Decadent and sweet, babkas are the very definition of a comfort food. The braided dessert bread rarely conjures controversy or drama — except in the case of the classic Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and Elaine try to score the chocolate pastry for a dinner party, only to have the last one purchased by an abrasive New Yorker. Delicious hilarity ensues. Life is now imitating art, however, with babka beef boiling over in a brouhaha pitting the popular Upper East Side pastry purveyors at Michaeli Bakery and Breads Bakery against each other.
In a profile published earlier this month in New York Jewish Week, Michaeli’s owner Adir Michaeli was praised for his product — the prized chocolate babka made with Nutella — a recipe the Israeli baker has long contended, unchallenged, that he developed while working at Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv and eventually as Executive Chef at Breads Bakery back in 2013.
“I will improve every item to the best I can [sic],” Michaeli says he promised Breads’ owners after he had moved to the US to help open its first New York City location.
Those improvements, the 39-year-old baker says, are what lead Breads’ chocolate babka to being named the best in the city by New York Magazine in 2013 — a high honor the bakery chain still touts to this day.
In that same New York Jewish Week article, however, Breads Bakery disavowed Michaeli with an insult that left a bad taste in his mouth — claiming he “had nothing to do with the creation of Breads Bakery’s babka.”
Prior to Michaeli’s tweaking, he says, “It was too greasy and the dough collapsed after baking all the time. The babka was not bad but far from being a great product,” he noted. “I had to fix it.”
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“I was shocked when I saw Breads’ comment,” Michaeli said, explaining his outrage at the crummy dig, ”I gave so much to Breads Bakery, I worked there as it was my own company. Till this day I’m proud of my work and what I have done there. [sic] Shame on them!”
Two bakers who worked in the kitchen with Adir Michaeli before and during his time as head baker at Breads Bakery, confirmed to Upper East Site that the ‘Best-of-New-York’-babka recipe is indeed his baby.
Speaking under the condition of anonymity over fears of retaliation by Breads, one source told Upper East Site that “This was Adir’s creation,” while shaking his head incredulously at the needless controversy, adding, “It’s just pastry.”
Michaeli even went as far as to detail for Upper East Site how he analyzed the original Lehamim babka recipe in 2012 and reached an epiphany, realizing the butter was too heavy and weighing the pastry down.
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“I had two options: switch out butter for margarine – NEVER! – or cut down on butter in some of the layers so it wouldn’t collapse and be greasy.” He made other small changes prior to launching it at Breads as well, showing Upper East Site the extensive notes he kept of his babka-perfecting journey.
So, we decided to get to the rich and creamy middle of this latest dispute. We reached out to Breads’ management asking for clarification about their comment saying that Michaeli had nothing to do with the creation of their babka.
The chain doubled down on its alleged half-baked assertion when told we had verification that Michaeli did indeed help to create the iconic pasty, saying, “While he ‘verified this,’ it remains untrue.”
“Seems like opening my own bakery makes some people at Breads’ feel uncomfortable,” explained Michaeli. “That’s unfortunate, because I’m not in competition with anyone.”
Breads has since expanded to five locations and in 2015 Michaeli left and would later start his own shop, Michaeli Bakery, on the Lower East Side in 2019. His Upper East Side storefront soon followed in 2022. That seemed to be the catalyst for Breads to try to keep its babka’s origins quiet.
Michaeli says his goal was to introduce more Israeli pastries to NYC, adding, “There’s room for everyone.”
He went on to explain that while he was at Breads, management preferred to focus on the ownership and not the man behind the products.
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“By the way, I also developed Breads Bakery rugelach which was also very popular 2013 to 2015,” he adds, explaining it wasn’t just the chocolate babka he created.
While this may seemingly be a small story about a small pastry, it’s actually a far bigger trope: Michaeli is anyone who had created something and then had someone else take credit, more of a David and Goliath-type tale than Seinfeldian one.
This is not the first time for Breads to be involved in controversy. Back in 2017 the founding partners battled and ultimately split.
The former baker who confirmed Michaeli was the originator of the famous babka went on to explain that when he left Breads to work at another establishment, he was visited by a member of Breads management and asked to “not make the babka,” pointing to a real deep-dish Babka-gate.
Upper East Site reached out to a few others who worked in Breads’ kitchen with Michaeli back in the day and most would not agree to speak for fear of retaliation — the pastry industry is apparently very small.
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However, one other baker did agree to speak under the condition of anonymity, also verifying Michaeli’s story, telling Upper East Site that “Adir is an extraordinary chef! I had the privilege of working next to him for many years, learning from his endless knowledge of pastries and sweets.”
“Adir indeed created and worked on the chocolate babka and many other recipes at Breads bakery back then, perfected and built them to exceptional standards, from dough to filling to width of the dough so it’s just right with every bite! The chocolate babka is what it is because of Adir,” she elaborated.
For now, Michaeli is content to going back to letting his baked wares speak for themselves. Naysayers, well, let them eat cake – or in this case, babka.
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