Allison and Matt Robicelli have established themselves as creators of some of the best baked goods in the country, with accolades from Food & Wine, The New York Times, New York magazine, Tasting Table, Serious Eats, “The Today Show,” and “Unique Sweets.” Their take on cupcakes? They aren’t cute, and they’re not gimmicks; they’re just well-made delicious cakes that are conveniently portable. The focus is on fresh ingredients: you won’t find food coloring, sprinkles, or fondant in any of their creations. You will, however, find an abundance of cupcakes named after TV characters, and a range of sophisticated flavors.
Despite some bad luck — they opened their first retail shop in 2008, four days before the stock market crash, and Matt still sustains injuries from his former life as a paramedic — they have found success both in business and in family life, running a bakery and business just a few blocks from where they live with their two young sons. They’ve both paid their dues in the fine dining world, but their current culinary goal is to make high quality, delicious food available to everybody with an appetite for it and a few bucks in their pocket.
During our interview, they take turns leaving to handle customers and questions from the shop’s bakers. They both have the ability to shift quickly from one mode to another and then jump right back in to whatever we’re talking about, trading off almost seamlessly. I never posed the two of them for a picture together but I took hundreds at our video shoot, where interviewer Jamie Otis talked to them about business, marriage, and engaged them in a lively game of Trivial Pursuit. The photographs are telling: Allison is perpetually in motion, arms and hands moving, always caught in mid-expression. Matt is quiet and still, and I’m able to snap him in moments where he’s watching the action with a twinkle in his eye.
Their personalities are especially evident in their brilliant, funny cookbook “Robicelli’s: A Love Story, with Cupcakes,” where the bulk of the text is written by Allison, but a small graphic of Matt’s head pops up from time to time accompanied by a short and perfect comment. It’s a great read, whether or not you’re going to bake cupcakes.
Chefs Connection (CC): What are the most popular cupcakes here?
Matt: “Uh, the most popular cupcakes here would probably be the Ebinger, Tres Leches, Banana Nutella, and uh –'”
Allison: “The Bea Arthur.”
Matt: “The Bea Arthur.”
Allison: “And that’s why we actually put those on permanent rotation, because we got so many requests for them constantly. The Carbone’s really popular. We sort of backed ourselves into a corner but we have a couple of hundred flavors, and everybody kind of has their favorite, and it’s impossible to do them all at the same time, so we try to alternate it as much as we can.”
Matt: “The Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel’s really, really popular. Chicken n’Waffles is always popular, whenever we do it, but it’s such a hassle to do. So then in the fall, our Chocolate Pumpkin Cheesecake is phenomenal, that’s one of my favorites. And we do one with butternut squash with a vanilla buttercream, it’s got a butter and squash seed oil on top.”
CC: So what are the least popular flavors that you have? Are there any?
Matt: “Okay. We did one called Grasshopper, which is, you know, chocolate mint cake with a mint buttercream and chocolate crunchies. That one does not sell during the year. But when we call it Chocolate Candy Cane? It sells during Christmas time like hotcakes.”
CC: That’s funny! And are there any that have just tanked, that you thought were a total mistake?
Matt: “We’ve done some that were too expensive to keep. It would be the one called The Concetta, which was a polenta cake, and it had parmesan-reggiano buttercream, and it had a fig – no it wasn’t fig – it was balsamic-glazed grapes on top. And that one was just too expensive. Very popular, and people still want it.”
CC: How much would you have to charge to make it worth doing?
Matt: “Seven dollars. Yeah. And we don’t want to have that in the case, so somebody would be like, ‘Oh jeez, seven dollars.’
“But we are coming into the great season of figs, so have a lot of fig cupcakes that we do. One is in memory of my old band teacher, Mr. Laurenzano. He was the trumpeter on “The Godfather, Part II” soundtrack.”
CC: That’s so cool!
Matt: “Yeah. It was a pretty funny story. He got the job from somebody working there; I don’t know if this whole story is true, but it was something along the lines of, they were trying to save money, so they didn’t want to pay a union trumpeter, or a union musician. So they go, ‘Do you know anybody who plays the trumpet?’ And this guy said, ‘Oh, my cousin does.’ So they hired him.
“His is fig cake, with a goat cheese buttercream, that has dried prosciutto dust on top with a fig gastrique. So it’s really detailed.”
CC: That brings me to my next question: can you tell me about your culinary background?
Matt: “I went to the French Culinary Institute [now the International Culinary Center]. Graduated in 2004 with honors, and I started working my career. I actually started my career when I was still in school; I worked day shifts in places.”
CC: Where did you work? Which places?
Matt: “Um … I worked at City Bakery, and then I also worked at Lutèce. And then I moved to The Water Club, and then during The Water Club we [he and Allison] had met, and I wanted a more — we decided we wanted to have a family, after we got engaged and stuff. So I started making my way into the corporate division. More nine to five-ish. And so I worked at Balducci’s, and did a lot of savory stuff for them, no pastry. And then I started opening up gourmet shops, after that, working in gourmet shops. And then I didn’t want to work for anyone else anymore. I lost my one job and I was like, ‘Let’s just do it on our own.’”
CC: But did you like restaurant work?
Matt: “I did. But you know, it’s very … same thing every day. Every day. Every day. And I just can’t. It’s like, I have ADD too, not to the point that she has it, but I just hate making the same stuff every day. I mean, here we do make the same stuff every day, but we throw specials in, and not every place has specials. You know? And I like pastry more than I like savory. I feel more comfortable with it; I think I’m better at it than savory. I mean, I can hold my own with savory, but my flavor concept of pastry is a lot better.
“She is well-rounded all the way through. But I’m whole-brained, so I’m able to pull her in when she goes too far. I just go, ‘No.’ And just walk out of the room to avoid any other further conversation.”
CC: Along those lines, have you gotten weird requests for flavors, from customers, or some company, asking you to make something odd?
Matt: “We got requested by a certain fish company, who wanted us to make a tuna jerky cupcake.”
CC: And your response?
Matt: “Uh … ‘NO.’ And then usually, sometimes we’re like, ‘Wait, you know –’ ‘No.’ ‘But maybe if we do it this way … ‘ and then that extra part of the conversation never comes. NO. And then pretty much Chris Rock dropped the mic.”
Allison [returning from serving a customer]: “What happened?”
Matt: “Tuna jerky cupcake, from the fish company.”
Allison: “Yeah. No! Not doing it.”
CC: Any other weird requests like that one? From individuals, or the press?
Allison: “Um … there’s press people who I just don’t think get what we do, and people who don’t get what we do. We’re not here to make stupid things, we make good things. So like, one year … I always try to crowdsource, or I used to try to crowdsource. And we have a large menu, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m putting up the Thanksgiving menu, what do you guys want to see on it?’ And people are like, ‘Sausage gravy cupcakes!’ I’m like, ‘No.’ ‘But you guys do crazy things.’ ‘Just because we CAN doesn’t mean we SHOULD do something.’ [She trails off, distracted by the conversation now happening between Matt and one of the bakers.] So what was I saying?”
CC: Crazy requests.
Allison: “Turkey! I’m like, ‘No, I’m not making a turkey cupcake, I’m not doing these ridiculous things, I don’t think you actually understand what we do here.’ We’re making good food. That’s always the first priority is making something delicious, and if it’s gimmicky or it’s silly or whatnot, that’s completely ancillary to the fact that … like the time we used blue cheese in a port wine cupcake, because we just like those flavors together. The fact that it’s a cupcake isn’t supposed to be gimmicky; it’s just trying to be portable. You know? So that’s just kind of how it works for us.”
CC: So now that you’re back, I was asking Matt about his culinary training. Can you tell me about yours? Did you go to culinary school?
Allison: “No. I just started teaching myself when I was younger. I was a home baker, and then I had Hodgkin’s Disease when I was 21, so I made my own cooking school at home to keep me busy during chemo, because I couldn’t really go out.”
Matt: “You didn’t go out and party when you were in chemo?”
Allison: “No. Especially when it’s immune system stuff and it’s really cold out.”
CC: You had stage IV, right?
Allison: “Yeah. It suuuucked. So then, after that, I found a little café that had opened up near my house. Long long gone. The chef had come from Le Cirque and she was starting off on her own, and I was free labor. I apprenticed my way. And I ended up working at a caterer, and then I ended up working at several caterers. I’ve done some restaurant stuff, I’ve done pastry stuff, but the majority of my background is actually savory.
“Matt has a stronger pastry background than I do, but because I was in savory, my brain works like a savory chef’s. I don’t always measure things to the gram, or I work with a bigger palette of flavors. And that’s what complements each other, what me and Matt both have. Because I think when you’re in pastry, sometimes you think certain things are off limits. Like you have a certain amount of things you work with, and when you’re savory, that just doesn’t happen. Especially in catering. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m really good at cooking Mediterranean, that’s my specialty.’ I mean, when you’re a caterer you have to be an expert in everything.
“So Matt and I have just always been daring about going to different neighborhoods in New York City, and taking in all the culture around us because we both grew up here, and how diverse it is, and we try everything and we kind of cook in all sorts of different styles. And nothing’s ever been off-limits in this kitchen. He’s come home with stuff from Chinatown, or from Indian markets, or from the stores in Brighton Beach, and we’re like, ‘Okay, what can we do to make this into something?’”
Matt: “Sometimes it works, and sometimes – ”
Allison: “Sometimes it doesn’t!”
Matt: “Or we can’t come up with ideas.”
Allison: “Sometimes we’re like, ‘This has no business being eaten in general,’ You know? But we learn something new.”
CC: You guys have both been through some serious s**t with your health, so how do you think that has affected you as people? And as parents, and as business owners?
Allison: “I think that – we started the business, we were in our 20s when we started it. And I think that Matt and I kind of had a ‘live for today’ sort of attitude about it. It’s not like we never had this idea like, ‘One day we’ll do this.’ And I’m kind of happy we did it when we did, because I don’t think you understand how poor you are when you open a business. And if I had made a good salary for 30, 40 years, and then went to this, I’d be pissed. [Laughs]
“But we have that appreciation. We understand how frail the human experience is, and we know that we get to do this once. So we don’t really want to live with any kind of regrets. But then we also … we’re not necessarily in a huge rush to get anywhere, like I think some people are.”
Matt: “I mean, it’s a blessing and a curse that I live my life every day like ‘Push push push push push until you can’t push no more’ kind of thing. And that’s the way that you have to run a small business. You have to get up every day, you have to hustle. Of course there’s days when it’s like, ‘I don’t wanna DO this. I’m tired. I’m hurtin’. I don’t like this at all.’ But you know, you just kind of get over that.”
Allison: “I think also we’ve learned to prioritize our family, which was something that … it’s particularly hard in the chef business. Most chefs I know who have kids are divorced. And most people are married to the business. And you know, for five years we didn’t even have a retail store, which is absolutely insane, considering how well known we are. But our kids were young, and we wanted to make sure we were around for them. And we understood [that] this is the only chance we have with them when they’re young, and we didn’t want to be like, ‘Okay, we’re ready to be parents now!’ when they’re 9 and 10.”
CC: So when you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Allison: “I don’t remember. I loved acting. I went to a theater school, I wanted to be in musical theater for a long time, I took seven years of voice lessons and opera lessons, I went to the Shakespeare Conservatory. I like telling a story. I like making people laugh. I thought about doing stand-up for a bit. I was always obsessed with food, even as a kid, but I never associated it as a job. I loved cooking, I did it constantly, I did it on the weekends, I watched PBS shows with my mom, we ate all the time, but you know, being a chef wasn’t a glamorous career when you were a kid, and I was a smart kid. I was in the advanced classes, I went to Stuyvesant, these were schools that make people into doctors and lawyers and engineers. Chefs were like … that’s where ex-cons work, you know?
“And when I became a chef my family was really … they supported me, but they were thinking it was a phase. They were like, ‘You’re going to eventually snap out of this,’ and then my Dad, even once, he said, ‘Why are you wasting your life doing this crap job when you’re as smart as you are?’ And then, years later, now it’s like, ‘Oh wait, this is a respectable profession!’ [Laughs] But it wasn’t that respectable, even ten years ago.”
CC: The Food Network helped, I think.
Allison: “The Food Network definitely helped. It raised our profile, and then, it just, like food got really sexy. And I always think that’s funny. There’s a list that comes out every year, the sexiest careers. And it always used to be firemen. And now chef is the sexiest career. I’m like, ‘You know how bad we smell?’ [Laughs] We smell awful! The worst thing ever is trying to feel sexy after a shift.”
Matt: “Exactly. It’s like going into a bar, and trying to go pick somebody up, and you say, ‘Hey, baby,’ and it’s like you’re one step above homeless man because you have a job.”
Allison: “Exactly! I’d go to parties at two a.m., because that’s when I could get home from the city, and people are like, ‘Why do you smell like fish?’ and I’m like, ‘Because I’ve been cooking it for six friggin’ hours. What the hell do you want me to smell like? But I’m sexy, by the way.’”
Matt: “I was just used to it.”
Allison: “Yeah, that’s the thing! Matt never judged me for how I smelled. I was like, ‘I smell bad, do you want to order a pizza?’ and he’s like, ‘Go ahead.’ And I’m like, ‘Yup. There we go.’”
CC: Have you guys had any crazy injuries in the line of cooking?
Allison: “I’ve cut off a big chunk of my hand.”
Matt: “Severed my finger, almost.”
Allison: “I have different shades of burns that have faded with time. And this one – it’s a very very tiny one, and it normally would not be notable but what happened was last Christmas, the chef that we had at the time was … she had taken all these other part time gigs before we opened the store, so she was like almost never here. And one day she had called out with a migraine, Matt got really sick and he was home, and then Andrew, who was our dishwasher/utility guy, he fell down the stairs and dislocated his shoulder.
“So everybody was out, and it was me and this 17-year-old intern who had been in the business for one day and doesn’t know anything about food at all. And I was pulling out the lowboy and there was an unfinished edge – that’s why the tape is over there – and it’s the knife, and I sliced my finger straight open. And there’s blood everywhere, and I’m like, ‘I have to go to the hospital.’
“So I bandage my finger up and I run back to the house to tell him [Matt] that he has to come in, because at this point now, the entire staff is out.”
Matt: “Except for the 17-year-old intern.”
Allison: “The 17-year-old intern who’s been in the industry for one day. And I’m banging on the door and he’s not answering. And I’m putting so much pressure on my damned finger that it’s turning blue.
“So apparently, Matt had come back here. And it hurt BAD, and I’m hyperventilating. And I’m like, ‘I need stitches.’ So he turns to the intern – again, been in this business one day – and he goes, ‘Can you go to Duane Reade? I need Krazy Glue.’
“And he goes, and we had a table in the back, and Matt lays out my finger, and my finger’s completely open. He holds it together, we squirt Krazy Glue into it – oh no, he told the intern, he’s like, ‘Hold her arm down.’ So the kid’s holding my arm down, he Krazy Glues it shut, we duct tape it, I put on a glove, and I went back to work.”
CC: Oh my god!
Allison: “And Matt pats him on the back, he goes, ‘Welcome to the business, buddy.’”
CC: I didn’t know you could use Krazy Glue for that!
Allison: “That’s what you do! So I was like, that kid will never work in this business again. [Laughs]”
CC: So along the way, have either of you had any mentors who gave you really great advice?
Allison: “Matt cites André Soltner a lot. Matt had the privilege of being part of the staff of Lutèce before it was sold. It was André Soltner’s restaurant, he’s a master chef. And Matt always talks about him, or he’ll bring him up, and like, Soltner’s word is like … Soltner and Pépin are peers. You know?”
CC: How about really bad things you’ve seen that you vowed not to do?
Allison: “Bad things in the kitchen? I would never … I try to respect my employees as much as possible.
“One of my first chefs used to throw things at me, and berate me, and he really treated me terribly, and I felt awful about myself. And … I don’t really do any of the baking anymore; I do a bunch of other stuff. But at the end of the day, my name’s going on everything. And Matt and I try to put together a good team of people who know their stuff, they respect each other, they’re great people to be around. And I’ve never yelled at anybody, I’ve never thrown a hot waffle iron at anybody. And you have to trust your team.”
Matt: “[Laughing] I remember a guy that I worked for – ”
Matt: “The frigging ramekin. Our dishwasher’s at the sink, and the guy runs downstairs and he was one of those executive chefs who was never there, and wore really really nice outfits, because he liked to spend money. And he runs downstairs to throw a hissy fit, about, something was off. But the thing was the guy was in the middle of doing something, we weren’t even open yet. He had pre-buttered all the soufflé ramekins, and sugared them, so it’s easier for the line when he’s doing them. And he goes, ‘Who’s going to use these dirty ramekins?’ and they were just buttered and sugared. And he takes it, and he, like an asshole, he chucked it against the wall. At that point, the dishwasher stands up, because he was getting something out of the sink, and gets clocked right in the temple, and gets knocked unconscious.
“He [the chef] got fired so fast. I was like, ‘You know what? Serves you for being a dick.’”
Allison: “But we’ve never, I mean, we have a lot of respect for the people who work with us. I never – I remember I was out with Taryn a few weeks ago and she introduced me as her boss, and that felt so weird to me, because even though I technically am the boss — ”
Matt: “Even though I do pay them, I still consider them equal.”
Allison: “We’re a team. And that’s it, that’s just how a kitchen has to be.”
Chef Marisa Viscera, chiming in from the back: “And they beat us.” [Everyone laughs.]
Matt: “You know what? You’re only saying that ‘cause you like it.” [More laughter.]
Marisa Viscera: [Mock crying] “It’s so hard working here!”
CC: I wanted to talk to you about TV. I’ve seen both of you in different things, but it seems like you [Allison] mostly do the TV stuff.
Allison: “It depends. Matt’s done some stuff, I’ve done some stuff. We prefer doing it together, but it’s not always possible.
“He did “Sweet Genius,” I did “Chopped,” we both did “Unique Sweets.” The first time we were on the Nick Lachey show, we both did it, he did a remote and I did it in the studio. And I’ve done two other appearances since then. Usually one of us is running the company and one of us is doing the TV stuff. We try to split it.”
CC: I’m addicted to “Chopped,” so you have to tell me what that experience was like.
Allison: “I’ll never do it again. I was so – I remember when I finally got chopped, they were like, ‘How do you feel?’ and I said, ‘Awesome, ‘cause I don’t have to come back for “Chopped Champions!”’ [Laughs] I kept asking to go home!”
CC: What was the hardest part of it?
Allison: “You see it one hour at home but it’s not one hour. It’s well over 12 hours of filming, closer to 20, and the cooking is in real time. And you have no access to the outside world: no phone, no media, no computers or cell phones or magazines. So there’s a lot of time you’re spending in isolation, or in a very dark room completely on your own.
“They’ll put you in a room for an interview, and say, ‘Somebody will be with you,’ and it’ll be a half an hour before somebody comes in, and you’re sitting there alone in a dark room. So it really starts to mess with your psyche.
“It was a cool experience, but psychologically, I was just like, ‘I want to go home.’ I didn’t know where anything was. I was overtired. It was also the day – this is very important: the day I filmed “Chopped,” my cookbook was due to the publisher. And I’m like, ‘Could you pick a worse day?’ So I had not slept for two weeks beforehand, and I got there and I’m like, ‘Please chop me first round. I just want to go home.’”
CC: And then you made it all the way to the end! [She came in second.]
Allison: “And I was so upset. Every time I wouldn’t get chopped, like, ‘Dammit!’ [Laughs] ‘I wanna go home!’”
We chat about the challenges of having small kids and trying to keep a job going. Marisa, who’s diligently making cupcakes and cookies behind us, was the pastry chef at Stanton Social. Now a new mom, she’s happier at Robicelli’s, where she can take pumping breaks whenever she needs them and work reasonable hours so she can be with her baby.
Allison: “Les Dames d’Escoffier invited me to join this year. And on the day of the interview, my kid got sick. And I called them and said, ‘Listen, I’m really sorry, can you give me a day that we can reschedule?’ And they said, ‘We have one second day, during this time” and it was during [my son’s] kindergarten graduation. I’m like, ‘I really can’t make this,’ and they said, ‘Well, you have to do it.’ And I picked my kid, and I didn’t get it.
The people who nominated me were furious. And I was kind of angry, I just thought, ‘This is an association for women in the business to fight against the things that make it hard and I had to pick going to my son’s graduation. We could have done it over the phone or over Skype, and you were not willing to do it.’ And they were like, ‘Well if it was a job interview or whatnot …’ And I said, ‘I get what you’re saying about a job interview but I think you’re actually missing the point. It’s an organization to further women in the industry and you penalized me for having to be a mom.’
“But then I got a letter [saying], ‘Good news! Because of what happened to you, we’ve changed the requirements for next year. You’re free to apply again.’”
CC: Well there you go! Social change. Now, last question: I love the pop-up Matt heads in the cookbook. What inspired that?
Allison: “I think Matt got the funniest lines in the entire book. That’s one of the things I love about it. I’ll say like a thousand funny things and he’ll come up with one line and destroy me. He completely destroys me.”
I wrap up the interview by buying half a dozen cupcakes and a whoopie pie, and somehow muster up the restraint required to get them all the way home to my family. They are all gone by breakfast the next day.
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Interview and photos by Laurie Ulster