think of Momofuku Milk Bar, or Dominique Ansel, or something like that. They’ve got investors, they’ve got partners, they’ve got people running all sorts of shows, and people like hands, we had us. That was it. Just us.
EL: Right. You wrote a book?
AR: Yes, books.
MR: Well, two. Three, almost three.
AR: I just had a meeting about another one right before we came here.
MR: Four, actually, because the WWE cookbook comes out next week.
AR: Yes, or this week, or something.
EL: And you didn’t have enough to do?
EL: You needed more things to do.
AR: You just find ways to survive, and we’re like, we were so tired and we were so done with New York. You’re so tired of working all the time to barely get by on your own. I’m like, I’m in my 30s, and everyone thinks I’m successful. Where’s my car? Where’s my hot tub? Where’s my fur coats? Why am I working all these hours, and just being exhausted? It was just like a thousand different cuts, a thousand cuts, and finally were like, we need to leave New York.
EL: It wasn’t that the business was failing. It’s that you felt like your lives were failing?
AR: Yeah. Oh my God.
MR: We weren’t happy at all.
AR: I was so unhappy.
MR: Honestly, I hated her so much at a certain couple points. It was always work, work, work, and it was never, listen, I got shit going on. I’m sorry. Am I allowed to curse on this?
MR: Okay. I’m like, I got stuff-
AR: It was going to happen.
MR: I held it back as long as I could.
AR: I didn’t. I’ve cursing for 20 minutes. You just don’t notice because it happens all the time.
MR: But yeah, I was just so unhappy, and I was like, she’s not my wife anymore. She’s not even my roommate. She’s this business partner of a business that is eating us alive that I just despise her. I didn’t want that ever to happen because I loved her so much.
AR: The thing is when you really love somebody and could love them with your whole heart and your being, but you could also hate them that much.
AR: We didn’t love the bakery. We don’t love doing what we did. I didn’t want to go to work and I was like, you kind of wake up, you’re like, why the fuck am I doing this? Why? I think it was just like there were a billion reasons in the press, and it was all a billion reasons. You can’t say, oh this was the one thing that made it happen. There were problems with Con Ed. There was problems with customers or supply chains, and this and that, and health reasons. The final thing that really convinced me to do it was you think about what happened in New York and you think the promise that, again, this is our hometown and the promise your hometown gives you, and suddenly your hometown, you can’t afford to live there. My whole generation just got screwed. None of us can buy houses, and our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents, they all had houses. We can’t stay near our families. I think about looking at my kids and I’m sending them to school and they’re saying, you can be whatever you want when you grow up-
MR: As long as it’s a hedge fund guy that works 90,000 hours a week.
AR: Yeah. How is a kid supposed to dream in New York City? How is a kid supposed to look and see their parents working 18 hours a day and not making it? What happens to them? We grew up in New York City that made us survivors, that made us adaptable, that made us dream and think big and think differently because you could do anything, and that has been dead for a while. It’s gone.
EL: I mean, wow. This has been fascinating and we haven’t even gotten to move to Baltimore.
MR: We live in Baltimore now?
EL: Yeah. You guys-
AR: I Was there this morning. I left the stove on.
EL: Which is pretty weird considering what New York food culture icons you became.
AR: Still weird to me.
EL: You opened Robicelli’s Studios in Baltimore. This is a wrap for this episode of Special Sauce.
AR: No kidding.
EL: No, but we’re going to continue to yap because I love yapping with you guys.
AR: Oh, okay. I like it, too.
EL: We are all such proficient yappers.
EL: Thank you, Allison and Matt, for this initial stage of yapping and for agreeing to stick around.
MR: He almost said strip.
AR: Stripper? I like strippers.
MR: Yeah, they coming in?
AR: You take off your pants. Show everybody that shake.
EL: Before we leave your time in New York, what was the name of the first cookbook?
AR: Robicelli’s: A Love Story With Cupcakes. It was a cookbook/memoir, and a lot of people didn’t realize it was a memoir. But yeah, I love that book. It’s really funny. It uses the “f” word 137 times, which is a record for a cupcake book.
MR: I used to love that. My favorite review of that cookbook was a woman who went to the local library to take it out. She didn’t even buy it, but she reviewed on Amazon, and the profanity and filth that was in that book.
AR: There was somebody who called me vulgar and totally inappropriate, and then I made that my business card. I was Allison Robicelli, vulgar and totally inappropriate. That was like that for two years.
MR: It’s like everyone’s in the ’90s who had Mac Daddy on their business cards.
EL: Well, all right. We’re going to have to close this episode, but I thank you both for this, which has been amazing, and we’re going to just keep going for episode two with the Robicelli’s.
EL: Allison and Matt Robicelli, thank you again and we’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.